Well, the time has come. The long-awaited (and much leaked) statement from the House of Bishops after the exhausting process of Living in Love and Faith has at least been made public. Before diving into the details, it is worth noting the questions that most people have as they read.
- Will there be any proposal to revise the Church’s doctrine of marriage?
- Will clergy be able to enter same-sex marriages?
- Will there be any change to the questions asked in vocational processes? In particular, will reference to Issues in Human Sexuality be ended?
- Will there be the possibility of formally blessing same-sex marriages?
- If any of the above change from past practice, will there be a clear, theological rationale offered?
- Will the different responses to any of the above cohere with each other?
- Will bishops in their dioceses act with integrity to the questions asked above?
The latter has become an important question in the light of the way that some have spoken publicly since the leak of what was going to be proposed—and this, along with the actual press statement issued to fill the speculative gap between Wednesday and today (Friday) have all served to muddy the water and invite people to make great proclamations before seeing the actual proposal from the House of Bishops.
So, what does it actually say? Before jumping to my summary (which you can scroll down to below), I simply highlight some comments in the report as they occur.
‘In this letter bishops describe their shared commitment to welcoming, accepting and affirming every person in Christ, while acknowledging their continued disagreement about same-sex relationships. They express their shared desire to find a way of walking together in Christ.’ This statement completely merges the welcome we give to all people, with the affirmation of ethical decisions and moral issues. In this sense, it is completely obfuscating. The commitment to ‘walk together’ suggests that institutional unity is more important than the need to discern truth and error, something that the bishops actually commit to in their ordination vows.
‘and are united in expressing their grief and apologising for the way that many LGBTQI+ people have been treated by the Church, causing pain and harm…’ The question is, what is the apology for? One of the (few) gains in the LLF process has been a greater care in the language about, attitude to, and reception of gay people in the Church. But is following the teaching of Jesus, that marriage is between one man and one woman, an act of ‘exclusion’ for which we must apologise? There is a widespread view ‘out there’ that the answer is ‘yes’; so without a change in doctrine this apology will sound shallow and insincere.
‘Bishops joyfully affirm, and want to acknowledge in church, stable, committed relationships between two people – including same-sex relationships.’ How can this be done when the doctrine of the Church on marriage is that sexual intimacy outside of male-female marriage is sinful? What does this statement even mean?
‘The draft prayers…they will be commended to the Church under what is permitted by Canon B5, and will not contradict the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony, as articulated in Canon B30.’ But even a brief glance at the prayers, and the introduction to them, show that this is manifestly not true. Calling black white does not make it so; claiming that the prayers are compatible with the doctrine of marriage like this is going to convince no-one.
‘It is envisaged that these resources can be used flexibly, thus anticipating not just the varied pastoral situations a parish priest may encounter, but also the different convictions clergy may have. Some clergy might choose to use all the resources to dedicate, give thanks for, and pray God’s blessing on two people in an exclusive committed relationship.’ What does ‘different convictions’ mean? Does it now mean that assent to the Church’s doctrine of marriage is now optional? How is that coherent? How does it not undermine ordination vows?
‘Bishops have also agreed that the conversations about these, and related matters, need to continue in a spirit of love and grace.’ So debate and dispute are to continue through more exhausting years? How on earth is this a good idea?
‘We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong.’ So the question here is, are Jesus’ hard sayings part of ‘God loving us’? Is his teaching on marriage as between one man and one woman, the current doctrine of the Church, not loving? More basically, is Jesus’ central call in his preaching, to ‘repent and believe’, loving? Once more, all the issues of welcome, kindness, and actually teaching are conflated and confused.
‘We have studied the Scriptures, paid attention to the Church’s tradition and listened to wider society, as well as to the voices of our sister churches in the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners.’ The scriptures don’t appear to have played much part here; the majority of the Anglican Communion will reject this proposal and the Communion will fracture. So what does ‘listening’ actually mean here?
‘We have diverse convictions about sexuality and marriage.’ That can only be interpreted as meaning, some bishops believe in the doctrine of the Church on marriage, and others do not. How can that be a healthy position to be in? Has personal decision now triumphed over catholic theological obedience? How does that square with ordination vows to receive, uphold, teach and pass on the faith entire?
Repeated occurrences of ‘the radical new Christian inclusion’: this is an empty phrase, which remains completely unexplored. How can it be ‘radical and new’ if it is rooted in Scripture?
‘This resource will offer clergy a variety of flexible ways to affirm and celebrate same-sex couples in church, and will include prayers of dedication, thanksgiving and for God’s blessing.’ The doctrine of the Church is that such sexual same-sex relationships are sinful, and any sexual relationship outside male-female marriage is to be met with a call to repentance. So how is this statement compatible with current doctrine? It is claimed that there is ‘Legal Advice’ on p22—but all that is offered is a bland statement, without any exploration whatever. These things are manifestly contradictory, even to the ordinary reader. And what about other forms of sexual relationship outside marriage? Can these too be ‘affirmed and celebrated’?
‘These Prayers of Love and Faith will not be the same as conducting a marriage in church. They will not alter the Church of England’s celebration of Holy Matrimony, which remains the lifelong union of one man and one woman, as set forth in its canons and authorised liturgies.’ Except that, using existing prayers, and praying over rings, looks exactly like conducting a marriage. So it does indeed alter the Church’s celebration.
‘We respect and share these differences, maintaining that within the theological diversity we represent.’ If some people believe the doctrine of the Church, and others don’t, this is not ‘diversity’, it is contradiction, incoherence, and disunity.
The same can be said for the statement on the next page: ‘we interpret the Bible differently and have come to different conclusions about numerous matters, including what it has to say about gender, relationships and marriage.’ This is not, as claimed, a ‘compromise’; it is complete incoherence.
Prayers of Love and Faith
‘The positive aspects of marriage – stability, faithfulness and fruitfulness – mean that it is identified as a special, specific way of life which brings together the ‘goods’ needed for flourishing, or blessing. It does not mean that no other way of life can do so, but that this particular configuration of life is recognised as a source of blessing. The preface to the BCP takes this further by hinting at a sacramental quality in marriage.’
This comment is extraordinary in its incoherence. The doctrine of marriage in the BCP, the formularies, the wider consensus of the church catholic, rooted in the clear teaching of scripture precisely does mean that this is the only place for sexual intimacy. We know this, because the bishops have said precisely this in their previous teaching! Yet there is no hint in this document that there was in fact any previous teaching, let alone any engagement with it, or explanation of why it is no longer valid. Here is the statement from 2005 in the light of the introduction of civil partnerships:
The Church of England’s teaching is classically summarised in The Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage service lists the causes for which marriage was ordained, namely: ‘for the procreation of children, …for a remedy against sin [and]…. for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’ In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively” (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings.
And here is confirmation of this from 2014, when same-sex marriages were made law:
21. The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.
The new statement airily brushes these aside without so much as a mention.
‘How far does the biblical metaphor of Christ and the church control our theology of marriage, and does the difference between Christ and church map out against sex difference between bride and groom? Would moving away from sexual differentiation as essential constitute a fundamental change, or would it be an extension of the present doctrine, to include a wider category of people? These are questions about which we have not yet reached a consensus.’ If that is the case, then I do not know what the bishops have been reading. Amongst biblical scholars and many other thinkers, there is a very clear consensus: marriage in scripture is between a man and a woman, and sex difference is essential to that. That is why liberal scholars who speak with integrity are happy to say that they simply reject scripture. I offer a longer list here, but one example will suffice here:
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good (Luke Timothy Johnson).
The statement is indeed clearly appealing to ‘another authority’; the difference is that it appears to lacks the ‘intellectual honesty’ to admit this.
‘Some may wish to use the service for dedication and thanksgiving, and others for dedication and blessing.’ Since blessing a sexual relationship that is not marriage between one man and one woman contradicts the doctrine of marriage, this appears to be saying that it is optional for clergy to uphold the doctrine of the Church. That completely undermines their ordination vows.
‘To ask for God’s blessing is to express an intention to walk with God and put God at the centre of what we do and how we relate. Our prayers ask for God’s blessing – they are prayers, not pronouncements. God will answer as God chooses.’ This is arrant nonsense, and fails to engage at all with the biblical and theological understanding of blessing. It is clear from scripture that we cannot bless that which God does not.
‘In Scripture, blessing is given to people rather than things, actions or ways of life. There are, two exceptions: the Sabbath is blessed and in the New Testament, bread is blessed before eating.’ This shows rather astonishing ignorance of biblical texts. Whatever you end up believing about Communion, there is simply no doubt that when Jesus ‘takes bread and blesses’, he is blessing (ie thanking) God, not the bread. You have to be completely ignorant of the historical context of the NT, Jewish practices, and Greek grammar not to realise this.
‘This distinction between Holy Matrimony and civil marriage now means that all couples who enter a civil marriage are obtaining a civil status (which has always been the case); but they are not necessarily entering a marriage as understood by the Church of England (i.e. Holy Matrimony).’ Again, this is obviously nonsense. If a couple enter a same-sex marriage, then they are entering a sexual relationship which is not marriage according to the Church, so it is (according to current doctrine) sinful. If this distinction really pertained, then we would treat all civilly married couples as cohabiting.
‘While not explicitly stated in the Church’s Canons, for many years the church has taught that the only rightful place for sexual activity is marriage. There is disagreement in the Church about how this applies in our culture today. The reality within which the Church now lives is that couples inhabit their relationships differently.’ Why does ‘people living differently’ imply that such arrangements are holy and to be commended? This is a bizarre claim.
Towards new pastoral resources
‘In the meantime, bishops continue to be asked to respond to pastoral situations for which there is currently no clear guidance in the Church of England.’ The reason for this is that, in the ten or more years that we have been debating these issues, the House of Bishops has failed to engage with the most basic of questions, such as ‘If a married man legally transitions, is he still married? If so, is that because he is still a man, or because we have sanctioned same-sex marriage?’ If those most basic pastoral and theological issues have not been explored, no wonder we are at a loss.
‘Jesus calls us into relationship with him and into different kinds of relationships with each other.’ I just have no idea what this means. That all patterns of relationship are equally holy? That they are equally to be commended?
‘It will be vital for the widest range of voices to be heard‘ in replacing Issues in Human Sexuality. Why? And where is a single mention of either biblical theology or the obligations of clergy in the light of their ordination vows?
‘Agreement and affirmation of the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered faithful and holy.’ Why is this up for discussion? Why isn’t it simply drawing on the Church’s doctrine of marriage, and the myriad of previous statements by the House of Bishops?
‘Principles for living well together as a Church with diversity and difference.’ Why is theological diversity here assumed to be a virtue? How does this square with the Church having any doctrine at all on anything?
‘How to help with navigating different views held within the Church on questions of sexuality especially in delivering relationships and sex education.’ So the Church of England no longer has a theological view which children need to hear of, learn about, and understand in order to protect them from the damaging forces in contemporary culture?
Areas for development
‘At the heart of Christianity is the incarnation.’ No: at the heart of Christianity is creation, human sin, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and eschatological hope. None of these feature anywhere in this document as far as I can see. Quite astonishing.
‘The tradition of honouring those who embrace this way of life [chastity and celibacy] in the church goes back to New Testament times, but it can look like a puzzle or even a scandal in a contemporary society where freedom for sexual expression is readily aligned with personal fulfilment, though we recognise the negative effects of some aspects of this tradition.’ This is a woefully inadequate comment on the centrality of chastity. From this you would never guess that our society has become highly sexualised, that this is a pastoral and theological problem, or that Jesus and Paul were single.
‘The area of attention we have identified here is about what wisdom the Church may have to share about living well in everyday faithful relationships, whether same-sex or opposite sex, married or not married.’ It is extraordinary that this approach appears to reduce the issue to a question of pragmatic situation ethics, rather than exploring a critique of actual patterns and forms of relationships. It is as if the writer has forgotten that Christians ever had anything to say about this.
Conclusion and Consequences
The list above is long enough, though there is more that could be said, and no doubt will be others. But this is enough to make some observations about what this represents.
First, those writing this statement (and so perhaps those agreeing it?) appear to have abandoned any need to offer something coherent. The different elements of the document are so manifestly contradictory that I found the piece astonishing. Is this where we have got to as a Church?
Secondly, there is simply no attempt to acknowledge, let alone engage with, developed, theologically rooted, statements from the past. Despite all the hours spent in the LLF discussions, it appears as though the bishops feel able to magic something new out of thin air, and give no account whatever as to why their thinking has changed.
Third, the engagement with scripture is just woeful. Simplistic, proof-text ideas are plucked out of context. The citation of Ruth and Naomi as a possible model for same-sex sexual relating is a low point amongst low points.
Fourth, there is no attempt to justify the notion of ‘diversity of views’ in relation to the idea that the Church might actually believe in something in the form of doctrine.
Fifthly, and related, it appears to assume that it is optional for clergy to uphold and teach the doctrine of the Church, and fashion their lives according to it. This seems entirely at odds with their ordination vows.
Sixthly, there seems to be no engagement with the wider church catholic, with the teachings of the early church on sexual ethics and why they were important, with the views of the majority of Christians in the world today, or the majority view of the Anglican Communion.
Finally, there is a complete lack of critique of our contemporary culture, the sexualisation of identity, and the damage that this is doing.
I realise that, having posed a coherent set of questions at the beginning, I have not offered a coherent reply. That is because this document offers none. I cannot see that it really offers any coherent answer to any of those important questions.
What will be the consequences of this statement?
It is difficult to know how different groups in the Church will respond to this. Justin Welby has said (at the press conference) that he himself will not use these prayers, in light of his role in the Anglican Communion—but that will make no difference at all. This will be the last straw, and the complete break-up of the Communion, which began to happen at the Lambeth Conference in the summer, will surely follow swiftly.
There is likely to be a parallel break-up of the Church of England, though it is difficult to say what form that will take. Justin has used the same language of ‘diversity of views’ about the C of E as he used last summer about the Communion. The difference is that, in the Communion, there are already distinct canonical jurisdictions, so such diversity is, in theory, possible. But how can the C of E hang together if believing in the doctrine of the Church becomes optional? This document is quite literally an invitation for everyone to ‘do what is right in his (or her) own eyes.’
This will very quickly have implications for diocesan finances. Already under severe pressure, many will find the loss of contributions of even a few of the larger, orthodox churches will be a last straw.
And this in turn will have implications for numerical growth and engagement with young people. It is already the case that young people attending Church of England churches mostly attend those who uphold historic Christian teaching in this area, even if they are not yet consistently convinced of it. But as more and more people see the damage that gender identity ideology is doing, more will be looking for a radical alternative. The same is true outside the CofE. Those denominations (Methodists, URC) that have changed their doctrine have few young people; those that haven’t (Vineyard, FIEC, many Baptists, most black-led churches) are the ones young people attend.
Unless something drastic happens, it is hard to see anything other than a widespread collapse of diocesan and parish structures happening over the next five to ten years.
Regular readers will know that I have hosted plenty of commentary on this issue, and all the articles can be found under the Sexuality tab. (It is worth noting, though, that 90% of what I publish is on other issues.)
Three other resources seem pertinent at the moment. The first is the statement written by Cardinal Ratzinger back in 1986, which included this prescient paragraph:
14. With this in mind, this Congregation wishes to ask the Bishops to be especially cautious of any programmes which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so. A careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful. For example, they may present the teaching of the Magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience. Its specific authority is not recognized. Some of these groups will use the word “Catholic” to describe either the organization or its intended members, yet they do not defend and promote the teaching of the Magisterium; indeed, they even openly attack it. While their members may claim a desire to conform their lives to the teaching of Jesus, in fact they abandon the teaching of his Church. This contradictory action should not have the support of the Bishops in any way.
The second is also a Catholic resource, and also from some years ago, though reflecting on the Jewish heritage of sexual ethics which the followers of Jesus continued:
To a world which divided human sexuality between penetrator and penetrated, Judaism said, “You are wrong — sexuality is to be divided between male and female.” To a world which saw women as baby producers unworthy of romantic and sexual attention, Judaism said “You are wrong — women must be the sole focus of men’s erotic love.” To a world which said that sensual feelings and physical beauty were life’s supreme goods, Judaism said, “You are wrong — ethics and holiness are the supreme goods.” A thousand years before Roman emperors kept naked boys, Jewish kings were commanded to write and keep a sefer torah, a book of the Torah…
The bedrock of this civilization, and of Jewish life, has been the centrality and purity of family life. But the family is not a natural unit so much as it is a value that must be cultivated and protected. The Greeks assaulted the family in the name of beauty and Eros. The Marxists assaulted the family in the name of progress. And today, gay liberation assaults it in the name of compassion and equality. I understand why gays would do this. Life has been miserable for many of them. What I have not understood was why Jews or Christians would join the assault. I do now. They do not know what is at stake. At stake is our civilization.
Finally, I found this vigorous defence of the historic teaching of the Church—still, it seems, the doctrine of the C of E in name at least—from my deanery colleague Dr Jamie Franklin, helpful and refreshing. I hope you will too.