Nicholas Chamberlain became the Church of England’s first openly gay bishopDaniel Herrick/Diocese of Lincoln

Last year, The Rt Revd Libby Lane was consecrated as the Bishop of Stockport, and in so doing overturned the centuries-old tradition that all bishops in the Church of England must be male. This year, with the public declaration of his sexuality, it is the turn of The Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain to overturn another centuries-old tradition in becoming the Church’s first openly gay bishop. Despite claims to the contrary, this does not represent a fundamental change to the Church’s position on sexuality and marriage; no Rubicon has been crossed. That said, it does mark an important step forward for the Church of England, while also highlighting the diversity of opinions within the Church and how much work is yet to be done if thoroughgoing agreement is to be reached.

Reactions to this recent event were indeed diverse. Affirming voices within the Church expressed support for The Rt Revd Chamberlain, while conservative voices made known their disapproval. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a major international body within the conservative Anglican movement, went so far as to call Chamberlain’s consecration a “major error”. For their part, the voices of officialdom in the form of statements by Archbishop Justin Welby and the diocesan Bishop of Lincoln (Chamberlain’s own senior bishop) stressed that the celibate nature of the relationship in question meant that it fit within the current guidelines for clerical relationships. Not quite a ringing endorsement of the place LGBTQ people have within the Church of England. But given the Archbishop’s desire to be conciliatory towards conservative elements within the Church as well, perhaps this is the most that could have been hoped for at present.

One does not need to be too deeply immersed in the internal activity of the Church to know that this really is just another stage in a battle that has raged since, if not before, 2003. In that most eventful of years, the Reverend Jeffrey John became the first priest openly in a same-sex relationship to be nominated as a bishop. This coincided with the appointment of Gene Robinson as the first openly-gay bishop in the Anglican Communion as part of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Conservative backlash (and an archbishop with an eye on the unity of the Communion as a whole) led to the Revd John withdrawing his nomination. However, any hope that such a move would quell the disputes about human sexuality died in the following years as what could be described (with a poetic flourish) as a war for the Anglican soul developed.

But it is not a war whose battles are confined solely to ecclesiastical palaces and whose combatants are drawn from the clerical ranks. It is instead an ongoing discussion that reaches right into the heart of many Christian communities, including those in Cambridge. In his official capacity as Bishop of Grantham, The Rt Revd Chamberlain has a tangential relationship to Cambridge. As a symbol of the ongoing disputes within the Church, however, he could not be more relevant. The Christian community in Cambridge is diverse, and with that diversity comes a range of views on sexuality. Accusations of homophobia, transphobia and other hostile opinions of LGBTQ people have been made against one of the most vocal Christian voices in Cambridge, the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). At the same time, there are many LGBTQ-affirming voices within Cambridge’s Christian community. For example, leading Cambridge theologians made a sustained case for the Church to accept same-sex marriage ahead of the General Synod earlier this summer.

In such a divided atmosphere, the events surrounding The Rt Revd Grantham could have a multitude of effects. On one hand, it could alienate parts of the Evangelical movement that already view Church authorities with distrust. (There has recently been talk about some parishes, albeit none in Cambridge specifically, considering separation from the Church if blessings for same-sex marriage are approved.) At the same time, it could give hope and assurance to LGBTQ Christians that there is most definitely a space for them within the Church; a multitude of spaces reaching from the laity right up to the heights of the episcopacy.

Moreover, that someone within the Church’s leadership is able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith should at least give pause to the old, tired narrative that sees any non-heterosexuality as irreconcilable with an active place in the Church. And it is only when the narrative is laid to rest that the Church can begin the real task of working towards the radical inclusiveness to which it publicly aspires.

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