The other night I had a disturbing dream. I dreamt that a movie version of the stage show Cats had been released in cinemas. The cats had human faces, one of them zipped off her own skin, and they lived in a world in which cockroaches the size of humans roamed the land. It was called “Cats”.
As if that wasn’t horrific enough, this dream was followed hot on the heels by another, in which the Church of England, the established church in this country, said, in the year 2020, that the only permissible context in which to have sex is if you are not just heterosexual, but married and heterosexual.
Coming to, I realised that the second dream was in fact real, that it hadn’t happened in 1812, and that the statement was “guidance” being offered today by the church in reaction to the introduction of mixed-sex civil partnerships. Thank God the first one was just a nightmare whose horrors no one else will have to witness.
The church’s latest pronouncement – “A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the church of England” – is further proof that the church has less of a future in this country than Rolf Harris. The institution is an embarrassment, intent not just on digging its own grave but also pausing on the way there to smack itself in the face with the spade. Has it ever been clearer that if it faithfully represents anyone, it is only the most reactionary and closed-minded of the population?
It shouldn’t be this hard for bodies like the Church of England and the Catholic Church.
If you were in fact God’s official representatives, you’d think you’d be better at your job. But in every single one of my jobs I’ve managed to collect my P45 having avoided charges of homophobia, sexism and child molestation. It hasn’t been difficult, and I never started any job claiming to be a conduit for God’s wisdom. But the church is losing both its congregations and its grip on reality – and, rather than trying to tighten that grip, it’s slathering on more oil.
Why have young people been stampeding away from the church in recent years? It isn’t just that God doesn’t exist, though that is a pretty big blow. It’s also that the church, cosseted in a bubble of ritual and song, is so astonishingly blind to the way that people actually live. People don’t change, but society does.
Homosexuality has always been present – we know it’s there in the animal kingdom – and it will never go away. The only change that has occurred is that many parts of the world have become better at accepting this indisputable truth.
This bizarre “pastoral statement”, however, affirms that the church is hooked on nostalgia. Things were better, they think, when things hadn’t moved on – when gay people couldn’t get married because that meant they found it harder to have sex. Given that the church is one of the few institutions whose job it is to offer guidance on how people should live, it is impressive for it to remain this bigoted.
I asked for the thoughts of Diarmaid MacCulloch, the history of Christianity professor who was rejected as a priest because he is gay. He said: “You could say that the bishops’ comments on marriage display a remarkable ignorance on the history of marriage.”
One implication of the pastoral statement is that if you are two Christians in a civil partnership, you would never be able to conceive children, because the church considers you undeserving of sex.
Stop for a second and just imagine the arrogance it takes to say that. “You love each other? Great. You’re Christian? Great. You wanna have children? Woah there, no, thank you. We can’t have good Christian children growing up knowing they’re the product of a civil partnership.”
Like the Catholic Church, the Church of England is obsessed with sex. We know this, and yet the reminders still sting. What’s so depressing is that the church makes its pathetic sexual proclamations not for anyone to follow, but for themselves and others to applaud. Almost no one will follow any preachings of celibacy, and the ones who take the preachings seriously risk being racked with guilt and self-loathing. It is spectacularly dangerous to attach stigma to sex, and history is littered with supporting evidence.
One line in the statement stands out as particularly poignant. “The church should not collude with the present assumptions of society that all close relationships necessarily include sexual activity.”
This is all but an admission that the church is determined to be hopelessly consigned to the past, sticking its fingers in its ears and singing the national anthem. If the church were a gym, everyone would cancel their membership. It’s not doing any good.