Outing Forces Church To Act

The “outing” of 10 Bishops has been more effective than years of polite lobbying, argues Peter Tatchell. It has forced the Church of England to begin a serious dialogue with the lesbian and gay community for the first time.


The “outing” of 10 gay Bishops by OutRage! during the Church of England General Synod last November was arguably the biggest and most successful “outing” accomplished anywhere in the world. Previous “outings” by gay activists (mainly in the US) have been generally confined to naming lone individuals. None have ripped open the closet doors of an establishment institution quite so decisively as the OutRage! revelations in front of Church House, the London headquarters of the Anglican Church.

The naming of the Bishops by OutRage! has already produced some startlingly positive results. For the first time ever, the Church of England has established high-level links with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. The Bishop of Wakefield, Nigel McCulloch, has had private discussions with the secretary of the LGCM, Richard Kirker, and has asked LGCM to submit proposals for a review of Church policy.

In January, the Bishops held a previously unscheduled private discussion to re-examine the Church’s stance on lesbian and gay issues. Even more surprisingly, an approach by OutRage! resulted in the group being invited to forward a dossier on violations of lesbian and gay human rights, with a view to the Bishops’ considering Church support for the repeal of homophobic laws.

Anglican officials have privately admitted that none of these initiatives would have occurred if OutRage! had not provoked “a crisis within the Church”.

Richard Kirker of LGCM confirms that it was the “outing” of the Bishops which appears to have spurred the Church to action.

Just two weeks before OutRage! named the 10 Bishops, Anglican leaders turned down requests to discuss the sacking of gay clergy and other Church-endorsed anti-gay discrimination.

“The OutRage! action was a turning point”, says Richard Kirker. “It has compelled the Church to reopen an issue which it was previously refusing to consider”.

The train of events leading up to these new Anglican initiatives began last October when the News of the World revealed that the new Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull, had a conviction for gay sex in a public toilet in 1968. This lead to charges of hypocrisy by OutRage! activists who were infuriated by Turnbull’s condemnation of gay clergy in loving homosexual relationships.

The night before Turnbull’s enthronement in Durham Cathedral, Sebastian Sandys, an ex-Anglican Franciscan friar, named three closeted gay Bishops during a debate at Durham University. His motive was to highlight the Church’s double-standards in protecting and promoting deceitful gay Bishops while dismissing parish priests in honest and committed gay relationships. Sandys’s revelations were the first successful “outing” in Britain.

Although only three newspapers printed the names, the Church was shaken by the public exposure of homosexuality within its top ranks.

Realising the Church was vulnerable, and that vulnerable institutions are the most amenable to change, OutRage! decided to name all the closeted gay Bishops who were endorsing the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts and colluding with its sacking of gay clergy. In other words, OutRage! targeted clergy who were gay in private while supporting anti-gay policies in public. The aim was to force a crisis within the Church, which would compel it to reconsider its homophobic policies.

As delegates, including Bishops, arrived to attend the Church of England General Synod, they were greeted by 10 OutRage! supporters, each holding a placard bearing the name of a Bishop and calling on him to “Tell The Truth!”

Unknown to OutRage!, Anglican officials had considered getting a High Court injunction to prevent the Bishops being named. Indeed, their lawyers lurked in the portals of Church House as the Bishops were “outed”. However, they took no action.

This has led to speculation that the Church knew the allegations were true and feared that a court case would not only result in a very costly defeat but would also provoke the revelation of further embarrassing details about the sex lives of senior Anglican clerics.

Despite misleading reports in the press which suggested that OutRage! was unsure of its facts, the activist group stated that its list of gay Bishops was “not based on gossip or rumour…but comes from normally reliable Church sources”. Several journalists and Synod members have, off the record, conceded that the OutRage! list is “spot on”.

Indeed, since being named, none of the 10 Bishops has publicly denied being gay. Two of them – Bishop Jack Nicholls of Lancaster and Assistant Bishop John Saterthwaite of Carlisle – have issued ambiguous statements which some observers have read as tantamount to coming out.

In addition to the 10 named, five other closeted gay Bishops were not named by OutRage!, either because the evidence of their homosexuality was not strong enough or because the group is seeking to privately persuade them to come out of their own free will.

The full ramifications of “outing” the Bishops will take a while to unfold. What is already clear is that the Church’s ban on gay clergy is now effectively destroyed. Having had some of its top clerics exposed as homosexual and having taken no action against them, in future the Church is going to find it very difficult ethically to dismiss gay priests.

Since the OutRage! “outing”, everyone now knows there are gay Bishops. This is bound to make Anglican leaders much more circumspect in their homophobia. They realise that any hint of anti-gay policy will, given their apparent acceptance of gay senior clergy, be instantly ridiculed as hypocrisy and double standards. This will almost certainly act as a significant constraint on overt Church homophobia.

The effect of naming the Bishops goes way beyond the Church. The whole homophobic establishment is now aware that “outing” is not just an idle threat. OutRage! has succeeded in unmasking top clerics. We can, if we decide to, also expose hypocritical and homophobic closet gays in politics, business, the military, judiciary and the police. These people now understand that all those who abuse their power to harm other lesbian and gay people are potential targets. Maybe this will persuade some of them to think twice about being homophobic in the future. Even if it convinces only a few of them to cease supporting anti-gay policies, then that achievement alone will have made “outing” the Bishops morally justified and worthwhile.

* Readers who want to support the campaign to get the Church of England to end its homophobia and to support the repeal of anti-gay laws can write to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, London SE1 7JU.

Gay Times, February 1995.