Civil unions--both hetero and homo--will be allowed in England this fall. The Archbishop of Canterbury and his senior bishops met recently in an attempt to deal with the ramifications of same-sex civil unions for the Anglican priesthood. Their decision? Gay priests will be allowed to form civil unions as long as they assure their bishops in a face-to-face meeting that they will not engage in sexual relations with their partners.
Admittedly, a proposal of civil union without sex emanating from such highly-educated and intelligent circles is laughable. But after picking yourself up off the floor, you may wonder if the bishops are as out of touch as they appear. Perhaps they are more callous and cunning than comic.
Consider: The only real beneficiaries of this proposal by the bishops are...the bishops. It extricates them from a tight corner, wedged as they are between "conservatives" and "progressives" who are forever on the brink of tearing the church apart. Meanwhile, the proposed arrangement places an unreasonable burden on the members of their clergy and their church.
The Church of England declared at its 1998 Lambeth Conference that, along with all sexual activity outside of marriage, homosexual behavior was incompatible with Scripture. This Archbishop and his bishops have publicly and steadfastedly maintained that position ever since. Now motivated only by a change in civil law (not theological understanding), the Archbishop and his bishops will consent to civil unions. Under the pretext of wanting their gay priests to be able to take advantage of tax and inheritance benefits that married couples enjoy, they will even go so far as to change church law to allow gay priests and their partners to set up house in vicarages. Since we know the Archbishop has no intention of installing cameras in the bedrooms, this "no sex" agreement is to be maintained by the honor system. In the old days an unmarried Anglican priest living under the same roof with a person they had great love for would have been considered a near occasion of sin. A responsible church would never consent to it. This living arrangement can only give rise to feelings of unhappiness, despair and frustration. Or, if those feelings of frustration are given in to, to feelings of guilt and resentment. Unless, of course, at the end of those face-to-face meetngs between bishops and gay clergy there will be a wink, a nudge and a nod.
Further, have the bishops really thought out what effect this proposal will have on the folks in the pews? Isn't it reasonable to assume some parishoners might distrust not only the word but the counsel of their priests? Isn't it also reasonable to assume some parishoners will believe they are supporting a sinful lifestyle for the sake of tax benefits and leave the church? How did a proposal that works in theory but has little pratical application come to be decided upon? How could the bishops have so little understanding of their flocks?
The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, while not addressing this civil union proposal of Rowan Williams, declared this past Sunday that the church is suffering from a lack of bishops with coal faces. By "coal face", Lord Carey means the hard work in the trenches of parish life. According to Lord Carey (and church records) the majority of senior bishops including Archbishop Rowan Williams himself, came from academia and never worked in a parish. While Lord Carey conveniently forgets that he is responsible for 3/4 of the current bishop appointments in the Church of England, his criticism is nevertheless a sound one. Academics exist in the realm of ideas that may or may not have real applications to life as it is lived on this planet. Parish priests exist in the realm of ideas too, but ideas that have always applied to life as it is lived on this planet; ideas that are supposed to give life here meaning and purpose.
In the American church, of course, things are different. Here the Episcopal Church is aiming for monogomy among its gay clergy. Judging from their most recent proposal, the C of E is aiming at something more Platonic. Platonic love between people of the same sex has long been upheld as an ideal. But in practice it more often than not leads to consumated relationships. That these Platonic relationships will most certainly end up as consumated ones is indicated by the very language used in the bishops' proposal.
In the Catholic understanding, the term "gay" applies to an active homosexual lifestlye. "Homosexual" indicates nothing more than an orientation, an inclination that can be overcome. Surely the bishops who have spent the bulk of their career in academia understand the differences between a homosexual orientation and a gay person. That's why they refer to their priests as gay and their partnerships as gay. Yet now they are attempting to assuage concerns by stating the new civil unions will be Platonic. The bishops have been very cunning with this proposal. The "conservatives" will walk away, well, if not quite happy then at least mollified with the Platonic Pledge. The "progressives", understanding the significance of the gay/homosexual distinction, will walk away more pleased. Obviously, the present proposal leaves the door open for further "progress". If our experience in America is any indication, this "compromise" will inevitably end in the "progressives" gaining even more ground. There's probably going to be a lot of winking and nudging in those face-to-face meetings.