by the Revd Neil Patterson, Director of Ordinands, Hereford Diocese and Member of General Synod
The thoughts leading to this post arose a little while ago as my partner David and I enjoyed watching A Very English Scandal, the dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. It struck me that it all happened before we were born, in another world of secrecy, fear and dishonesty around sexuality which has been transformed in society at large. More recently Richard Peers, Jeremy Pemberton and Rachel Mann have commented eloquently in a series of overlapping posts, all of which I broadly agree with, on the corrosive effect the Church of England’s official position has on honesty in speaking about relationships. So this is also now a response to them, seeking to promote wider debate amongst those united by a desire for the Church’s position to change to one of greater acceptance.
However, I want to suggest that part of the reason we are finding the debate so hard to move forward is that as well as the barrier of Issues in Human Sexuality to open discussion within the Church, there are other abiding dishonesties amongst us. Here I am talking as a gay man about the gay male culture: there are important and different things to say from all points on the LGBT+ spectrum, but it does not help to collapse the rainbow into Anglican beige for these purposes. I hope I can speak at least a little from what I know, and that others feel able to do so from and for their own communities.
An important voice within the secular gay culture is the former editor of Attitude magazine Matthew Todd, whose recent book Straight Jacket reflects deeply on the atmosphere of shame and secrecy derived from long oppression, which still bedevils gay life, and the escapist culture of sexual indulgence which is a response to it. Todd is among several who have brought light onto a world of drug-fuelled sex parties which pose at the very least a profound danger to gay men’s health. Particularly striking is Todd’s assertion that his attempts to speak up for responsibility and moderation have been met with intolerant dismissal that he is against freedom and fun, and who wants to be that in the gay world?
James Wharton wrote in an upbeat way a few years ago about his life as a gay soldier, but in Something for the Weekend, describes his more recent descent into addiction to chemsex. His book includes a telling admission of the pervasive power of economics – in London it can be cheaper to spend a weekend off your head on illegal drugs at sex parties in private flats than on conventional nights out in public places. I will leave the detailed descriptions to the book, but suffice to say he paints a clear picture of sexual encounters devoid of meaning beyond the most basic physical gratification. Those of us in the Church of England arguing for the liturgical recognition of same-sex relationships need to recognise these realities, and that there are good reasons for more conservative Christians to recoil with horror from the fleshpots.
Within the Church I observe two related milder forms of dishonesty, perpetuated by our continuing difficulties in having open discussion on the subject. The first is the sight (painfully apparent in General Synod especially) of those who are ‘clinging to their closets’ in being generally known to be in gay relationships, but never discussing them in public. Most strikingly, those in this situation can be found across the full spectrum of voting on sexuality – I cannot decide if the closetedness is more painful to observe among allies or opponents.
The second I will call ‘shamonogamy,’ the state of presenting as a respectable cohabiting gay couple to church and family, but in reality playing around with social media hook-ups with abandon, with or without the acceptance of one’s public partner. If I am deliberately general in both these descriptions I assure readers that it is because I wish to avoid speculation about individuals rather than because I have any doubts about the veracity of my information. The issue, to me at any rate, is not that any particular choice of life is wrong in itself, but that so many are living lies, and this undermines our ability to commend any sort of truth, including the Christian truth.
These realities arise, of course, from fear and the long inheritance of oppression, and that is why we need change in the Church’s official position on sexuality. But gay Anglicans also have, I suggest, a strong responsibility to find ways to live more honestly, if we are to play our full part in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel to England today. But this does not mean endorsing the equally untrue illusion that the Church’s participation in straight marriage normally consists of uniting pure virgins before God, or encouraging the bizarre activity Rachel Mann describes of being in a sexual relationship without crossing a ‘line of sin’. And we ought to be able to discuss how the rightness or otherwise of all sexual activity needs to be judged by a complex of questions about consent and mutuality, both within and outside of vowed relationships. There are compelling parallels between the journey of self-acceptance (assisted by the Twelve Steps programme) described in Straight Jacket and the journey of a true and deepening self-aware faith that I look to find in ordination candidates, which point to what the Church has to learn.
So this is an invitation to others to comment on and discuss the ethical state of gay life for Anglicans today – perhaps a day conference would be the right place to do it well, and I have discussed that possibility with OneBodyOneFaith. Such an initiative can, I realise, only attract the opprobrium of those who wish to maintain the conservative position. Equally, though, I expect ‘heteronormative reactionary’ is one of the politer things I may be called by those who embrace the consumerist freedom to be found anywhere at the swipe of an iPhone. The via media is never particularly comfortable, but it does have a certain well-trodden honour in the Church of England.
Neil Patterson is Director of Vocations and Ordinands in the Diocese of Hereford, and writes here in a personal capacity.