David Urquhart.jpg
David Urquhart

N.b. In light of the appointment of a new bishop to the archbishops, readers might welcome seeing this story once again from Private Eye. AI contacted the bishop’s office for comment at the time, but they declined to respond as the bishop was traveling.

No sex please, we’re bishops

Private Eye
8 February 2020

When the Civil Partnership Act came into force in 2005, the bishops of the Church of England gave it their blessing. They even said it would be OK for a gay clergyperson to contract a civil partnership, but with one little caveat; she or he must give “assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.” In short, no sex. Several gay clergy, and even one bishop, have availed themselves of this option and are officially living together in a state of celibate separate-bedded bliss.

In June last year the Supreme Court approved civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. The world held its breath to see if the bishops would give their blessing to women and men having sex if they were in a civil partnership. Last week the answer came back: No.

All the senior bishops had signed off on these “pastoral guidelines” at their meeting in December, but they were taken by surprise by the timing and tone of the announcement. Within 48 hours several were reversing up the aisle, and a few days later Lambeth Palace issued an apology for the “division and hurt,” which could best be translated as: “All that stuff about how wicked you are: we still think it. We just hadn’t meant to say it out loud.” Perhaps they had noticed that without extra-marital sex we would have had no Archbishop Justin Welby or indeed Jesus of Nazareth.

Archbishop John Sentamu had previously seemed relaxed about it. In 2011 he was asked what he thought of the choices made by Prince William and Kate Middleton, who lived together on and off for seven years before they were married. He said he fully understood that some people want to, er, “test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow.” But now, according to the new guidelines, he believes the royal couple were “falling short of God’s purposes for human beings.”

The Church of England’s rediscovered puritanism opens the door for a hundred painful conversations, in which elderly bishops ask newly partnered junior clergy to describe what is (or is not) going on behind the bedroom door. But whose job is it to ask the bishops themselves about their relationships?

The Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev’d. David Urquhart, is now the longest serving bishop in the CofE since the Bishop of Chester (Peter Forster) chose to retire early, having been accused of incompetence over his handling of abuse by a priest. Urquhart is also convener of the bishops in the House of Lords. He long ago gave up hope of becoming an archbishop, but his seniority means he was one of the two bishops consulted by Justin Welby in making the unprecedented decision to suspend the Bishop of Lincoln in May last year. Bishop Christopher Lowson remains on gardening leave in relation to his own alleged handling of a child safeguarding issue.

There is no suggestion Bishop Lowson himself has committed abuse. Indeed he may think it a bit rich that he has been suspended on the say-so of the Bishop of Birmingham, given that an independent review last summer said Urquhart’s own handling of an abuse disclosure was “problematic,” because “he lacked adequate knowledge of safeguarding and the capacity to manage the process” (Eye 1489). In that case the criticism was that Urquhart failed to deal adequately with a complaint that a local vicar had been walking around his office naked and aroused in the presence of young female assistants, a practice the vicar said had been recommended by his doctor.

All this does not inspire confidence in the Bishop of Birmingham or his judgement, and there are those in his diocese who question his unusual domestic arrangements. The bishop shares his official abode with a twenty-something Indian restaurant manager — on the top floor of Bishop’s Croft, the vast neo-classical bachelor pad he occupies in Harborne, Birmingham. Together they have travelled the world, and take regular private retreats in the bishop’s native Scotland. Urquhart’s care for the young man is so solicitous he penned a poem declaring that they were “bound for endless love” which has been published on social media. The 67-year-old cleric has even done a promotional Facebook video for his housemate’s new restaurant in Solihull. (“Wonderful service and the very, very best place to have fine dining. Do come and try it!”)

As leader of the Lords Spiritual, Urquhart joined the majority of prelates in voting against same-sex marriage, though he did not refuse to support Muslim parents protesting against teaching about same-sex relationships at Parkfield Community School.