The first openly gay bishop is a huge step forward – but it’s not enough says Vicky Beeching

The Church of England is changing. Belatedly, yes, but better late than never. Last year the first female bishop, the Right Rev Libby Lane, was consecrated. Other women have followed, so when a female bishop is appointed now, it makes little impact on the news agenda. There’s no need to report it as – thank goodness – it has finally become the new normal.

Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain: "My sexuality is part of who I am, rather than the whole of who I am"

Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain: “My sexuality is part of who I am, rather than the whole of who I am”

Last week the Church of England crossed another rubicon: Nicholas Chamberlain, the bishop of Grantham, became the first of its bishops to publicly state that he’s gay.

The archbishop of Canterbury has subsequently declared Chamberlain’s sexuality to be “completely irrelevant” to his role and that his orientation was known about when he was appointed. However, this is less progressive than it first sounds. Only celibate same-sex relationships are permitted for priests and bishops. They can enter a civil partnership but are banned from getting married, and within the civil partnership there can be no “genital acts” (yes, the language in their guidelines really gets that granular).

Thankfully the church is not installing CCTV on bedroom walls to monitor this, but verbal assent is required. The result is a quasi “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture generating fear, shame, and secrecy instead of the love and security that should be the right of any couple.

Celibacy holds a hallowed place within Christian tradition; Saint Paul promoted it as a deeply spiritual way of life. The key element, however, is that Paul describes celibacy as a calling and a “gift”. Some are given this gift by God, Paul teaches, but many are not. So, nowhere in the Bible is there a precedent for an enforced vocation of celibacy.

Although it’s a huge step forward to see a gay bishop come out, the ongoing problem is that only some gay couples are acceptable to the Church of England. Namely, those who enter civil partnerships, not marriages, and commit to being completely celibate. This requirement utterly demeans gay relationships. For many, it is a cruel and unhealthy strain on their partnership that straight clergy couples don’t have to face.

I came out as gay in 2014 and still carry the scars. It detonated my former life into pieces; I was a well-known Christian speaker and singer in the UK and US, and after announcing my sexuality I was no longer able to continue with many aspects of that career. My sense of welcome in the evangelical wing of the Church of England, which had felt like home since I was born, abruptly changed. But somehow my faith withstood all the turmoil and Christianity is still a crucial aspect of who I am.

Academic theology – the study of religion – is also very important to me. My doctoral research at Durham University focuses on the complex relationship between the church and rights. However, despite all my theological training, leadership experience and numerous invitations from senior church leaders, I’ve never taken the leap and become a priest.

Why not? One major reason is the current climate around gay clergy. For me, as an openly gay Christian who disagrees with enforced celibacy and believes priests should be able to marry, I fear I’d simply be opening myself up to further damage, discrimination, and heartache. It’s a lot to weigh up.

Some 25% of clergy are set to retire in the next five to 10 years. That statistic rises to 40% in some areas of the UK, showing the urgent need for new priests to fill these roles. Younger applicants are especially needed, as just 13% of clergy are aged 40 or under.

It’s a shame that myself, and many others known to me, feel held back from priesthood by the current rules around sexuality. We are passionate about our faith, eager to serve, would bring energy and enthusiasm to the church, yet we’re stuck in a confusing gridlock of whether it would be safe for our own basic wellbeing.

Younger friends of mine in their late teens have already completely dismissed the idea of working for the church. For them, LGBT equality is a basic essential for any employer. I worry that we are losing young people not just from future clergy roles, but from even from sitting in the pews, due to our slow progress on matters of equality.

On coming out, Chamberlain said: “People know I’m gay, but it’s not the first thing I’d say to anyone. Sexuality is part of who I am, but it’s my ministry that I want to focus on.” This resonates with me wholeheartedly. If the church wants to keep its current priests, and attract a new wave of recruits, we need urgent progress so that gay people feel safe within its walls.



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