LONDON -- Is it ridiculous to be a Christian in England? Or, to put it another way, are Anglicans increasingly the object of ridicule in the land that enshrined their denomination as the established state church centuries ago?
The answer to the first question relates mostly to faith, or upbringing, or perhaps to the eternal yearning to unlock life's myriad riddles. But the second is virtually a statement of fact since church leaders in recent weeks became embroiled in doctrinal contortions over gender and sexuality, prompting mockery, outrage and division.
The first ruling came in December when the Church of England voted -- narrowly and against the judgment of its priests and bishops -- to reject the notion of women's joining the episcopate, even though the titular supreme governor of the church is a woman: Queen Elizabeth II.
In January, the bishops themselves followed up with a potentially epochal ruling admitting openly gay priests in civil partnerships to their ranks, provided that, unlike heterosexual bishops, they remain celibate.
"They can live with one another and share the domestic chores and spend their evenings together playing Scrabble or watching the boxed set of 'The Vicar of Dibley,"' The Sunday Times of London said, referring to a television series about a female vicar. "But on no account must they get up to any hanky-panky."
Listing a ribald tally of measures to enforce episcopal celibacy, the columnist Barbara Ellen mused in The Observer: "One wonders how could this even be workable. Spot checks of ecclesiastical bedsheets?"
Giles Fraser, a priest in South London, went so far as to ask whether "active gay priests or bishops have a moral responsibility to tell the truth" about their sexuality. "Actually, I think not," he wrote in The Guardian. "I'd go further: In this situation, they have a moral responsibility to lie."
That seemed to deepen the conundrum.
"When a priest tells people to lie, you know there's something wrong," Jake Wallis Simons, a novelist and journalist, wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "If Mr. Fraser really wants to fight for gay rights, he should take his gloves off and encourage others to do the same."
Such debates are not limited to the Church of England. Indeed, given the sexual abuse scandals that have roiled the Roman Catholic Church in particular, it is hardly surprising if the view from outside is, as one radio broadcaster observed, that the church is "obsessed with sex."
Neither is the church completely alone in the preoccupation with same-sex marriage, which has fed passionate and unresolved political debates in France and Britain. Last month, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron came up with a formula to permit same-sex unions that seemed as convoluted as the Church of England's doctrine on gay bishops.
Marriage between same-sex partners, the government here said, would be legalized, but no church would be obliged to perform wedding services.
Additionally, the Church of England and the Church in Wales would remain exempt from the proposed legislation, deepening the impression that the discussion is so riven with discriminatory exceptions -- between denominations, between men and women, between homosexuals and heterosexuals -- as to be worthy of the columnists' ridicule.
Occasionally, I have written about a small Anglican church in North London that I sometimes attend. In recent weeks, the services and the sermons have ranged over the seasonal gamut of Christian festivals -- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. There have been carol services and Nativity plays for the children, parish notices about flower arrangements, church-cleaning and charitable donation, even a baptism.
In the services I attended, perhaps like the television character Basil Fawlty avoiding discussion of World War II, no one mentioned sex. While sectarianism spurred bloodshed and chaos in Pakistan and Northern Ireland, these orisons seemed far more demure.
That contrast between the congregants' modesty and the issues of gender and sexuality absorbing church leaders seems to underline a sense that the Anglican elite and the rank-and-file churchgoers have, like the scriptural Magi after visiting with the infant Jesus, left by different routes.
It could be argued that the congregants themselves are in a kind of denial, reciting their prayers by rote in search of redemption and turning away from themes inspired by Britain's changing society.
But no one should be in denial about the statistics unveiled last month in the 2011 census for England and Wales.
While Christianity remained the dominant faith, the percentage of the 56 million population calling itself Christian fell to 59.3 percent from 71.7 percent over a decade, while other religions, particularly Islam, burgeoned. And the proportion of people professing no religious faith at all increased to 25.1 percent from 14.8 percent.
Millions of people, in other words, dropped out of Christianity and embraced atheism or agnosticism -- surely a more ominous trend than the gender or sexuality of any of them.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.