The Church of England recently ruled that gay men could serve as bishops, as long as the man in question remains celibate. This decision extends to bishops the protection that Anglican leadership had previously approved for their priests and deacons. While it is unquestionably a baby step forward for queer equality in religious institutions, the decision may create more problems than it solves.
Priests and deacons have been allowed “civil partnerships,” defined as a partnership without sexual union, since 2005. The new decision simply confirms that the 2005 consensus includes bishops, in principle.
Because the church does not consider the partnership to be a marriage, i.e. no sex, the church can remain theologically consistent internally while creating a generous loophole to temporarily calm the many critical groups inside and outside the church. It is simply a legislative bandage that may be a baby step forward for queer rights in religious institutions.
In truth, the church policy is “don’t ask don’t tell.” Many Anglican clergy cohabitate with their civil partners, and the church has no intention of policing their bedrooms. While generally well-received in local communities, this unspoken agreement has helped create a conservative fringe in the Church of England who call for stricter enforcement of the church’s sexual ethics, and a wave of dissidents who have joined the more conservative Roman Catholic Church.
Adding insult to injury, the policy has not soothed progressive critics of the church, inside and out. The current policy morally obliges gay pastors to lie to their colleagues and communities. Also, the U.K. civil authorities are not satisfied with the workplace practices of the church, which has a special tax and code status. The refusal to face the sexual policy adds to the bad reputation garnered by the church’s rejection of female clergy last month (covered by Policymic), and will likely create tension with a government that fights for gender equality in the workplace and recently approved same-sex marriage.
Worst of all, the decision to allow bishops with civil, celibate partnerships can be used as a convenient excuse to exclude homosexual bishops. A “don’t ask don’t tell” policy only works until the church asks. Leaders of the Church of England are not likely to elect progressive or controversial bishops, so a gay candidate would be finished as soon as he is found to have a more-than-civil partner.
The future of the Church of England is unclear. If leadership lean progressive the church risks schism and losing thousands of conservative members to other denominations. This is a real threat that was forecast when the American Episcopal Church elected the first openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. If leadership lean conservative it risks severe penalties from the government, as well as growing less relevant to an increasingly secular Britain (plus the slow death of systematic secrecy and immorality).
No matter what, the cumbersome governance of the church and the government guarantees a long, expensive, public, and painful fight.