— I feel like a second-class citizen in the Church of England
The church made me answer prurient questions in order to be ordained – and if I were to enter a civil marriage, I’d essentially be sacked
In many ways, my partner and I are quite boring and conventional. We may have met through a dating app – very 21st century – but otherwise there’s been nothing particularly scandalous or unusual about how we do things. Quite frankly, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Except, of course, for the fact that I’m a priest in the Church of England – and that’s where the problems begin. For while the rest of the country seems able to see the clear and unambiguous good that springs from same-sex relationships, the church continues to drag its heels. For years, in fact, it has told us that there’s nothing good at all about our love for one another – that it’s something to be shunned, embarrassed about, even erased. Our love is, ultimately, a problem.
The poverty of such a view has become increasingly obvious to those within the church and without, but the bishops of the C of E have resolutely refused to say anything at all for years. They – including those bishops who are secretly gay – have been cowed into silence by threats from those who oppose same-sex marriage. A few years ago, in 2017, they finally said something – recognising that the church’s record had hardly been positive towards LGBTQ people but coupled with a firm refusal to do anything about it. And the clergy of the C of E told them to get stuffed.
So we find ourselves here in 2023, at the end of a long and, at times, tedious and painful process of thinking and discernment about sexuality across the church. We all knew something was coming, whether it was to keep the status quo or to make some kind of change. What we weren’t expecting was the inability of the House of Bishops to keep stumm before the official announcement.
And so, on Wednesday, we woke up to news that the bishops had decided that our love wasn’t all that bad after all, and that we may be allowed to have our relationship blessed in a church in the near future. As a priest, too, I may finally be able to support the same-sex couples that come to us asking for blessings or for marriage, and who we have to turn away.
And perhaps, at last, the prurient and strange questioning that we face as clergy could soon be a thing of the past, because at the moment people outside the church would genuinely not believe the kind of things we are asked about our love lives, and the things we have to commit to in order to be ordained – among them an almost obsessive focus on celibacy. Our priests, deacons and even bishops either put utterly unacceptable and unsustainable pressure on their relationships and on their partners, or they are actively encouraged to lie. And if we enter into civil marriages with people of the same sex, we are essentially sacked too. We are in one hell of a mess.
The problem, though, is that while the bishops have offered us blessings, they’ve stopped short of offering us marriage. There are all kind of complicated political and pragmatic reasons for going no further than blessings, but somehow that doesn’t quite make it better. It still feels like crumbs under the table. We remain second-class citizens.
For me, and for many of my clergy friends and colleagues, we may understand the politics and the pragmatism, and the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. We may know it will only ever be a slow process towards inclusion, and this is the next stepping stone on the journey. Yet it still feels like a gut punch. It still feels like we are begging for our place at the table. It still feels like we’re worth fighting for, but only so far. The church may indeed be planning to apologise, but it continues to do the damage.
So Piotr and I won’t be getting married any time soon. The C of E doesn’t want us to just yet. But change is coming, however slowly and painstakingly – and we aren’t giving up the fight for justice. And one day, the church may just recognise our love for what it really is – a love that moves mountains, and a love that changes everything.
- Charlie Bell is an Anglican priest in the diocese of Southwark and a Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge
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