The Anglican church is once again mired in a debate about sexuality. Why does it remain such an obsession?
In Alan Bennett's wonderfully funny 1970s farce Habeas Corpus, one of the characters, an archetypal Anglican vicar called – if memory serves – Canon Throbbing listens just a shade too intently to two of the other characters describing their affair. Just as they get to the sexual part, they break off, leaving the canon to exclaim with anguish: "They always miss out the best bit!"
No one, perhaps, would blame the current Church of England for missing out the best bits in its ongoing anguish about homosexuality. Bishops protest loudly that the church is about more than sex, but an outsider could be forgiven for the mistake. No matter how lofty the justifications and erudite the reasoning, when the talk descends to the lavatorial – in the words of another Bennett character – the writing's really on the wall.
Until it sorts out in its own minds what exactly it is about homosexuality that offends it and is able to explain its reasons in intellectually rational, credible and convincing terms to outsiders, the church (all churches, actually) will continue to be assailed with justified accusations of homophobia. Saying "because the Bible says so" is not quite good enough, especially when the church has changed its mind about so many other things in the Bible over the years.
All Archbishop Rowan Williams's honeyed and sincere words about respecting and appreciating gay people and wishing them to play a part in the life of the church count as naught while others among his colleagues demand repentance for the sin of being made by God just as they are.
Churchmen may resent being assumed to be prurient but that, of course, is exactly what they are. Behind every civil partnership, in their mind's eye they picture what the couple get up to in bed together and seemingly nothing else. Is it the same with the heterosexual couples they marry? Companionship, mutual respect, friendship, platonic love seemingly count for nothing. It must be the sex, otherwise, what's not to bless?
The Guardian's obituary of the American dancer Merce Cunningham this week carried the charming story of his life's partner John Cage being asked about the nature of their relationship. "Well," he said, "I do the cooking ... and Merce does the dishes." You get the impression that's not the sort of thing conservative evangelicals picture at all. And anyway, while we're considering the matter, let's ask a question that I've never seen satisfactorily answered in the whole debate. What displays of affection between men, especially male priests, are acceptable to the church?
Is a chaste hug allowed? What about a kiss? When the election of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, came up for confirmation at the US Episcopal church's general convention six years ago it was nearly derailed by a man who claimed Robinson had touched him inappropriately. It turned out that Robinson had briefly touched him on the arm during a conversation at a crowded public meeting several years previously. The complainant had not bothered to mention it previously, not even to his wife. Even Robinson's most ardent opponents, who claimed they'd found the smoking gun to prevent his confirmation, had difficulty making that one stick as a sexual gesture.
One of the most hilarious press conferences I attended in my lengthy stint as the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent – one of the few, I should perhaps say – came when the poor old bishop of Norwich was put up at Church House to explain the bishops' view on civil partnerships for clergy. If you recall – and why should you, since it has been widely ignored even among the clergy – the policy involved requiring vicars to seek permission of their bishop and to give an him assurance that their relationship was not sexual.
The Times's Ruth Gledhill gently asked what counted as sexual. Ruth, who is notably pure-minded, asked whether, for instance, two vicars kissing in a bus shelter would break the bounds. After all, she said, not unreasonably, conservatives of a suspicious mind would be on the look-out for such behaviour and might well film it as proof of wickedness. Did kissing count as sex?
The bishop blushed as purple as his shirt and searched desperately for an answer. At last he found one. "Fortunately, we don't have many bus shelters in Norfolk," he announced triumphantly. In its way, of course, a perfect exemplar of the Church of England's position: pragmatism and prurience in equal measure, with just a touch – surely not? – of hypocrisy.