In 2016, the Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, became the first Church of England bishop to publicly declare that he was gay and in a same-sex relationship. Following the announcement, his office received nearly 500 letters from members of the public, the vast majority of them supportive. Caroline Starkey and Grace Davie were invited to analyse the letters. They argue that the correspondence reflects the changing views of society and, despite a sharp decline in Anglican affiliation, a lingering relationship with the Church of England.
“Silence can be good. However, silence can also imprison and disempower” (Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham).
In a 2019 online Easter message, Nicholas Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham, challenged the painful silencing of LGBTQ+ people within the Church of England. His hope, he wrote, was that “God’s people will shake off fear, ignorance and prejudice, and reach out to each other and to the world in love . . . whatever our gender identity, sexuality or personal circumstances”. This powerful statement is part of a very public journey for Bishop Nicholas. Although his own sexuality was no secret within the Church, in September 2016 a Sunday newspaper threatened to ‘out’ him as gay. In a brave move, the bishop decided to publish his own story in the Guardian, and became the first Church of England bishop to publicly declare that he was gay and in a same-sex relationship.
In response to the media coverage, some five hundred letters and emails were sent to Bishop Nicholas, many arriving within a week. Anticipating such a response, the overwhelming concern from within his diocese was that the tone of the correspondence would be critical of the Bishop and damning of his theology and approach. To their great surprise, well over 90% of the letters contained unequivocal support for Bishop Nicholas, and only a percentage of these letters were from people he knew. So unexpected were the unsolicited expressions of love and respect that the Bishop’s office employed us, as sociologists of religion, to analyze the letters with a view to helping them understand better their content and meaning. Our analysis was written into a report for the College of Bishops, as well as for an academic publication which is to be ‘launched’ on 16 January 2020 in the Goldsmiths Faith and Civil Society Unit seminar programme. In reading the letters, fascinating stories of lives, loves, losses, and hopes emerge. In addition, these letters provide a unique glimpse into the struggle of the contemporary Church as it attempts to balance its relationship to the changing ethical mores of wider society whilst at the same time upholding its traditional status as a ‘guardian of truth’.
Of the 493 letters we were given, the majority came from men, although women and families, as well as representatives of intentional religious communities, had also written. Most of the letters came from within the UK. As expected there was correspondence from other clergy; particularly striking, however, were the many (over half) letters that came from people outside the Church of England, with a good proportion of the latter clearly stating that they had no official religious affiliation. Only 30% of the letters were written by people who knew Bishop Nicholas personally – all the rest, from what we could gather, were strangers.
Overall, 472 (96%) of the letters were supportive of Bishop Nicholas. In these, support, prayers, best wishes and blessings were offered to the Bishop, alongside statements assuring him of their admiration and respect. We described this in our academic writing as a ‘tsunami of prayer and love’ (Davie and Starkey, 2019: 57). Some offered particular thanks to Bishop Nicholas for speaking out on the issue of homosexuality and the Church, and some wanted to question strongly the Church of England’s stance on same-sex marriage and rules of celibacy for homosexual clergy. Some wanted to criticize the media, particularly the tabloids, for making sexuality a public issue. A small minority of the supportive writers identified themselves through their letters as gay, some describing deeply troubling experiences within Anglican Church settings that they hoped Bishop Nicholas’s public stance would begin to change. As one author explained:
Thank you for giving so many thousands of gay people encouragement and hope after so many decades of being trampled into the mud by the Church they love.
Through many of the letters, Bishop Nicholas was described as having the support of the majority of British people, both within and without the Church of England. For example:
I am neither a Christian nor a homosexual; I am just an average person you may walk past in the street and not notice. As you go about your business please keep in mind most people are warm of heart and have no interest whatsoever in your sexuality. Don’t veer from this view because a few people behave cruelly.
Despite this, there was a small percentage (4%) of authors who were explicitly critical of the Bishop and what he represented. These letters were written in graphic language and sometimes in capital letters; the Bishop was accused of breaking biblical prohibitions, of damaging the Church, and needing to seek forgiveness. Reading these letters was difficult and emotional, and they highlight the very real tensions that currently run through both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion in relation to sexuality.
So, taken together, what do the words and silences contained in the letters mean? Amongst other things, we argue that, in a context where Anglican affiliation has declined sharply, these letters highlight a distinctive way in which the British public continues to relate to the established Church. Even though roughly half of these authors were not affiliated to any particular religion or community, they still took the time to write to Bishop Nicholas, and to express their desire for the Church to behave differently – to be supportive, to be accepting, and to be kind. The authors may never meet Bishop Nicholas, or seek his or any other clergy-members’ ministry, and they may never attend an Anglican service on a Sunday or even at Christmas. But they reflect rapidly changing attitudes, and request that the Church be more responsive to the mood of the nation in supporting inclusive spaces for all people, regardless of sexuality.
None of the letters acknowledged the theological constraints experienced by the Anglican church with respect to same-sex relationships, to which there are no easy answers. That is clear. They invite, none the less, serious thinking about what needs to be done in order to repair at least some of the damage inflicted on the lives of individuals and communities in the name of religion.
It was a privilege to read them.
Note: The event ‘Unexpected Responses to a Gay Bishop’ will be held at Goldsmiths, University of London on 16 January 2020. All are welcome. Book your place here.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.