How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

I’m struggling to even begin to enumerate the ways in which the Church of England’s decision on gay bishops is deeply wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious: apparently if you are a gay man in a civil partnership, you may now become a bishop in this country’s established church as long as you a. promise to be celibate and b. repent your evil ways “homosexual activity” of the past. So while your straight colleagues may continue to enjoy the physical as well as emotional benefits of their marriages, the Church will presumably install a webcam in your bedroom, or make you and your partner sleep in separate beds. This of course will do your relationship a world of good, thus enabling you to excel at your job and minister to your congregation ever so much better. Not.
This arrangement is hardly compatible with the duty of care normally owed by an employer to an employee. The Church, however, has a neat way around that, in that clergy are not legally regarded as employees. They have no contract of employment but are technically office holders – a clever trick which allows the Church to get around a whole bunch of employment legislation.
Funnily enough, both the opponent and proponent of the move to allow gay bishops that Radio 4’s PM managed to get on air today thought that the proposed set-up was ridiculous, unenforceable and damaging to the Church’s credibility. But that’s hardly anything new for the CofE. Also unsurprisingly, they then went on to reach very different conclusions from this shared opinion.
The decision, combined with the pre-Christmas fiasco over women bishops, also highlights another longstanding issue: that it is still easier to reach the top tiers of society as a gay man than as a woman of any sexual orientation. In privilege bingo gender apparently trumps sexual orientation every time. The Church has been debating the ordination of female clergy since 1966, and of women bishops in particular since 1975, and an end to this debate does not appear to be in sight. Ridiculous restrictions aside, though, the doors are now open for gay men in civil partnerships to become bishops, less than ten years after the debate even started with the resignation of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading.
Finally of course, the Church and the government are setting themselves/each other up for a headache of epic proportions when marriage equality becomes law.
Which, to be honest, would all be perfectly fine if the Church of England’s antics could all simply be filed under “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and the rest of us could be left to our own devices, as tends to be my standard approach to religion in general. The CofE, however, is a political institution in this country. As the established church, it is intimately intertwined with other institutions of state, from the head of state who is also Supreme Governor of the Church to the 26 seats in the legislature reserved for CofE bishops and thus for men – straight and now gay. And yet while those bishops make our laws, they and the institution they represent continue to be specifically exempt from some of said laws, such as the Equality Act, and they continue to demand further exemptions, as in the case of marriage equality. The rule of law this is not. It is therefore high time that the Church of England was both disestablished and subjected to the laws of the land. In the meantime, let’s hope they don’t really install cameras in people’s bedrooms.

2 thoughts on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

  1. Guy Rintoul

    Hey, interesting post. Two thoughts –
    1) Re “the doors are now open for gay men in civil partnerships to become bishops” – debatable. Just because it’s *theoretically* possible, it doesn’t mean anyone could actually walk through that door without suffering a whole shitstorm of abuse from within the church (and no doubt by the Daily Mail crowd) and ultimately being forced out.
    2) 100% agree with disestablishment. While they are an established church they should have to obey the same laws as everyone else. But they absolutely should not have the legal privilege they do in so many ways, and should become an independent entity like every other religious group in this country.


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