There was a piece in the Guardian (where else) this week by Vicky Beeching, entitled: ‘The first openly gay bishop is a huge step forward – but it’s not enough‘. Please don’t attack her personally: she’s been through enough. Consider, instead, the essence of her argument, which is, essentially, that she would become a vicar were it not for the Church of England’s (manifestly unjust) discrimination against the LGBT community: “..despite all my theological training, leadership experience and numerous invitations from senior church leaders, I’ve never taken the leap and become a priest,” she explains, and then justifies:
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.
It does not, of course, follow that “theological training, leadership experience and numerous invitations from senior church leaders” amounts to a priestly vocation (Good Lord, no). One might have all the theology degrees, leadership certificates and peer adulation on the planet, but still not be called to ordained ministry. And if you imagine you are, you may be deceiving yourself. Ordained ministry isn’t about status, training, academic theological qualifications or invitations to speak in pulpits; it’s about a relationship of love with the One who calls you. It isn’t something you choose when the season is right: it is something which chooses you, which you cannot resist, in season, out of season: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain..‘ (Jn 15:16).
To be called to ordained ministry is a life of sacrifice and service. “The Church of England is changing,” Vicky Beeching observes, and it is, but her vocation is apparently contingent on it changing further. ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, but not yet: I’ve chosen you for when the church changes to suit your selfish ends, so just wait a bit.’ She explains:
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.
Contrast this with the Bishop of Grantham, who is living a life of sexual abstinence in submission to church (and Church) teaching, whether or not he thinks it just or cruel. There is no inference that he thinks the Church of England represents a threat to his basic well-being. Nicholas Chamberlain’s vocation to serve and love comes first: his deep passions and strong opinions of the church’s teaching and praxis were and are crucified with Christ, in submission to the House of Bishops’ essential catholicity, for the good of the whole. The goal of his spiritual life is to be pure in heart and to seek God. It is not to enter a civil partnership or marry his partner or enjoy a sexual relationship: the Word is paramount, and it demands obedience. Certainly, there are lenses of tradition and experience, but ultimately there is a vision of God which is only attained by a detachment from the appetites and desires of the self. Vicky Beeching may consider the harsh rigorism of bodily austerity to be anti-incarnational, but to live Christianly is to die to self; to live and participate in the church community of the centuries, not to chorus the fleeting fanaticism of the present.
Perhaps it’s the medium: the Guardian is scarcely an organ of spiritual contemplation. But it’s the one she chose, and so the medium becomes the message. Vicky Beeching’s doctoral research in complex matters of academic theology is subverted by the shallowness of this article. If, as she says, her concern is “the complex relationship between the church and rights”, it helps no one to obliterate that socio-theological intricacy with crass questions about whether the church is “safe for our own basic wellbeing”. What manner of Christian witness is that distorting doubt? The Church does not exist to affirm our emotions or meet our physical needs and wants; it is concerned preeminently with salvation and the well-being of the soul, focusing on divine love, as manifested in Christ. It is about sacrifice and surrender, transformation and renewal; not carnal fulfilment or temporal well-being.
Perhaps if we begin with our eyes fixed on God instead of our human identity; perhaps if we think about community instead of lobbying and politicking; perhaps if we think about serving rather than defeating our theological opponents, we might just begin to see that everything doesn’t begin and end with sex and sexuality. Anglican spirituality is steeped in the collects of the Book of Common Prayer: our duty is to live a “godly, righteous and sober life”. We have Scripture, we have experience, and we have reason. When this fragile tripartite dialectic becomes imbalanced, we are more inclined to get it wrong, and we surely will.
Lecturing someone about a deep-seated opinion will rarely change a mind. Wailing in the Guardian will never accost the conservative conscience. It is relationship which makes a difference to our communion, because relationship is communion. You may want to quote Scripture to promiscuous perverts and they might seek to highlight the truth of your homophobic bigotry, but Jesus is concerned with grace, peace, reconciliation and infinite blessing. Let the world see your faith and witness your covenanted love. When you move beyond the limits of your personal experience and selfish obsessions, you will not preach what you feel, but feel what He feels. And when that anguish sharpens the soul, you touch the office of prophet and priest. Therein lies true vocation.