In yet another twist in the drawn-out tug-of-war between traditionalists and progressives, the Church of England (CofE) will no longer oppose the ordination of gay bishops in civil unions. The Church’s House of Bishops (HoB) has announced gay clergy will be allowed to become ordained as bishops as long as they remain celibate. Despite this advance, however, England’s state church continues to oppose the ordination of female bishops, contrary to the principle of equality held by nondenominational churches like the Universal Life Church Monastery.
Conservative and liberal factions within the Church have been sparring over the issue since 2003, when openly gay cleric Jeffrey John became Bishop of Reading, to the west of London. Following protests from traditionalists, John withdrew from the role, eventually becoming Dean of St Albans. In 2010, John was also a candidate for Bishop of Southwark, but was rejected because of his sexual orientation. On behalf of the HoB, the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said it would be “unjust” to exclude from consideration for the role of bishop any person “to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline”. The HoB had already decided in 2005 to allow gay people in civil unions to become ordained clergy, provided they remain celibate, but in the list of decisions at its latest meeting in December it confirmed that those conditions could be extended to bishops, effectively paving the way for the ordination of gay bishops.
The latest move has been fiercely resisted by Anglican evangelicals. The Reverend Rod Thomas, who chairs the evangelical group Reform, has argued that the wider Church has been excluded from the decision-making process. “That would be a major change in church doctrine and therefore not something that can be slipped out in the news”, he said, adding that “it is something that has got to be considered by the general synod”. Civil partners becoming ordained as bishops could cause major divisions within the church, he stressed. Meanwhile, conservative Anglican churches in Africa are threatening to withdraw their membership in the Anglican Communion if the HofB’s decision becomes official canon law.
Ironically, however, the Church has also taken a step back with respect to the ordination of female bishops. Last December the synod’s HofB as well as the House of Clergy voted to approve the consecration of female bishops, but the House of Laity rejected the proposal, forcing the Church to table the issue for another five years. Thus, the passage of a proposal allowing the ordination of gay bishops would present a double standard: it would permit the ordination of gay male bishops, but not lesbian bishops. In addition, the celibacy requirement would apply to gay clergy, but not heterosexual clergy, reflecting another double standard.
Like the Universal Life Church Monastery and other interfaith churches which grant online ordination, the Church of England’s House of Bishops has a record of progressive policies on the ordination of gay and female bishops. The wider Church, however, has fallen behind. How can it allow the ordination of gay men as bishops, but not women? How can it allow straight clergy to have sexual relations, but not gay clergy? Such double standards are simply unfair. Perhaps the wider Church should fall in line with its House of Bishops and amend its church doctrine to eradicate such unfairness once and for all.