In September 2016 The Guardian newspaper carried an article about the bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, in which he came out as a partnered gay man. This made bishop Nicholas the only openly gay bishop in the Church of England.
The original article can be read here
Following that coming out, bishop Nicholas received hundreds of letters. Two academics were asked to study these unique letters from a sociological perspective.
As a way of reporting these letters, a blog post was created in December 2019. This can be read here. The full academic article is available for download here.
As part of the academic reporting of their work the authors announced a seminar to talk about their findings. All the tickets were quickly booked over the first weekend. Demand was so great that the seminar had to be moved to a larger venue and more tickets made available. That seminar took place on Thursday January 2020 at Goldsmith’s college.
As several of the academic findings are available in the links above, I will focus on the other things that came out of this seminar. One idea that I had not come across before was the idea of ‘vicarious religion’. This is the idea that there are people who do not ‘do religion’ themselves, but feel it is important that religion is being done by others. Vicarious religion happens when the religion is practised by an active minority on behalf of a larger part of society. This idea showed up significantly in the letters, there were many who expressed the idea that ‘although I don’t go to church myself…’ or ‘I’m not a Christian but…’ and yet they felt strongly enough about this matter to write to a bishop that they had never met. As these writers were out of the usual church circles, even finding an address or an email to send a letter would have taken some effort. Clearly this was something that mattered far beyond the confines of church.
The researchers noted that there were some absent voices from the correspondence. There were no letters from bible believing / evangelical churches stating how they see their position. Nor were there voices from people who were still developing their ideas on this matter.
The overwhelming number of letters were supportive, with only 4% being negative. The negative letters were ones that the researchers found difficult to deal with emotionally because of the tone and nature of the content. These letters expressed a limited number of theological citations, such as Leviticus, Ezekiel or Romans as well as a theology that the bible was the highest authority. The majority of the non-supportive letters were not civil.
The relationship between church and society is complex. Societies evolve (they always have and always will) and churches variously resist that evolution, so there is a tension and ‘solutions’ to that tension emerge slowly. The church is both in the world and not of it, which can make those in the church feel that they have to be ‘guardians of the sacred’ in a changing society. Yet the church is also called to live it’s ministry in society. This tension will always be there and there will always be presenting problems where the sacred and the social meet. At the moment the presenting problem in the UK church is the inclusion of LGBT+ Christians.
The Church of England is pre-occupied with its own decline. There are well established and well organised groups within the Church of England advocating different positions and this leads to polarisation of the debate.
The role of bishops was discussed and the idea that bishops are a ‘focus for unity’ was seen as a problem for those who do not hold a privileged position. Those who are white, heterosexual and male are often seem to be in a privileged and neutral position who can ‘hold it all together’. Those who are women or LGBT clergy are less likely to be seen as being able to hold it together in the same way. This kind of contested status has always been there, for example in the Elizabethan period the contested status was married clergy. The larger question is ‘what is the essence of episcopacy’ and then we can ask if we can see this in LGBT people.
The Q and A at the end provided some interesting points. One of these was about secrecy. Someone from the Lincoln diocese stated that bishop Nicholas’ sexuality was an open secret in the diocese and everybody knew already. So when it went public, it didn’t change anything. Nobody was surprised, his ministry wasn’t affected, relationships didn’t change, but this might not have been the case if it had not been an open secret. Secrecy is a problem.
The presenting issues change, but the underlying problems do not because it always comes down to the question of what it means to be human. Whether it is a question of left handedness or whether women can vote or the full humanity of different ethnicities. We can never resolve the underlying questions so we will always have sticking points that we have to resolve. At a meeting of representatives of Lincoln diocese with some members of their partner dioceses the presenting issues were different but the underlying questions were the same. Lincoln diocese was debating LGBT matters, the diocese of Bruge was debating whether to allow those who had remarried after divorce to receive communion and the diocese in Sweden was debating about funerals. In a country where churches are funded by a church tax paid by members, should the church still offer funerals to families where few or only one member of the family pays the church tax?
As the tension between accommodation or resistance to societal change by the church is one that can never be resolved, the presenting issues and the factors affecting them may change but there will always be tension between society and the church. These letters provided a unique and fascinating glimpse into this interaction
There will be a podcast of the seminar available.