Sex, Lies and Honesty in the Church: An Anglican Response to James Alison


Late one evening four or five years ago, after a hospitable dinner, the twelve guests at a London clergy house began discussing some current development in the Church of England’s sexuality war. Quite quickly the question of obedience and how those present understood it became the topic of conversation. The twelve well represented possible applications of the document Issues in Human Sexuality (IHS). Each of the couples included one ordained person and one lay. We were made up of one opposite and four same-sex (two male, two female) couples and two people, a man and a woman, who would describe themselves as friends, not a couple. One male gay couple present initiated the conversation when the non-ordained partner referred angrily to the requirement of him and his partner to refrain from sex. Their relationship had begun as a sexual one, and still was, but now, for reasons of obedience to IHS, they refrained from sex.

Of the other same sex couples present one had tried to refrain from sex, sometimes succeeding for several months at a time. One (lay) partner had suffered mental health issues and been offered medication as a result, as well as advice from his doctor to either “stop being so ridiculous” or get out of the relationship. The other same-sex couples regarded the requirement of IHS to be beyond ‘what is lawful and just’ and therefore not requiring obedience. There was general recognition of the collusion and obfuscation of this. The married, heterosexual couple present expressed their horror at being in such a church but also their own collusion by having to agree, at ordination, that they “understood” the church’s current teaching.

Soon, conversation moved on to what bishops, Directors of Ordinands, and archdeacons actually ask of candidates for ordination or new posts. The pattern seems to vary significantly across dioceses and individuals. IHS has to be “understood” in some places. “Do you understand and observe the requirements of …” in others. In some cases there had been intrusive questioning.

Experience of how senior clergy respond to same-sex partners also varied in the accounts given in that conversation. Bishops who ‘blank’ partners, others who make a particular effort to engage partners in conversation, others still who are happy to offer hospitality to same-sex couples. In the recent past, a requirement on some that separate postal addresses exist. Encouragingly there was a clear move to a more positive experience in recent years.

I thought about all of this as I read Catholic theologian James Alison’s two articles in the Tablet this August (see link above). Alison is responding to the current abuse crisis. He makes the point that dishonesty in the church has allowed perpetrators of abuse to hide behind care and compassion for LGBT people as a cover for their abuse of children and vulnerable adults. The recent and continuing Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (which ought to be required reading for all church leaders) makes it clear that this phenomenon is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. In the case of Peter Ball this very much seems to be what happened.

Alison’s articles are not about abuse. They are about creating a culture of honesty in the church. For followers of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life, being truth-tellers ought to be at the heart of our life. The fact that dishonesty characterises the lives of many (perhaps most) in church leadership has spiritual and psychological consequences and damages us all. My own perception and experience is that few bishops in the Church of England could be described as homophobic. Many (perhaps most) would like to move to a position other than the one in which we find ourselves. All are impotent. No one has been able to articulate a route forward.

One approach, of course, would be to better enforce the current arrangements. Allowing same sex couples, those in civil partnerships, to share their homes is identified by some on the evangelical wing as a step too far. But that would hardly stop people being in relationships. Alison describes very well indeed the impossibility of enforcing current requirements. He sketches the possible range of relationships very ably and helpfully:

“… there are so many fine lines: between innocent friendship, sexually charged admiration, abusive sexual suggestion, emotional blackmail, financial blackmail, recognition of genuine talent, genuine love lived platonically, genuine love lived with sexual intimacy, sexual favours granted with genuine freedom, sexual favours granted out of fear or in exchange for promotion, covering peccadillos for a friend, covering graver matters for a rival in exchange for some benefit, not wanting to know too much about other people’s lives, or obsessively wanting to know too much about them. Let alone the usual rancours of break-ups, career disappointments, petty jealousies, bitterness, revenge and so on. All of these tend to shade into or out of each other over time, making effective outside assessment, even if it were desirable, impossible.”

Alison describes a situation which is exactly like that of the Church of England:

“Typically, blind eyes are turned to the active sex lives of those clerics who have them, only two things being beyond the pale: whistle blowing on the sex lives of others, or public suggestions that the Church’s teaching in this area is wrong.”

The consequences of this for our debate on sexuality in the church are obvious. Alison goes on to show that:

“This reinforces collective dishonesty and perpetuates the pyscho-sexual immaturity of all gay clergy, whether celibate, partnered or practitioners of so-called ‘serial celibacy’.”

The very people who would be most likely to be able to contribute to a mature discussion are forced into immaturity and dishonesty. Some of those who oppose same-sex relationships use evidence of immature sexual relationships as an argument against them. Given the abject failure of societal pressure to enable heterosexual relationships to flourish it is hard to see how our toxic culture is giving same-sex couples the opportunity to demonstrate the blessing that many experience in them.

One of the unexpected and unsought for developments in my own ministry has been the practice of spiritual direction and work with ordinands and the newly ordained. Among those who come to me or are recommended to come to me, are those who have reached some kind of crisis point in their lives over sexuality.

I see, over and over again, the damaging psychological and spiritual effects of the current practice of the church. Real people’s lives and those of their wives, husbands, partners, children and colleagues are paying the highest possible price – to the point of suicide, for our current practice as described in IHS.

In particular I find working with Ordinands that there is a strong pressure (internalised from the existence of IHS) to end current relationships not in order to embrace a life of celibacy but in order to get through to the other side of ordination. As one Director of Ordinands said to me about the requirement to acquiesce to IHS “It’s only an issue until they are ordained.”

For other couples it is the non-Ordinand partner who sees the danger of IHS and gets out while the going is good. For some individuals the temptation to either casual, monogamous relationships or even outright promiscuity is significant. It is almost unbelievable that this is still true in 2018 but I know that this is, tragically, a reality.

All of this is clearly spelt out in the first of Alison’s articles which sets the scene admirably. In the second he reaches new levels of lyricism and spiritual maturity. Anyone involved in our sexuality debates needs to read them. He begins the second with a confession:

“I am a priest who aspires to be a theologian, one who is entirely complicit with the realities involved. I realised, over twenty years ago, that the only thing stronger than the systemic trap in which I found myself, as it tried to spit me out, was forgiveness.”


How do we get out of this systemic trap?

Our House of Bishops is working on a teaching document on sexuality which will be published early in 2020. I am often asked what my hopes and expectations of that are. These are two different things. My hopes are high, my expectations low. While it is quite right that discussion of same-sex relationships can only take place within the context of teaching on sexuality in general, there does seem to be a pretence that we are talking about sexuality when really we are only talking about sex between people of the same sex. Although, for example, some un-married heterosexual ordinands I work with do suffer qualms of conscience over their active sex lives, this is not a subject for discussion in the wider church. Even in this area bishops and DDOs seem to be concerned more about appearances than reality. The actual advice given to some clergy is startling, one young priest I know being told by his archdeacon that he should clear his garage so that his girlfriend can put her car in there when she stays over so the neighbours don’t notice.

As I think about what might be possible for the Church of England in the near future I am aware of the terrible damage that the Church of England’s current position does to our ability to evangelise the nation. Sean Doherty in his talk on Sexuality and Culture at New Wine this summer began by talking about the way in which people used to say that believing in God was the barrier to them coming to faith but now talk about the homophobia of the church as the barrier. I hear this from young people – even in Primary schools – wherever I go. Young people and their teachers want equality. But there is something more than that. For my carry-with-me spiritual reading at the moment I am re-reading Sister Eileen Mary SLG’s booklet “Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Relevance for Today”. In the conclusion Sister Eileen Mary refers to the three vows of Religious, the “evangelical counsels”: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and how St Thérèse lived them as :

“Obedience and authenticity

Chastity and community

Poverty and ordinariness”

Our current teaching on same-sex relationships fails each of these evangelical tests. By making liars of some (perhaps most) in the church we are perceived as inauthentic (“hypocritical”); by rejecting those who live chaste, faithful, sexual lives in same-sex relationships we are perceived as destroying community; by making such a big deal of sexuality we are perceived as labelling and magnifying an identity above the ordinariness of the very many LGBT people that everyone knows. There is no school where there are not LGBT people. This is heaven in ordinary. Young people know that we are not truth tellers in this area.

As a matter of strategy my tendency is to pragmatism. I have sought out friendships among those who would most oppose this. I know them to be Jesus loving, Scripture based, Spirit filled people. I want to stay in whatever level of fellowship is possible with them. I know too from my own travels in the Anglican communion how this international fellowship of churches is so important. I don’t want us to be diminished by breaks in that fellowship. As a Catholic Anglican the call of the universal church is strong, our Catholicity is diminished when we are out of fellowship with other Christians.

I wonder if, once again, a return to the argument that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good is helpful, all my most conservative friends can see that a monogamous, lifelong relationship is better than even serial monogamy (or serial celibacy with non celibate breaks). Could some pastoral accommodation be made that allows for this in honest, straightforward ways? Could this also include the clergy so that those who are commissioned to lead the church can be truth tellers in all that they do and are? Could we celebrate and bless these relationships with liturgies of thanksgiving and blessing because that is what we do as Christians. The debate about blessings has pushed the definition of that word to nonsensical levels. I recently heard a powerful sermon from the Bishop of London in which she reflected on the blessing she received each week from a mentally handicapped member of her congregation. A true blessing regardless of ordination!

I do not expect that the teaching document is going to permit same sex marriage. I barely expect that it will allow even the level of thanksgiving and blessing that I have described but I continue to hope and pray that it will. The very least that, surely, we must do is create a culture of honesty. If this debate is not to remain in its sterile, rotten state, we must see what it is like to be a church where people can live truthful lives. I am happy to be considered a sinner. I know that I am. I am happy to find out that I was wrong, but that finding out will never be at a theoretical level but a practical one.

Alison talks of the ‘clerical closet’ in the Roman Catholic church, for English Anglicans that closet is mostly only in the bedroom. But his arguments hold true, unless we change:

“The alternative … is to continue with liars inducting liars into a game, the closet forming and enforcing the closet. And all of us finding that the Lord’s vineyard is very properly being taken away from us, its terrified tenants, and put into the hands of others, determined neither by sexual orientation, marital status or gender, who will produce its fruit.”

During my training for ordination I spent some time working with the chaplain at Ford Prison. Over the chapel entrance was the text “By their fruits you shall know them.” Lets test same-sex relationships. Are they fruitful? Faithful? Life-giving?

I am happy to sit that test and answer to it at the judgement seat.

In the Church Times last week (31 August 2018) the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion is quoted, (ironically under the heading ‘Christians don’t like hearing the truth’) as saying that “‘the C of E may need to exercise “self-restraint of a sacrificial kind” in matters of sexuality.” Self-sacrifice can be healing and redemptive. Sacrificing others without their consent is wicked, dangerous and destructive – and not just for them. However, the fundamental problem is that it is not LGBT people who are being sacrificed, it is truth itself. Jesus, the way, the truth and the life is nailed to the cross by our untruthfulness. Meanwhile, the world yearns for truth.


  1. Some quick thoughts.

    i) You’re right that this is about sex, not sexuality. That’s why many of us “conservatives” are actually allies in the fight against homophobia – we don’t believe people should be discriminated against purely on the basis of their sexuality (or race or gender for that matter)
    ii) You seem to be falling into a “two wrongs make a right” argument here. Just because lots of different “wrong” activities take place doesn’t mean that they should be made “right” in order to be transparent. Another form of transparency would simply be all those in authority to not cover up (by omission or commission) the wrong deeds of others and to exercise discipline appropriately.
    iii) The real issue is that one cannot transform the heart by imposing behaviour. You’re absolutely right that simply saying to someone “do this” doesn’t make them want to do it. Personal life-style choices (like celibacy) have to be decisions of the will, not impositions of someone else’s will, otherwise the individual involved will carry with them a conflict that they cannot resolve and, more importantly, do not fundamentally want to resolve. But that isn’t an excuse to remove the imposition. Take for example RC priestly celibacy – if one wants to be a RC priest one needs to *want* to be celibate. If one enters into the RC priesthood with the mind(heart?)set of “I’ll put up with this though I don’t really agree”, eventually you will find the tension too great. If on the other hand one enters celibacy with the mindset of “This will be hard and against my natural instincts, but I will seek to pursue it because it is right”, finding resolution is more likely because you have not created an irreconcilable tension from the outset.
    Of course, I recognise the reality is more nuanced as many people set out with good intentions and with their heart “in the right place”, but find the burden of loneliness to much to endure. The responsibility here however is as much with the Church as the individual to create an environment which supports the flourishing of a celibate life – one might argue that living by yourself and eschewing human company is not conducive to that.

    Conversation starters rather than the final word.


  2. Thank you for this. I found it very useful and interesting. Two things just to throw into the pot. Loads of people have celibacy thrust upon them. By illness or bereavement, for example. I can quite see how damaging it would be to a gay couple’s relationship with the church. But most people don’t have mental illness problems as a result. I totally agree with your position that the church is cruel. I also agree that the rules don’t seem to apply to straights. Even things like numbers of partners. I know someone who was on their fourth partner when ordained. But the one they lived with for five years but never married has simply been airbrushed from their life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s