Who would you trust to tell you the truth?
That was the question which Ipsos MORI put to around 1,000 UK adults recently.
The results were not that surprising overall. The most trusted professions included Doctors, Teachers and Judges. The least trusted were Politicians, Government Ministers and Estate Agents.
But the survey does reveal a significant shift in trust of the Clergy.
Back in 1983, Clergy were the most trusted profession – today they come 8th below Hairdressers and ‘The ordinary man/woman in the street’.
For the Church this ought to be deeply shocking.
Put simply, more people would put more trust in their hairdresser than they would in their parish priest. More than that, Clergy are less likely to be trusted to tell the truth than a stranger in the street.
Where has this distrust come from over the last 30 years?
There would seem to be 2 obvious culprits – child abuse and sexuality.
Child abuse has been a huge factor. The social shock that some priests and clergy who were trusted with our children could be paedophiles has left a significant scar. This monumental breach of trust has sent shock-waves through church and society.
The effect in other countries has been even more dramatic. In Ireland, scandal after scandal involving sexual, physical, or emotional abuse of children has seen trust in the majority Roman Catholic Church plummet. In Australia, research by an evangelical group found that child abuse is the biggest single blockage to faith in God.
The Church of England has responded to this by putting ever more stringent child protection policies and checks in place – and in many ways has stemmed the tide – but stories of abuse of children cuts deep into our psyche, wherever they come from. Perhaps that is why Jesus uncharacteristically talked about millstones and being thrown into the sea for people who betray that trust.
But there is a second source of mistrust which is damaging the trustworthiness of the Church and her Clergy – sexuality.
There have always been gay clergy in the church. Once upon a time, when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, the church was often a haven of safety. The ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ approach of the first 60 years of the 20th Century allowed gay clergy to discreetly live their lives with a degree of security.
But as social attitudes became more open to same-sex relationships – as they became recognised and open – as they achieved recognition and equality – “don’t ask-don’t tell” ceased to be a safe-haven and morphed into blatant hypocrisy. Creating a climate in the church where gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women feel they have to keep their sexuality and relationships secret today is deeply distasteful, damaging and unnecessary.
Many LGB clergy have, of course, come out – among their family, friends, and local church. Others have made the courageous step of coming out to their Bishop – some have even come out to the Church of England’s ruling body, General Synod. But the lies required of them do not stop there.
All clergy are asked to abide by the infamous report from the House of Bishops entitled Issues in Human Sexuality – and promise to live within its rules for clergy of abstaining from same-sex acts. This either encourages further dishonesty in pretending to be sleeping in different bedrooms from their partner, or heaps guilt on those who take their oath of obedience seriously, or creates neutered frustration and unhappiness in those clergy who try to live by it.
And now with the advent of same-sex marriage, we have the laughable situation where if a heterosexual couple are co-habiting and one of them feels called to be a priest they are told that they must be married; whereas if one partner in a gay partnership feels called to be a priest – he/she is told that they must not be married.
Most people in the Church of England also know that we have gay bishops – despite the pretence which the Church of England tries to sell to the rest of the Anglican Communion. More than that, we have at least one diocesan bishop whose same-sex partner is another bishop!
A gay comedian on Radio 4 was recently talking about going to weddings and getting fed up of being put on a table with the only other gay man there by well-meaning hosts assuming this will mean they get on. They sit there awkwardly until finally he decides to break the ice by saying “Nice sermon vicar”. The audience immediately got the joke. it’s a shame that the Church does not.
Society at large sees this pretence, however much the Church might like to pretend it does not.
Another joke of its own making which the Church of England has not yet understood, is in the same-sex section of their website “Your Church Wedding”.
It says that “The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer.”
To say that this economical with the truth is a laughable understatement. It is a piece of political spin which even Alastair Campbell would have thought twice about at the height of his power.
I was sent a more accurate paraphrase recently which read…
The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages…
– we lobbied hard for this get-out clause because we were scared that we would be taken to court if we refused to conduct same sex marriages. And even after obtaining this legal safeguard we still voted against the Same Sex Marriage Bill in the House of Lords.
…and although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage
– because we have steadfastly refused to prepare, adapt or seek authorisation for such services despite repeated requests from priests, laity, and members of General Synod.
…your local church can still support you with prayer.
– but you should know that while some churches will affirm your relationship in prayer, others will be praying for your relationship to end.
If the Church wants clergy in the UK to get their integrity back – if clergy are to regain their trusted status – the same focus and action that has led the way on safeguarding children needs to be applied to the hypocrisy which it displays on sexuality.
Perhaps there is a reason why hairdressers are more trusted than clergy – their profession makes it easier to be real.