Giving and Receiving Episcopal Oversight: The Bishops’ Report (GS 2055)

The initial heat and fury of reactions to the House of Bishops’ Report “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations” continues over a week after its publication with a concerted campaign now underway to persuade Synod to refuse to even “take note” of it.  Fulcrum has issued its own more positive response to the document.

Given the vehement reaction against the report, it is worth asking what on earth the bishops thought they were doing in writing as they did.  Can those who are hostile to their conclusions understand what the bishops have done and be positive about any aspect of their work?  In some ways this question about method and rationale is as important and significant as what they propose but the question has been largely ignored.

The short answer is that the bishops were seeking to fulfil their calling as bishops in the fractured body of Christ.  This means that disagreement with their report – particularly given the strength of it from some of those most distressed by what they have said – raises the question as to whether they simply did a very bad job in attempting this or whether there are deeper disagreements about what is involved in exercising the gift of episcope and the whole process that the bishops have followed.

A. What did the bishops think they were doing in the report?

Before examining what they did think they were doing it is important to be clear about what they did NOT think they were doing.  They are not offering a teaching document setting out a theology of marriage and a sexual ethic.  Nor are they seeking to answer every single question or to comment on or adjudicate between every viewpoint raised in the Shared Conversations.  They are being much more pragmatic.  They are seeking, after the Shared Conversations, “to help the Church to identify the next steps….towards greater clarity about what is at stake and how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively” (9).

The opening parts of the report – before the bishops describe in detail the elements that have emerged from their work which have been the focus of controversy – set out five key aspects of what they thought they were doing which are then picked up in the concluding theological reflection.

  1. Theological and Missiological Reflection

First, they are seeking to address the major missiological challenge that “if we are heard as lacking in love, our ability to proclaim the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ is damaged or negated (2).  In doing so they identify four areas that need to be drawn together but often are felt to pull in different directions (5):

  • “The demands of moral theology”
  • “Our vocation to offer pastoral care and love to all who seek it”
  • “The link between that pastoral care and our mission to make disciples”
  • “The maintenance of our integrity as part of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, including our integrity as bearers of a received deposit of belief”

In offering a theological rationale they refer back to this, highlighting the need for missiology, pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology.  These are to be the “cardinal points of the compass in navigating towards a right understanding and true judgment in this area” and they are clear that “we will continue to need insights from all four perspectives to inform our approach as we go forward, and may indeed want to deepen and enrich our thinking with regard to each of them” (58).  Although in one sense this is therefore very much a practical, political document, it is much more than this as it has arisen out of theological reflection (20), even if it does not often articulate the theological fruit of that process, and it is calling for ongoing theological reflection.  That, sadly, may be why it has been so poorly received in certain quarters whose political goals are not obviously met.

  1. The Unity of the Church

Second, in wrestling with these issues the bishops are committed to unity:

It is our present determination to remain together as witnesses to the unity of the Triune God that forces us to try to hear the scriptural, theological and missiological arguments of those with whom we disagree profoundly. We believe that, in some way perhaps hidden from us, they still have something to teach us about the Kingdom of God – already here and still to come (8).

They believe that our witness “will be immeasurably damaged by allowing our differences to break us into fragments” (10) and towards the report’s end they return to this: “One unifying theological theme to have emerged is that of unity itself” (59) and so,

We want to continue to ‘walk together’, to use the phrase from the Primates’ Meeting a year ago, in a way that is based on a common commitment to biblical truths but recognises our continuing disagreement with one another. We want to maintain and indeed deepen the communion we currently have with one another across our serious disagreements on this issue, a possibility to which some involved in the Shared Conversations would testify. We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.

It is perhaps noteworthy that they implicitly recognise that unity may yet prove impossible – “inevitable at this point”, “it is time to…” – but they have heeded Oliver O’Donovan’s warning:

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart. God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the Gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude apriori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.

It may be that the instant rejection and dismissal of the bishops’ report and the campaign underway to get Synod to reject it is a worrying sign that the Church of England may be on the verge of being scattered and will need to start considering some kind of institutional expression of this.

  1. Doctrinal Coherence

Third, although “Anglicanism has always been a contested tradition” (8) it cannot be pluralist and simply treat contradictory views as equivalent through a celebration of doctrinal diversity.  The unity of the church must, as O’Donovan notes above, be related to truth and “cannot be detached from our common faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore from the teaching through which that gospel is faithfully passed on” (61). Here the bishops seem particularly conscious of their role in an episcopal structure of governance as “it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church” (67).

  1. Taking Stock and Charting A Path Forward

Fourth, as bishops with oversight they also have the responsibility, as noted, “to help the Church to identify the next steps….towards greater clarity about what is at stake and how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively” (9).  The Shared Conversations provided the context and material for fulfilling this.  The bishops learned from this that “the current situation requires some clearer assertion of where the Church now finds itself” (14).  This is what they are offering.  Two questions here are (a) whether the bishops’ assessment of the current reality of the church and the constraints of realpolitik given that reality (which explicitly includes their own disagreements) is accurate and (b) how it relates to the biblical vision of what the church should be and how it is always being reformed by the Word and the Spirit of God.

  1. Thinking and Speaking for the Church as a Whole

Fifth, in fulfilling this calling the bishops consciously chose not to work simply to secure their own individual interests.  Nor did they act as representatives of those parties in the church - or the side in the debates - which looked to them personally to speak for them.  They sought instead to do what bishops should do: to discern what “might be possible for the Church as a whole to implement with integrity” not simply what “best fitted with their personal opinion” (21).

The first question the wider church therefore needs to ask as it approaches General Synod is

Can this approach be recognised and received as good episcopal oversight in which the bishops are seeking to be led by the Spirit in fulfilling their episcopal calling faithfully? Or do the bishops here understand their role and calling in ways that parts of the church reject or find seriously flawed?

The next area to examine is the process by which the bishops actually tried to provide this pattern of oversight.

B. How did the bishops end up with the report?

The whole process leading to this report was a long one rooted in “prayer and theological reflection” (21).  The bishops began the Shared Conversation process in September 2014 with their own shared conversation involving the whole college.  Some bishops participated in their regional shared conversation and most diocesans have met with those who represented their diocese in those regional conversations and heard their feedback.  The House of Bishops also joined in the General Synod Conversation in July 2016. The whole College had a further facilitated process in September 2016 which was “designed to discover the range of views among the bishops” [covering “a very wide spectrum”, para 17] and also “the ‘centre of gravity’ concerning principles and ideas for what should follow” (16).  Unsurprisingly there was no unanimity.  There was, however, “a substantial degree of consensus” (17) in two areas:

  • In favour of “the Church of England’s teaching on marriage, as expressed in Canon B30” (18).
  • Revisiting “existing resources, guidance and tone” (18).

It seems that already there was no consensus for doctrinal or legal changes.  Although that first point of consensus has been widely criticised it should be no surprise as there are over 100 bishops and one can easily count on the fingers of one hand those who have publicly expressed a desire to change canon B30.

Despite this consensus, the group appointed to work further on this brought the House case studies and “a range of ‘options’, setting out possible scenarios for the future” (19).  This included work on legislative/Synodical and theological issues related to each.  It was these options which the House considered, seeking to find which “might be possible for the Church as a whole to implement with integrity” (21).

Sadly the report only provides us with the one option it recommends (22):

As a result of this process, there was a clear (although not unanimous) weight of opinion in favour of the option framed in the following terms:  Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church (emphasis added).

It would, perhaps, have been helpful to the wider church if the bishops in their report had shown us more of their workings here.  This could have addressed such questions as:

  • How many other options were considered?
  • What were these other options and why were they framed as they were?
  • What evidence – biblical, theological, pastoral, legal, missional, ecclesiological - was presented in their favour?
  • What were the primary objections which meant they lacked sufficient “weight of opinion”? (These were presumably a mix of the more pragmatic for some - though desirable they would not achieve the necessary majorities in Synod to become a reality or in doing so risked causing division – and more theologically principled and biblically based for others)
  • Can the bishops – drawing on the Shared Conversations – help the church as a whole to understand the “very wide spectrum” there is even among the bishops, why different positions are held on that spectrum, why we are so divided, and where the heart of our disagreements lie?
  • What sort of process (a formal vote for and against each one or simply a sense of the meeting? the use of the Single Transferable Vote to choose between options?) was used to determine that one had “a clear (although not unanimous) weight of opinion”?

The risk of giving more information on these matters is that it could highlight divisions and polarise further.  The possible benefits are that it might have (a) given a clearer sense that those options were genuinely heard and weighed, (b) enabled the wider church to understand each other better across our divides and (c) allowed those who disagreed with the chosen option to see more clearly why the bishops ended up where they did.  However, aspects of the process and “options” and reasoning can be reconstructed from the report and the legal advice in the Annex.

It would appear that at least the following options were seriously considered by the bishops.

  1. Services for same-sex couples

In relation to services in church there were apparently at least four options considered that could have been followed:

  1. A commended form of pastoral service (42, legal advice paras 7-9)
  2. An authorized form of pastoral service in the context of same-sex relationships (40-41, legal advice paras 7-9)
  3. Allowing clergy to “legally solemnise the marriage of two persons of the same sex” (39)
  4. Allowing civil partnerships to be registered in Church of England places of worship (39).

However, in large part because of the central Anglican principle that liturgy needs to be consistent with doctrine and, it seems, the legal advice offered in relation to this, “the overall view of the House and College of Bishops favoured guidance which stopped short of either Authorized or Commended liturgies” (43).   There is also no proposal to seek a change in the law of the land to allow the last two options (39).

  1. Clergy Conduct

In relation to expectations on clergy the three main areas considered appear to have been:

  1. To allow clergy to enter a same-sex marriage (legal advice, para 13)
  2. To relax the position of Issues that “ordained ministers who wished to continue exercising their ministry” are not able to “choose in conscience to enter a faithful, stable, sexual relationship with someone of the same gender” (44)
  3. To review the questioning of clergy and ordinands in relation to their sexual conduct (44-55).

Here the first option was apparently not accepted (though the legal advice, para 13d, suggests how it could be done without changing Canon B 30).  The second option was also not followed and the logic of Issues is explained and defended against misunderstandings and criticisms (44-50).  However, “the balance of view within the College and House” was that “the prescriptions of Issues regarding questioning of clergy and ordinands was not working well” (54) and so “there should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle” (23).

  1. Other Options?

It may be that other, more conservative options, such as those helpfully set out by Lee Gatiss or rescinding the freedom of clergy to enter civil partnerships were also considered as options by the bishops but rejected.  It is, for example, noted that some bishops “would like to see the sinfulness of any sexually active relationship outside heterosexual marriage more consistently upheld” (56).  It is important to recognise that, despite the reaction from those hoping for change, the option being proposed is far from the most conservative one possible or sought.

Paths Not Taken

What is noteworthy is that in following this path of considering various specific options in relation to doctrine and law the bishops eschewed three other ways of discernment and reporting that they could have pursued and that some in the church perhaps expected after the Shared Conversations:

  1. They could have set out the options for Synod to consider in February before either making a final decision themselves or asking Synod to decide. Instead they have taken the initiative and made clear where, as bishops with oversight, they believe the church should go.  There is an “approach being advocated by the House of Bishops” (67) [although it is also described as “a provisional approach” (26)] in an attempt to “shape a framework for the Church’s continuing process of prayer, reflection and teaching”.  They recognise this means “choosing not to give attention to other possibilities” (27). They are clear that they expect that this framework will still involve “serious and at times painful disagreements” but also that such disagreement within the framework is different from rejecting their proposed framework in whole or in part.  The latter, which is what is sought by those asking Synod to refuse to “take note”, amounts to “seeking to move towards a different conversation” from that they wish the church to continue.
  2. They could have followed the initial step of the 2011 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and decided to signal a desire for the church to follow a trajectory towards full acceptance of committed same-sex relationships in the church. Instead they have clearly eschewed such a polarising framing in terms of choosing between two alternative trajectories. They sought to examine a range of options within the fivefold vision set out earlier and to identify the one they wish to guide us as we move forward after the Shared Conversations.  The negative reactions have been from those who would have preferred a clearer explicit trajectory and are interpreting the report in the light of that.  Those pressing for change to affirm same-sex unions see “proposing no change” in relation to law and doctrine as a rejection of the trajectory taken north of the border. Some of those opposing such change believe “interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it” is encouraging such a trajectory.  The risk is that, as in 2007, the Synod will see an alliance of these two fundamentally opposed groups uniting to reject the bishops’ report.
  3. They could have decided that as the Shared Conversations, including among the bishops, confirmed we were deeply divided as a church there was a need to follow a path of “good disagreement” (a phrase notably missing from the report, although the better “disagreeing Christianly” appears) understood in terms of formally accepting the reality of our diversity in how we expressed our belief and practice within the church. It seems clear that for many pressing for change this was the expectation.  But the bishops show no signs in the report of having considered such a paradigm and their reasons for this are not really explained.  This again is a major factor in such a strong reaction from those who believed this to be what all the talk of “good disagreement” meant. They saw something like this as the outcome to which that “good disagreement” approach in the Shared Conversations inevitably led if their voices – offered in great vulnerability and trust - were genuinely being listened to and heard.  Some even claim, to justify their outrage at the outcome, that they were promised this was the process’ intention despite the often repeated statement that the process of Shared Conversations had no pre-determined outcome.  Referring back to the five elements of the oversight the bishops seek to offer, the rejection of this path perhaps arises from their concern for unity, including within the Anglican Communion, the need for doctrinal coherence, and a desire for a way forward “possible for the Church as a whole to implement with integrity” (21).More seriously, perhaps the bishops realised what many of its advocates seem unwilling to acknowledge: such an approach cannot escape the need for the church as a whole to have a specified doctrinal and legal position and to consider options in relation to that.  Either the current position has to be maintained or, as was done over whether women could be priests and whether clergy could be ordained if in a marriage where there was a surviving spouse from a previous marriage, the law needs to be changed and consideration then given as to how the church relates to those who do not accept that new position.  The options the bishops considered and outlined above were, in effect, a determination of what the church’s doctrine and law would be and what these allowed and they opted for no significant change.

In short, the bishops have considered a range of options and chosen the one fitting closest to the broad framework of the Pilling Report.  This recommended “abiding by the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality” while continuing “to engage openly and honestly and to reflect theologically on the circumstances in which we find ourselves to discern the mind of Christ and what the Spirit is saying to the Church now” (Recommendation 11).

C. Conclusion

If this is a reasonably accurate account of how the bishops ended up with the report they did then, in evaluating it, among the questions raised are:

  • Can this process be recognised and received as a reasonable way of faithfully seeking to do what the bishops sought to do in the exercise of episcopal oversight?
  • Can a plausible case be made that any of the rejected options would have accomplished their goals – particularly the goals of unity and doctrinal coherence and serving the whole church – better than this one?
  • Can any of the options considered and rejected be implemented within the existing doctrine and law or do their advocates acknowledge that they really require a change in doctrine and/or law and that is therefore what they are demanding?
  • Can a convincing case be made that one of the three other paths not followed should have been offered as more faithful to the bishops' vision of what is involved in exercising episcopal oversight?

And, finally, there is the crucial question as to what their proposed solution actually involves and whether this fruit of their work can also be received as offering and securing a faithful and viable way forward for the church after the Shared Conversations.  I hope to consider that in a subsequent article.

2 thoughts on “Giving and Receiving Episcopal Oversight: The Bishops’ Report (GS 2055)”

  1. Clearly, many in the CofE do not trust the bishops, to teach rightly, or to be guided by God. Is it the bishops they distrust? Or God?

    Perhaps it is Article XXI coming to bite us centuries later; or perhaps it is just that some of us are only now realising what Article XXI was always intended mean…

  2. The Bishops’ Statement begins with

    ‘We want to begin by reaffirming the key Christian understanding that all human beings are made in the image of God’.

    But there is no explicit mention of the other great truth about ‘all human beings’ that, as Article 9 puts it, we are all born with a corrupt nature inclined to evil. This omission is unfortunate because this doctrine is an essential context for this whole disagreement.

    Phil Almond

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