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Recently, the Church of England announced that it would allow gay members of the clergy to become bishops, re-opening one of the fiercest debates about homosexuality within the Anglican Church. However, gay clergy members can only become bishops if they remain celibate. Many campaigners for gay rights and equality say that what is being portrayed as progress is in fact nothing more than a publicity stunt that has little bearing upon homosexual members of the clergy’s status. The fact that these members of the clergy, but not heterosexual male members, must remain celibate shows the Church’s deep-set prejudice against homosexual relationships.
Following the recent press regrading the failure to appoint female bishops, this most recent Church action has created much controversy and a hot talking point; with what many are regarding as a ‘fine-print issue’ at the centre, the reception of this new order has been mixed at best. It is the view of equal rights activists, as well as many bloggers and columnists online, that enforcing celibacy in some and not others shows a remaining deep-set prejudice towards those in same-sex relationships.
Gay bishops would be subject to questioning about the nature of their homosexuality and celibacy, which would undoubtedly prompt uncomfortable feelings and a sense of the invasion of privacy. This aspect of the new evangelical order prompts the question: Is it fair to treat people differently because of sexual orientation? Businesses and companies are subject to equality laws in terms of both gender and sexuality, but the church is exempt on religious grounds. It has been voiced by many, in both the clergy and through individual citizens, that the Christian community feel they should not have to compromise their belief system; but in such a tolerant and open world, it is seen by many – specifically those concerned with equality – as restrictive and stubborn rather than strong and stoic to reinforce this division of people.
Given that key aspects of the Christian faith are love and faithfulness, should the Church be more open to committed homosexual relationships? Civil partnerships are the limit as the Church will not allow homosexual marriage, so should it not be seen in the same light?
If Christian teachings, understood by the Church of England, specify that homosexuality is sinful, it begs clarification as to why gay men were allowed into the clergy in the first instance. Specifically sexual acts with a member of the same sex are construed as sinful, explaining the distinction; in the view of the Church, then, being in a civil partnership is not a hinderance to rising through the ranks to Bishophood. This new tolerance and, arguably, acceptance of civil partnerships as legitimate forms of commitment, surely this is a positive step for the Church of England. Embracing love and faithfulness, no matter the form, surely reinforces Christian values of compassion – however, not all response has been positive, even from within the faith.
Public opinion is mixed which shows dissatisfaction with the decision. Numbers of regular church-goers have dwindled over the past half century with the rise of science and technology, so can the Church afford to alienate faithful Christians who have been taught that homosexuality is a sin?
It has been a hot topic in the British media, furthered by their decision to reject the petition for women bishops. If the Church is unwilling to provide equality in gender then surely the equality of sexuality is still a long way from being gained fully. One strong opinion voiced in the public sector is that gender equality should have precedent over sexual, given that the struggle for women’s rights has been strong for nearly a century.
Some Church-goers feel it is at least a step in the right direction as it shows a willingness to embrace a wider spectrum of modern lifestyles – that the Church is observing the changing world rather than being stuck in the dark ages, showing progress – an admirable sentiment on a world pressuring Christianity to uphold modern, rather than traditional, values. A lingering doubt, however, remains in the minds of many; does the celibacy restriction show a glaring hole in their conviction? The jury’s still out, but the story will certainly remain unresolved and at the forefront of the social mind for some time to come.