Thursday, 7 February 2013

'I did not have sex with that bishop'

Liz Morrish explores what linguistics can tell us about current debates in the UK about gay bishops.

In early January 2013, The Church of England made an announcement “Regarding Clergy in a Civil Partnership as Candidates for the Episcopate.” This was widely reported in the press as approval for the ordination of gay bishops. What the statement from the House of Bishops says is: "The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate….The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church's teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline. All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England.”
Reading between the Episcopal lines here, we find that, although no such sanction is applied to heterosexual married bishops, those who are gay and in civil partnerships with another man must swear an oath of celibacy in order to remain in conformity with the Church’s teaching. From this, we may surmise that, according to the Church of England, sexual ethics is about what sexual acts you perform, not about love, fidelity and commitment with a partner. 
Coming so soon after the Church had voted not to allow women as bishops, the talk on social media was of the Church being out of touch and obsessed with sex. One of the first to respond, angrily, was The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser who offered this solution to a gay bishop who may find himself in a quandary -  just lie. This seems unsatisfactory, as it forces gay clergy to retreat to an uncomfortable closet, and commit the sin of lying as well. None of this is a burden to heterosexual bishops, and so the advice leads to inequality and discrimination.

As a linguist, and a lesbian, the whole argument reminded me of a piece of academic research done in 1999 by Stephanie Sanders and June Reinisch on how differently men and women define ‘having sex.’ Their work was inspired by the public debate inaugurated by former US president Bill Clinton’s 1998 declaration that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Indeed, it turns out that Mr Clinton is not alone in his rather circumscribed definition of having sex, with 56% of men and 62% of women agreeing with him that oral-genital contact does not count. For most heterosexuals, ‘having sex’ would be about penetrative intercourse; however, gay men would almost certainly require a wider portfolio of sexual acts to delineate their notion of ‘having sex.’ I was once present at a workshop on sexual health where the introductory ice-breaker required each participant to recount in turn, “the last time I had sex, I…” The rule of the game, was, no repetition, and there was none. The task went round the group of fifteen gay men three times before they ran out of ideas. This just illustrates that this group’s perception of ‘having sex’ might not tally with the House of Bishops’ notion. Moreover, how ludicrous it would be if each gay bishop was required to seek a ruling on whether last night’s congress had constituted ’having sex.’ Would deep kissing offend? Or watching a porn movie? Or any of the other myriad and creative ways human beings can pleasure each other? It would certainly force clarity of thinking onto a group of theologians who seem to have overlooked some rather basic research into human sexuality. 

Looking forward to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History Month, this linguist offers that radical solution to Dr Fraser, and to the Church of England, and it would guarantee that Church business would be stymied, until its hierarchy finally did stop being so unnaturally obsessed with a gay man’s sex life. 

Liz Morrish is Principal Lecturer in Linguistics in the Centre.

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