On 23rd January, the House of Bishops made a statement on marriage and same sex relationships following its reflection on the 3 year Shared Conversations process in the Church of England. Predictably (and indeed, the document itself predicts it), no-one is very happy with it, though those on the conservative side are happier than those on the liberal side. The broadbrush interpretation of the statement would be “no change in the Church’s official position, but a willingness to allow ‘maximum freedom’ to express the diversity of practices and understandings within the church without actually changing anything.”
This is a huge disappointment to many, particularly LGBTI+ Anglicans who have contributed to the Shared Conversations (often at considerable cost) in the hope that they would bring about change. (Jayne Ozanne describes it as ‘unbelievable, unacceptable and ungodly’). The harsh reality is that change comes slowly in the Church of England, if at all. I have studied all the church’s various statements on sexuality since Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment in 1956. There has been no change to the basic doctrinal and legal position of the church in any of them. It was never likely that there would be in this one. However, there have been significant changes of emphasis, tone, and suggestions for future action in each of them. Some of these have had far-reaching effects, the fruits of which are apparent in this document (witness the attempt here to ‘correct’ one of the widely-recognised problems created by Issues in Human Sexuality, which introduced a distinction in the church’s expectations of sexual behaviour between its lay and ordained members). It’s in the detail rather than the big picture that the significance of this statement lies. I want to make a few general observations about that detail, because I think they help in understanding what this statement is actually saying.
- This is a self-consciously limited document. It is not primarily a theological statement, but a procedural and political (in the most positive sense of the term) one – a description of what the House of Bishops has done and what they would like to do next. It presents its practical recommendations as recommendations, not as an executive fiat. These are recommendations that express the view of a majority (explicitly not all) of the House of Bishops (para 17, 56 & 57). They are presented to General Synod as a considered political judgement as to where it would be constructive for Synod to focus its efforts over the coming months, given that movement on other areas is unlikely to be fruitful (para 21, 25-27). The explicitness with which it acknowledges the disagreement within the House of Bishops over the issue is almost unprecedented, and this is significant in itself (para 17, 56). There is no attempt being made to suggest all the bishops welcome the statement as a clear expression of their position.
It’s worth noting that Bishop Paul Bayes (who has been public about his own liberal stance on the issue) has echoed this perspective (that the statement must be understood as a political one, an exercise in ‘the art of the possible’) in his blog post where he quotes the words of Bishop Peter Selby: ‘Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is.’ (My emphasis).
- This is not an end to the process of discernment. The statement is explicitly not drawing to an end the process begun by the Shared Conversations, but seeking to continue to ‘walk together’ (para 59). It is explicitly acknowledging the divisions within faithful members of the church in this area. It sees Anglicanism as essentially a contested tradition, which holds together those with differing convictions and not a ‘pure church’ (para 8). It commits the church to continuing to walk together towards an unknown future:
Finally, Anglican theology has been marked historically by a certain reserve. One element in this is a sense of provisionality, of knowing only in part (cf. 1 Cor. 13.9). God gives us the wisdom we need for the situation that faces us today, and that is what we should ask for, without doubting or double-mindedness (James 1.5–8). We are seeking to discern the right next steps, not be sure about the end of the road. (para 66)
It suggests that the bishops have made a political judgement that the degree of disagreement within the church at present (including within the House of Bishops) makes change to the doctrinal position of the church (and the understanding of Marriage as being between a man and a woman has explicitly been presented as a doctrinal position) impossible at this time for the Church of England without causing the sort of schism they would seek to avoid. The inclusion of the legal advice provided to the House of Bishops as to their options as an appendix shows all the options that were on the table. They are clearly wanting to signal that a wide variety of responses have been considered. They are not saying that this is an end to the discussion.
- One of the key principles being affirmed throughout, within the context of the recognition of faithful dissent, is a refusal of too detailed a centralised response being imposed in regard to these issues, in order to allow legitimate freedom of expression at a local level, within the established legal framework, with appropriate protection for clergy making these judgements (para 4, 43, 64, 65). There is an emphasis on the need to trust local clergy as those best able to judge how to express the mission and ministry of the church in their context. The document as a whole is remarkably robust in its disavowing of the exercise of centralised power to ‘solve’ issues (and interestingly the use of the scare quotes for the language of ‘solutions’ in this area is in the statement itself – para 9).
The Statement can be found here.
I will blog again to address the statement’s recommendations in more detail, but these are my initial impressions. Other perspectives can be found here:
Ian Paul (giving a ‘traditionalist’ response)
Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (giving a ‘liberal’ response)
Michael Sadgrove (retired Dean of Durham, giving a more liberal response)
+Paul Bayes (giving the perspective of a liberal bishop)