It was reading the reports of the Oxford Diocesan enquiry into the events in the parishes of Stowe and Maids Moreton that made me pick up my digital pen this morning. You can read the report at https://www.oxford.anglican.org/safeguarding/learning-reviews/events-in-stowe-maids-moreton/.
It tells of the activities of a very dangerous young man, Ben Field, who insinuated himself into the life of these evangelical parishes, and used his position to exploit and steal from vulnerable old people, eventually, in 2017, murdering one of them, Peter Farquhar.
Peter Farquhar was not Field’s only victim. Indeed, the whole community was abused by his deceits. He put himself forward for ordination and made it some way down that road before his crimes were exposed. He was utterly cynical, and said of his plans for ordination, “I’m gonna become a vicar … just because I can outmanoeuvre the Church.“
But what made Peter Farquhar’s vulnerability even more dangerous, says the report, was the attitude of the Church of England towards homosexual relationships. Farquhar was a closeted homosexual, and Field managed to get into a relationship with this elderly man, which Farquhar insisted should be kept secret, lest the conservative members of his parish should find out.
Those anti-LGBT attitudes, both external and internal to Peter Farquhar, inside his local community and the national church, which are still espoused and spread on a daily basis by some in our church, created a prison of shame and guilt. And the warder of the prison in this instance was someone who stopped at nothing to rob and destroy his victim.
The story is at once tragic and appalling and depressing. It is encouraging to read in the report that the parish has made efforts since 2017 to become more open and supportive. However, it remains the case that the Church of England exerts all kinds of unhealthy pressure on its members, lay and ordained, by the teaching that it has failed to address and change.
The last fundamental debate on sexual ethics in the Gerneal Synod of the Church of England was as long ago as November 1987. The Higton motion said”that fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are sinful in all circumstances; and that Christian leaders are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, as a condition of being appointed to or remaining in office“. This was a bit too strong for the bishops even then, and was amended by Michael Baughen to say “homosexual genital acts fall short of [God’s] ideal and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion“. Remember the voting numbers too: 403 in favour, 8 against, and 13 abstentions. It has never been superseded. It was reaffirmed by the bishops in January 2017 in GS 2055.
Higton remains the millstone upon which all the LGBT members of the Church are ground. It rather mirrored the hostility of Thatcher’s government towards gay people in the age of AIDs. It was not particularly out of tune with public attitudes.
By 2005, and thanks to the courageous work of Stonewall, and the many reforms of the Blair governments, the whole official Church of England attitude to LGBT+ people was significantly out of step with society. The bishops opposed the introduction of civil partnerships almost to a man. I remember the furore when the first priest, who ministered in Durham diocese had a civil partnership – the bishop was spitting feathers.
But by 2013 you would have thought that bishops, eyeing the approach of same-sex marriage, had invented civil partnerships. They ran towards them as providing a safe haven for them, because they could always assume and pretend an absence of sexual activity in civil partnerships in a way that they felt they could not in marriage. Of course, many splendid marriages have little or no sexual activity, and the House of Lords declined to try and introduce any notion of consummation into same-sex marriages. Their Lordships minds boggled at the idea.
I chose to marry. We had discussed having a civil partnership, but we felt that a business contract that technically could be contracted with each of us going into the room to sign at different times was very far from our understanding of our relationship. We both believed in marriage, had experienced marriage, had mourned the failure of our first marriages, and we had a strong sense, from different perspectives, of what marriage did to join two people together.
In a way, though not planned as such, marrying was a refusal on my part to lie any more, or to accept second best, or to allow myself to be put under pressure by the Church. Consequently, the pressure was piled on and I lost an employment because of the actions of a bishop. I remain a pariah priest unable to function in the calling that is still very alive in me.
What I have noticed in the years since we married, is that clergy in particular have felt obliged to contract civil partnerships for the sake of their callings. Some of them would have chosen a civil partnership for reasons of their own. Fair enough. But many others reveal in comments they make or in the language they use, that what they would have done, had they felt free to make their own choices, was to marry. They talk about their ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, they speak about ‘weddings’, they make comments about ‘marriage’. It all slips out, unbidden – because it is in them. But they aren’t married. Some of them are even explicit about accepting ‘second-best’, because otherwise their progress towards ordination or their ability to find a curacy or a parish would be halted. What it all reveals is that they live under pressure.
For the few clergy who married early after the change in the law, sanctions were applied hard and fast “pour encourager les autres“. In many cases, this worked, and civilly partnered clergy are ten a penny – I can’t imagine what Tom Wright now thinks of that.
Higton remains the millstone on which we are all ground. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people live almost daily under pressure from the church of which they are faithful members. That pressure in one or two instances had been deadly, as for Peter Farquhar. But it also kills hope and trust and creativity in so many more.
The Church of England will soon release its Living in Love and Faith resources. But unless those resources address the fundamentals they are as doomed to irrelevance as Pilling and the Shared Conversations and all the rest. Someone somewhere has to make the case for a sexual ethic which affirms the goodness of desire and its sexual expression between adults. It will encourage the goals of fidelity, loyalty, and commitment. It will uphold marriage for life as the gold standard. It will acknowledge the reality of human failure to live up to ideals and will make room in its official teaching for the ending of marriages. It will also finally end the hypocritical misery of pretending that LGBT+ clergy and lay people don’t have sexual lives, and will acknowledge the potential for good in homosexual as in heterosexual love.
One day someone will break in half the millstone of Higton, and liberate us as Christ has liberated us. The pressure to hide will come off, and respectable old professors will fear exposure no more, bishops will no longer have to hide their natures and relationships, and loving adults will be freely able to choose how to formalise their partnerships. One more vulnerability against abusers will have been terminated. Until then, despite all the well-meaning provisions of LGBT chaplaincies and the supportive words of some bishops (which I don’t despise), we are doomed to circle round and round the millstone that is Higton and which should now be cast into the sea.