Shaping debate on religion in public life.

The Church’s Damning Edicts on Sexuality Challenge What It Means to be Human

9 Sep 2016

Guest blogger Jo Henderson-Merrygold is a PhD Candidate in Biblical Studies at Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies and co-director of Hidden Perspectives. She researches the interrelationship between gender(queerness) and biblical stories in contemporary society.

The Church of England is reeling from another scandal and the problem with this one is not an excess of sex but the complete lack of it. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is keen to move beyond an apparently insignificant story. This scandalous story is that the Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, has a male partner. If it were the non-issue the Archbishop suggests, there would have been no need for the story at all – certainly not one orchestrated by a secular Sunday paper – and not one against the will of Dr Chamberlain. It is all okay, though, as everyone who needed to know knew and, to quote Chamberlain’s boss and the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson, ‘the Bishops’ guidance on issues of human sexuality’ are being kept. Excellent! As the Bishops meet to discuss the topic once again, just exactly whose humanity and whose sexuality are at issue here? It is hardly the humanity or sexuality of those in the much-praised institution of marriage between man and woman, the only form of marriage recognised by the Church, and so beloved by the Bride of Christ! Rather it is the humanity of those whose lives face control and regulation, not least through the threat of an outing, or the pressure of secrecy or ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

Lowson’s legalistic language – ‘Issues of human sexuality’ – aims to reassure readers that Chamberlain’s appointment is valid. Chamberlain, and his partner, verbally agreed to live within the church’s prohibition of ‘homosexual genital acts.’ Such language and legislation ensures the church keeps sex exactly where it wants it: labelled as taboo while subject of frequent, discussion and thus public discourse. The church loves an opportunity to ponitificate, moralize or otherwise comment on relationships outside its doors. Similarly, we, the general public, love a bit of ‘human sexuality’ especially when hypothesizing, frequently in euphemisms, about the bedroom habits of those in same-sex relationships. ‘Human sexuality’ whether governed by bishops or not, continues to be a topic of salacious gossip and piqued interest. Just ask the editor of the unnamed Sunday paper!

So what’s the issue, and why do we need to make the ‘human’ so explicit? Who else would or could we be legislating for or about? Who are the rules covering? It is not those married in the eyes of the church – they have long been reified. Yes, they are already human, and it would seem absurd to argue otherwise. Yet it is not so absurd to argue that those in same-sex relationships are less than human, (to use Judith Butler’s imagery). In discussing what it means to live, Butler argues that we need to be human, and that means to be recognised as such by other humans. Recognition is essential for us to live fully. So consider this: when clergy in same-sex relationships were not considered to exist or have validity in the church, the effect was that, in the eyes of the church, they were not-human. They were too different to those accepted as human by the church. Their humanity was not recognised.

As LGBT+ clergy became more visible it was no longer possible to pretend they didn’t exist and to fail to recognise them. Recognition was offered yet the effect was only to recognise a nearly-human state. In 2014, the bishops effectively said ‘we see you, but we want to make clear that you are not (sufficiently) like us.’ The guidance concerning ‘human sexuality’ functions precisely to constrain the humanity of those it polices. The language used is far from that of love, sex, and embodiment essential to humanity and to Christianity. So when Beth Routledge, a Scottish Episcopalian, argues we need to speak about sex, and when theologian and LGBT rights activist Vicky Beeching takes very human issue with the rules and argue they do not go far enough, they are both correct. The church’s edicts challenge what it means to be human, and who can be considered as such.

Welby may wish this story would go away, wishing instead to focus on his more positive comments about LGBT rights and identity. They may even be far from the worst or only offenders. It is about the role of the Church of England in society today, which must remain central to the Bishops’ discussions on Monday. The church continues to be a source of moral and ethical guidance extending beyond its buildings and missional projects, and, when not squirming about humanity and sexuality, it relishes such a position. The influence of the church may have wained from the times where, according to Michel Foucault, society’s discourses and structures were formed around its teaching and authority, but it continues to wield substantial power. The efforts of one national paper to out the Bishop, and another to publish his story highlight the enduring influence of the church.

So the issue remains of whether the Church of England can commit to recognise LGBT+ humanity. The bishops must show and model clearly how the church understands LGBT+ humanity for the whole of society, not just say a few words for those already inside its institutions. If so, maybe, just maybe, when a newspaper editor thinks about running a story which forcibly or thoughtlessly outs someone, they might consider the humanity – rather than the almost-humanity – of their victim. Yet for as long as an organisation with the moral and divine authority of the Church of England shows it can and does control how those in same-sex relationships act and to whom disclosure of relationship status or sexual identity can occur, issues remain. Until that changes, there is little hope that embodied, recognised, fully-human lives can be lived by those who identify as LGBT+, regardless of whether found in church or not. That really is an issue of humanity and sexuality!

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