Integrity, Compromise & the Church of England

by the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, former Member of General Synod

andrew f cain

Is it possible to have integrity when you are compromised?

I recently read an excellent  piece on just this by Stephen Parsons on his ‘Surviving Church’ blog, which raised just this question.  You can read the whole thing here.  In it he explores what integrity looks like for those caught up in the institutional Church and the severe strain that the demands of defending the institution puts on honourable people.

He states that:

‘‘integrity’ is one which has many facets.  It is closely aligned to another word ‘wholeness’.  Both words speak of human flourishing in terms of health, honesty and goodness.  Integrity has a special link with the idea of moral trustworthiness.  A person of integrity is someone who can never betray moral principles in order to preserve their own interests or those of another party, such as an institution.’

And there is the problem.  Because the personal integrity of many of us within the Church is compromised if we collude with the institution in defence of its practises and set behaviours, which are in direct contradiction  to our own conscience and sense of what  is morally right.

Stephen’s blog is primarily about the ongoing scandal of clerical abuse in the Church of England.  He talks specifically about the integrity of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to these abuses. He concludes that there is no doubt that Archbishop is a man of integrity but that his integrity is deeply compromised by the institution he serves and, Stephen believes, by the demands of personal loyalties from the Archbishop’s past.  This leads the Archbishop to defend the institution he seeks to serve in the only way that he sees he can.

‘There is a real sense in which his integrity is being severely compromised by outside loyalties to mysterious forces who are setting the wider agenda and who care little for these needs….By repeating the establishment line, he manages to avoid experiencing the real costs of his position of sincerity.  He manages to live simultaneously in two places.  He identifies with survivors/victims while remaining loyal to those who shut them out for being too disruptive to the status-quo.’

As I read this blog I couldn’t help but think about the other great challenge to the integrity of Bishops that weighs so heavily on them, and not simply the further challenge to the integrity of the Archbishop revealed by his decision to exclude the spouses of gay bishops from the Lambeth Conference and his expression of ‘pain’ at that decision.

The current practice of the Church of England in relation to its gay and lesbian clergy and our relationships undermines not only the integrity of the Church as an institutional committed to high moral standards. It is also corrosive of the integrity of the Bishops themselves, as they knowingly engage in a game of “hide and seek” with the truth.

A friend of mine was recently licensed to a parish and prior to that licensing they had an interview with their new bishop.  This friend is in a relationship with a person of the same sex and inevitably the Bishop, clearly deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable, asked my friend whether they were having sex.  My friend, with admirable swiftness of thought, replied ‘Not at the moment, Bishop, I am having coffee with you. ’ The Bishop didn’t pursue the conversation.

Now, whilst amusing as an anecdote as to the absurdity of the Church of England’s current patterns of behaviour, what does the exchange do to the integrity of both of them?

The Bishop can, of course, claim that he has asked “the question” – as he is currently required to do – and been given a satisfactory answer.  The priest can console themselves with their wit, that they didn’t lie, and that the Bishop was left in no doubt as to the reality of their relationship with their partner.  Both are in different ways compromised and their integrity devalued by  a Church that puts them in such a situation.

The Bishop because he knows what the real answer is and is none the less pretending to himself and to anyone who asks that it isn’t what he knows to be  true, and the priest because they know that the rules of the Church are clear that they should be celibate, and that they are breaking those rules with the full knowledge of their Bishop and expecting that nothing will be done about it.  The Church of England officially regards their sexual relationship as sinful and wrong as that of an adulterer or those having sex outside marriage. They could, if it were proved, be liable to a Clergy Discipline Measure being brought against them, though of course it is hard to imagine how such a case would be brought and arguably no Bishop would want such a charge to be made.

Now, to be clear, I intend no criticism of my friend or of any priest placed in this situation by the Church of England.  They are faced with an unenviable choice between honesty and some form of dissembling if they wish to exercise a priestly ministry and many are content to allow the truth to remain known but unspoken. Few, I think, would want to condemn them for this game of deceptions and half truths that they are forced to play with the full knowledge of the hierarchy.  I do know of some who have made it clear that they will not play the expected game, and are entirely frank with their Bishop.  Fortunately for them, however, they are clergy in established roles, with Bishops who are privately supportive and who would be embarrassed to do anything about what they have been told.

This embarrassment and dissembling is widespread across the Church at all levels.  It is there in the meetings between gay and lesbian prospective ordinands and their DDO’s, in theological colleges and at ordinations every summer where newly minted curates celebrate with their lovers and partners and at licensings where clergy are introduced to parishes, often with their partners known but sadly unacknowledged in public.

It is a falsehood that lies at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England and the policies governing it A falsehood that the Bishops know to be active and damaging but which they regard as a convenient one that saves them from addressing the truth of the lives of many of their clergy.  It enables them to hold onto an imagined loyalty to a regime in the Church of England that they believe that they must value above the truth even as they know it lacks integrity.

The House of Bishops contains many allies who are aware of the impact of the current practise on the integrity of the Church of England, and as Stephen Parsons has said ‘Integrity has a special link with the idea of moral trustworthiness’.  There can be no doubt that any society will question  the moral worth of any community that knowingly allows such a fundamental lack of integrity to corrupt its very heart.

The Campaign for Equal Marriage acknowledges the dilemma for the House of Bishops as they seek to lead a Church in which it seems a vocal and powerful minority see discrimination against gay and lesbian people as a “divine command” and the increasing majority who see it as abhorrent and morally wrong.  As with the case of the Church’s inadequate responses to clerical abuse and the Iwerne scandal they are collectively caught between what they believe and see, and the demands of the institution and its wider connections.  We have to have sympathy with them and encourage them to think and pray about how to reconcile that they believe and what they told, and fear, that they have to do.

Stephen concludes his piece with the following words ‘ The Church will always honour the memory of people of integrity and honour.  It will be less impressed by those who followed the way of toeing the party line, even when they knew that line to be false and dishonest.’  That is certainly true of those who have defended and hidden the scandal of clergy abuse, and the current failings of the Church of England to respond to the cry for justice from those who have been hurt.

It will also, I believe,  in time come to be seen to be true about the way that the Bishops of this generation have behaved towards their gay and lesbian clergy and their partners.



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