The Church of England has been accused of proposing a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” plan for gay clergy.
A report to be presented to the Church’s General Synod next month will suggest that both gay and straight men and women training to join the priesthood should face the same questions about their lifestyle.
The report by the House of Bishops, presented for debate at an event in London, said singling out the personal sexual conduct of homosexual applicants was seen as “pastorally unhelpful”.
But the move was criticised by a gay and lesbian church charity, which said it would “formalise Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – a claim rejected by the Church.
The term is a reference to the former US military policy between 1994 and 2011 which barred openly gay or bisexual Americans from serving but did not discriminate against them if they did not disclose their sexuality.
The recommendation formed part of the wider report, which also suggested the Church should adopt a “fresh tone and culture of welcome and support” for gay people – but not change its opposition to same-sex marriage.
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The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, told reporters that “present arrangements for asking ordinands and clergy about their relationships and lifestyle are not really working very well”.
He added: “It’s felt there is too much concentration on whether ordinands (priests in training) or clergy are in sexually-active same-sex relationships, rather than framing questions about sexual morality within a much wider examination of the way in which all ordinands and clergy order their lives.
“The Church of England has always been suspicious of intrusive interrogation of its members, preferring to trust clergy and lay people in their Christian discipleship.
“However, all clergy are asked at their ordination whether they will fashion their lives ‘after the way of Christ’.
“We believe we should revisit how this is explored beforehand so the same questions are addressed to everybody without distinction.
“This is not Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in any shape or form.”
The report will be presented to the four-day Synod, which starts on February 13.
New teachings on marriage and relationships should also be drawn up to replace those introduced in the 1990s, it suggests.
Church law and guidance on marriage should be interpreted in a way that provides “maximum freedom” for homosexuals, it added, but there is “little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage” – that it is between one man and one woman.
There was also “some support” in the House for the new document including “penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church”.
The Bishops noted that current guidance for questioning ordinands and clergy over sexual morality was introduced in 1991, when Section 28, which barred promotion of homosexuality in schools, was still in force.
It noted the guidance was “not working well” and question of gay and straight ordinands should focus on “establishing that the person concerned understood the Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage and that they understood the principles of clerical obedience to the church’s teachings.”
The proposal was criticised by the The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
In an open letter to the bishops, it said: “You are proposing to formalise Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell among clergy in same-sex relationships.
“This essentially asks clergy to dissemble and keep the nature of their relationships hidden – far from equalising the situation between straight and gay clergy, it pushes LGBTI+ clergy back into the closet.”
Tracey Byrne, the charity’s chief executive, said the report was a “missed opportunity”, adding: “LGBTI+ people who have participated in this process in good faith, at considerable personal cost, will feel angry and disappointed that there appears so little real change.
“Despite us knowing that many individual bishops favour a move towards a more gracious, compassionate and inclusive Church, collectively they’ve failed to deliver – promising only more reflection.”