In a previous article I explored the rationale and method of episcopal oversight that led to the Report from the House of Bishops on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations” (GS 2055). But what about its substantive proposals? Might they offer us the way forward?
The reactions since the report’s release, most recently the intervention of retired bishops, are not encouraging. The report seeks “to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church” and establish “a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families” (29). Instead it has revealed just how deep our differences are, how powerfully, personally and painfully its subject matter impacts so many people, and the wide range of ultimately irreconcilable hopes and expectations engendered by the Shared Conversations. Some of this may be due to how the report sets out the bishops’ vision and some of its weaknesses noted in my earlier piece. But it appears to be at least as much about what the report proposes (“Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church” (22)) and especially what it explicitly rules out.
The report’s statement in para 26 that there is to be no change to “the Church of England’s existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships” (italics added) lies at the heart of the critical and polarised responses. It has led to the assessment summed up by Andrew Davison that the report offers “a position of complete inflexibility (with better window dressing)” not “a creative accommodation between traditionalists and progressives”. But, as a reading of Canon B 30 (and the 1999 bishops’ teaching on marriage quoted in the legal advice para 9) makes clear, “you cannot detach the Church’s existing law and teaching with regard to marriage from its teaching about sexual relationships” (as Martin Davie has argued). It is not just a matter of “three words” in a report otherwise focussed on marriage as Davison implies. The bishops also say all clergy should understand that the Church’s teaching is that sexual relations are “properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage” (54). This, at least as much as how we define marriage, is the great divide among us. Reaffirming this teaching and expecting clergy, “to expound it with confidence as the Church’s teaching” (61), to be faithful to it “in their own lives and in their ministry to others” (64), and “not directly and publicly undermine” it (65) is why so many are so upset. And yet, realistically, any move away from this would lead to at least as vehement and pained a reaction from evangelicals and other traditionalists here and across the Communion.
This division means that the proposed Teaching Document is going to prove very difficult to agree and will almost inevitably provoke similar strong reactions as this report. Its exact form and content is unclear (and para 34 raises concerns, especially its failure to refer to Scripture). However, many now clearly believe that the church’s teaching it will seek to explain in a “clear and sensitive” way (29) simply cannot communicate welcome and support to the many people inside and outside the church – not just those who identify as LGBT – who are living outside that teaching.
The bishops’ hope is to enable welcome and support through their other main proposed document - “guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples”. This will “permit maximum freedom” (22) within church doctrine and law. There will also likely be much disagreement on the guidance’s content, clarity, precision, status and force. To use various terms from the crucial para 65, one person’s “legitimate diversity” and “freedom” in the writing, interpretation and application of guidance could well prove to be a libertine “undermining” of our “unambiguous position on doctrine” for others. Although “pastoral accommodation”, so prominent in Pilling and Shared Conversation materials, is not used anywhere in the report its principles (discussed in some detail here) will need to be carefully and consistently thought through in the new guidance.
The guidance is likely to focus more on private pastoral care and prayers than public liturgy. This is because “the distinctive relationship between doctrine and public worship in the Church of England…requires that what happens in our services consistently reflects” the Church’s teaching (61). Here the legal advice gives clear constraints. It rules out any form of service which “either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony” (legal advice, 7). Again showing the link between our doctrine of marriage and of sexual relationships it also rules out any service which “implicitly or explicitly” conveys “the idea that the Church was sanctioning or condoning a sexual relationship between” two people whose non-marital relationship was being celebrated (legal advice, 8.c.ii and 9). Such a service would not “edify the people” and probably also be “contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter”. In other words, our teaching in this area is essential, not a matter of adiaphora. That is also why, although the bishops plan to develop new guidance “about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle” (23), it seems clear that it will remain the case that any clergyperson living in a sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage is not fulfilling their ordination vows and thus liable to discipline.
What happens next: The way forward?
On Wednesday the General Synod will decide whether to “take note” of the report. Voting to do so does not signal support for it but many want Synod to refuse to take note.
Conservative reservations about elements of the report, though less prominent, need to be made and heard but joining with those who favour changing church teaching to oppose it is very strange as Martin Davie has argued. To do so would fail to acknowledge that the bishops’ proposal commits the Church of England to biblical and Communion teaching, provides the opportunity for a clear and confident statement of this, supports the approach of creating welcoming and supportive churches, and affirms pastoral freedom for clergy in their ministry within limits set by church teaching. It also fails to consider how the report’s defeat will be portrayed or its likely consequences.
Most of those committed to traditional teaching are therefore likely to be supportive but almost all those seeking change seem unwilling to see what changes they might yet secure through working with the proposal of “maximum freedom”. Assuming there is no objection to “maximum freedom”, this suggests the objection must take one of two forms but it is unclear which one. Is it that the current doctrine and law could and should allow some of the changes explicitly rejected by the bishops and the legal advice and, if so, why is the report wrong? Or is it an objection to not changing either law or doctrine in relation to both marriage and sexual relationships? If, as it seems, it is ultimately the latter then this is the fundamental and irreconcilable (without repentance on at least one side) division within the church. Yet, although the people’s real pain and anger is clear, it is unclear what specific changes to law and doctrine are sought, whether they are achievable at present (as Malcolm Brown has highlighted), or what their implications would be for the church’s unity.
Facing unremitting criticism from some and a fair amount of caution from others, it is clear that if we do attempt the bishops’ proposed way forward the road is far from smooth. We need to name and face the challenges which include at least the following.
First, the bishops are clear “some people will feel unable to accept” their proposal and “will therefore keep seeking to move towards a different conversation that attends to different possibilities” (27). How will the bishops respond if this encompasses almost all who are not personally convinced about the church’s doctrine?
Second, if the doctrine is reaffirmed, what is the place for “good disagreement” (language strikingly missing from the report)? Do we perhaps need to consider instead what it might mean for there to be “good dissent” about church teaching and practice (rather than constant disorderly conflict and ecclesial disobedience)? The hope was that the Shared Conversations would lead to some sort of settlement and a new framework within which we would continue to live with our disagreements at a lower level of conflict and a renewed shared focus on evangelism and mission, even if a minority felt they could not stay in the church. If, in fact, the number of dissenters is significant and they stay and fight by disobeying the bishops' teaching and guidance then at what point, in order to secure greater peace and unity and uphold church teaching, will we need either effective church discipline or the creation of some alternative structures to give space for those unwilling to accept the church’s teaching?
Third, the report’s proposal of “an unambiguous position on doctrine” while “enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice” (65) requires a significant amount of trust. The reactions and declared intentions of some clergy make it very difficult to cultivate the necessary “fundamental trust in the clergy to know and be faithful to the teaching of the Church, in their own lives and in their ministry to others” (64). Paul wrote, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.””. The alternative to this appears a horribly accurate warning of what we risk entering into: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5.13-15).
Fourth, the bishops do not think our continuing disagreements “make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point” or that now is “time to start planning for division” (59, italics added). Responses to the report, however, must unsettle such convictions which will appear very shaky indeed if Synod rejects it. But any alternative involving changing doctrine or abandoning the principle that “what happens in our services” (61) should consistently reflect church teaching would be a major volte-face and lack credibility. It would also result in an equally strong negative reaction from the wider Communion and within the Church of England.
Initial reactions reveal we are still far from “continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church” with some even claiming the report – and the attitude of evangelicals supporting church teaching - reflects a similar approach and outlook to that of the abusive John Smyth. All this sadly suggests that the apparent good fruit of listening in the Shared Conversations has quickly turned bad. It also raises the question whether the theological and practical commitment central to the bishops’ deliberations and essential to finding a way forward is present:
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 (59).
This may now simply prove impossible without structural changes or we may be discovering that, as the Primates’ also acknowledged, our different reactions to the report and its outworking will “create a deeper mistrust between us” and therefore result “in significant distance between us”. But is there really no possibility that the bishops’ framework could contain, even lessen, such pressures to fracture?
If we attempt to work within that framework in good faith through the coming months then, although set within some definite boundaries, there remain major areas to explore and debates to be had. It would be foolish – particularly given the strong reactions against it – to believe the report’s path will prove easy. Even determining how the work will proceed faces major challenges: how will the voices of LGBTI Christians be heard and fully included if they conscientiously reject church teaching and are working towards undermining rather than securing the report’s stated goals? Sufficient agreement may yet prove impossible even if we all try to work within this option. The framework could well prove too broad for some and too narrow for others once work is begun to put flesh on its bones. But personally I find it hard to see how any other way forward could work any better. If, therefore, we are committed to the apostolic call in Ephesians 4 then we surely must try to move through the polarisation, pain and polemics immediately engendered by the report during the last fortnight. If we cannot even at least try out its framework, how else can we seek to be biblical and “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”?