Why gay bishops have to lie
Sex between partners is a precious truth, but the Church of England’s absurd rule makes dishonesty moral
By Giles Fraser
‘So, bishop, are you having sex with your partner?” I can’t imagine anyone asking that question with a straight face. And what constitutes sex anyway? Snogging? Toe-sucking? (Is there a Church of England position on this?) Yet the new line from the C of E – ludicrously, that gay men in civil partnerships can be bishops as long as they refrain from sex (or to put it another way, we’ll have gay bishops as long as they are not really gay) raises the question: how on earth will the authorities ever find out? A CCTV in every bedroom? Chastity belts in fetching liturgical colours? No, the only way the bedroom police could ever really know is if they ask and play a moral guilt trip about honesty on those being interrogated. So do sexually active gay priests or bishops have a moral responsibility to tell the truth? Actually, I think not. I’d go further: in this situation, they have a moral responsibility to lie.
Sometimes we lie for self-advancement. Morally, it’s a no-brainer that this is wrong. But at other times, we lie because we don’t trust another with the truth. Because we have good reason to believe that they will use it to hurt us or others. In the case of sexually active gay priests and bishops, this fear is wholly justified. It is perfectly proper that ordinarily people should maintain a strong presumption in favour of truth telling. But the situation in which gay people in the church find themselves is far from ordinary. Physical intimacy is a moral good, the very incarnation of love. Those who enforce celibacy on the basis of sexuality are maintaining a system of oppression that brings misery and loneliness to many.
I believe all Christians have a moral duty to resist this cruelty. Lying to the church authorities, in these conditions, is a bit like disobeying an unjust order. It’s a form of non-violent resistance.
If there is blame for all of this it must lie with the church itself. Through fear, it encourages people to live a lie, to build their whole identity upon untruth. Thus so many gay clergy have clandestine existences, lavender marriages and unexplained holidays. Indeed, the irony of the situation is that it forces gay clergy into the position where the only way they can be true to themselves and their partners is when they deceive the sex-obsessed bedroom police.
This outward lie makes a certain sort of truth possible. After all, sex between partners is, at best, a precious communication of truth. And this is the greater truth here, a truth that is as much about our relationship with God as everything else. For the love that dare not speak its name is love itself. This is the truth that needs protecting – by a lie if necessary.
In forbidding this truth-telling love for gay people, the church authorities are responsible for the culture of deception by frightening people into a double life. Indeed, forcing sexuality underground is precisely the way to disengage it from stable loving relationships. Thus those who attack gay sex as immoral – thinking it’s all about anonymous sex in toilets – are doing a great deal to create the very reality that they condemn. Honesty would probably make for more clergy having boring vanilla sex; the sort most people have, the sort that is not about a heightened transgressive thrill.
Years ago, a gay priest friend of mine, just coming out, asked me if I’d go along with him to a gay club in Birmingham. He didn’t want to go on his own. But he needn’t have worried. There were loads of priests in the club. The ridiculous thing was, that night they were having a vicars and tarts party. So the only people in the place not dressed as priests were the ones who actually were. “The truth will set you free” says the Bible. In circumstances of oppression, freedom and truth go underground. Real truth comes to be expressed in the gay nightclub and not from the pulpit.
“Everybody lies” says TV doctor Gregory House. That’s too cynical. But you don’t need to read much Freud to appreciate that deception and self-deception is endemic to the human condition, especially when it comes to something that makes us feel as vulnerable and fearful as sex. We may blithely use the language of honesty as a moral imperative but few people live up to the high-minded nature of that calling. Indeed, it may be worth extending the liar’s paradox (everything I say is a lie) to suggest that people often lie the most when they are asking about truth. Truth language can be a red flag indicating evasion and bullshit. So come on, let’s be a bit more honest about honesty.
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