Last week, the four bishops in the Diocese of Oxford circulated an Ad Clerum (‘to the clergy’) to all licensed ministers in the diocese; the text can be found on Steven Croft’s diocesan blog. There is no doubt that the letter includes comments with which everyone in the Church could and should agree. As Will Pearson-Gee, Rector of Buckingham, says in the (expanded) online edition of the Church Times report:
I welcome everything in the letter that helps our churches be more genuinely welcoming places for all people. I also welcome the way in which the bishops are careful to make the point that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity should inhibit anyone from playing a full part in the life of the church.
But I think there are some ambiguities, omissions and even contradictions in the letter which will raise some questions, and I suspect for some (within the diocese and outside it) wonder if it is giving an honest view of what is really intended.
The first term which was unclear was the offering of the reflections of the letter ‘with humility’. I am not sure what it means for bishops to write to their clergy and lay ministers ‘with humility’ when those reading the letter hold the diocesan bishop’s license. Is this letter inviting discussion, debate or disagreement? To someone outside the diocese, I confess it didn’t read like a discussion document, not least because it sets out specific actions and principles which are to be acted on. And in what sense is humility expressed in echoing the Archbishops’ call for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’? Was Jesus not ‘radically inclusive’ in his preaching of the kingdom of God? And Paul not ‘radically inclusive’ in seeing those ‘excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise’ now ‘reconciled’ with Jews ‘in one body by the cross’ (Eph 2.12, 16) so that there is now ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3.28)? As David Baker helpfully commented last year:
You see, the thing is, I’ve always thought the gospel was radically inclusive already. I’ve always believed that ‘the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’ – as the famous hymn puts it. And when I look back on churches of which I have been a part, I recall them including paedophiles, an associate of the Kray twins, pornography addicts, adulterers – and others, including myself, whose middle class respectability masked sins which might have been less obvious but were equally heart-breaking to God. We, together, were vile offenders (in the eyes of God’s law if not of the world) who chose to repent and believe. And gloriously, all of us were welcomed and included! When you add in the mind-blowing mix of age, ethnicity and background as well, that seems pretty inclusive already.
If the Church has failed to reflect the inclusion of Jesus and Paul, don’t we need to return to this, rather than look for a ‘new’ inclusion? What kind of humility seeks to set this aside? And will the humility here extend to giving space in the diocese and the discussion for those who think the direction the bishops are leading is quite wrong?
The second interesting comment was that ‘remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well’. Of course, not all in the Diocese of Oxford have actually been keeping silent. But this comment is correct on one regard: the (often shrill) exchange of views on social media and in Synod debates has actually led to a silencing of helpful discussion in the Church at every level. Local church leaders often feel ill-equipped—afraid even—of speaking or teaching on the subject of sexuality, given the complexity of the issues, the rapidity of change in culture, and the ease with which many will take offence. I wonder if the four bishops have colluded in this silence—or whether they might have been expounding the way in which Christian teaching on sexuality offers liberating hope within a culture which is endlessly sexualised.
Have they been teaching about the inherent goodness of the body and sexuality when received as a gift from the creator God? About the impact of the fall and human sin in distorting this most powerful of human desires? About God’s gift of male-female marriage as the safe place for this desire’s fruitful exercise? About the importance of faithful marriage as the place to raise children and provide lifelong support? About the possibility of forgiveness, healing and restoration when things go wrong in this arena of life? About the fact that sex and marriage is not the ‘be all and end all’, and the possibility of living a full and rich life in singleness and celibacy? About the merely penultimate importance of sexuality, since we will in the age to come ‘be like the angels’? To be silent on this rich and culturally relevant stream of Christian teaching would indeed be a serious failure.
The letter then makes mention of the Pilling Report from 2013, and jumps on to the report of the House of Bishops which was not ‘taken note of’ by General Synod in February 2017. It oddly omits to mention the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage of Feb 2014 which set out so clearly the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, consistently articulated all the way back to the BCP and reinforced in all subsequent statements.
It is interesting that the letter repeatedly uses the acronym ‘LGBTI+’ without commenting on some of the problems that might arise from the grouping together of some quite different concerns (gay atheist Matthew Parris doesn’t like it: ‘This community does not exist. The bolting together of dissimilar groups distorts understanding. LGBT isn’t a club I’m in.’) The letter is quite right to point out that ‘LGBTI+ Christians have always been, and remain, actively involved as clergy and laity in all areas of church life, and at all levels’, but this raises a further question. The best research suggests that around 1.5% to 2% of the population experienced settled attraction to those of the same sex, and the most recent statistics on same-sex marriage since the 2013 Equality in Marriage Act confirm this. But the proportion in the C of E appears to be much higher. Some have suggested that as many as 10% of Anglican clergy are gay; a friend told me that they reckoned the figure was 20% in the London area; in Southwark one clergyperson told me that in a deanery of 15, only 5 were not gay. (The C of E is in this regard in line with other institutions; the BBC recently reported that 12% of its senior management were LGBT+, as are just under 9% of MPs in Parliament.)
So why does the letter echo the Bishop of Lichfield’s call ‘to highlight the need for mission within the LGBTI+ community more broadly’. Why the need to set up specialist chaplaincies to support this? Of course, the Church’s current teaching is seen as offensive to those, within and outside the Church, lobbying for change. But the Church does not appear to have failed to draw those people into membership. With what other minority group has there been such numerical success? Where are the similar chaplaincies, the mission imperatives, for reaching BAME people, woefully under-represented? What about the national initiatives to engage with white working-class men?
Despite this, the letter makes repeated reference to ‘inclusion’, even though that term is either theologically empty or practically meaningless; every definition of what it means to be ‘inclusive’ will exclude those who do not accept the definition. This was seen in practice in the diocese recently, with the ‘Rainbow eucharist’ at Reading Minster. I am not alone in thinking that I could not receive Communion around a table draped with the symbol of Gay Pride, and we need to ask what is happening when the central symbol of Christian belief, the central place of Christian unity, becomes hitched to a particular sexual-political cause. It begs the question what the phrase ‘having a place at the table’ means. The Communion table is a place of radical hospitality, for any and all who ‘earnestly repent’ and seek to follow the way of Christ, but it is not a social club. Jesus did indeed accept any invitation to dinner, because he was invited by those who knew his message was not to the ‘well’, but to the sick, to call ‘sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32). (The only meal at which Jesus acted as host was the Last Supper, a meal to which that mixed and motley crowd of those who had responded to his invitation to ‘Come, follow me’ were welcomed.)
I wonder whether the ‘attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people across the Diocese’ will mean giving a prominent seat at the table to people like Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s in Oxford, with a significant ministry to students and young people (whom the C of E is particularly keen to reach) and who is same-sex attracted and celibate in line with the Church’s teaching?
The Ad Clerum questions whether LGBTI+ can be ‘open[ly] and authentically themselves’, which begs a whole series of questions about what it means to be ‘authentic’ and ‘myself’. Again, along with the Bishop of Lichfield, the bishops here reject ‘intrusive questioning’. But what do they mean by this? Do they agree with Richard Peers when he implies that most gay clergy either are not able to stay faithful to the ‘assurance’ they have given that they are living within the Church’s teaching, or in fact never intended to in the first place? I agree with Richard that the current policy is untenable, and pastoral both unfair and unhelpful, and the Oxford bishops seems to agree—so will they do the only thing that is possible within the Church’s current teaching and not license those in Civil Partnerships? Or will they take one of the other options? If so, what does it mean when they say that they will continue to ‘work within existing Bishop’s Guidelines on human sexuality’ when those guidelines require the ‘intrusive questioning’ that they reject?
And does ‘being authentic’ mean that we should all act on our desires and impulses? Jayne Ozanne, a prominent campaigner on this issue who is a lay member of General Synod for the diocese, poured scorn in a Tweet on the notion of ‘practising’ and ‘non-practising’, as if it was possible not to act on the basis of one’s attractions. Do the bishops accept this? If so, this drives a cart and horses through some central ideas in Christian theological anthropology—issues of desire, sin, temptation, discipline, and the Pauline distinction between Spirit and flesh. In practice, it means acting on a whole range of desires, and it is not surprising that Jayne and Vicky Beeching both advocate sexual relationships well outside lifelong committed relationships in their recent books. Again, this is characteristic of their position; Mark Regnerus has shown that, taken as a whole, Christians who accept same-sex marriage are ethically indistinguishable from the culture around them on a range of other issues. Biblical scholar Dale Martin, who is often cited in debates about the meaning of the Pauline texts, talked in 2008 about his wide personal sexual experiences, and argued that a Christian sexual ethic is one in which you should have sex with people in the way that reflects your level of commitment to them. Nadia Bolz-Weber has recently argued for the Christian use of ethical porn, because it is an authentic expression of erotic feelings.
The bishops believe ‘It is important that these debates should be grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition’, but that isn’t the historical Anglican position, which sees Scripture as having supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. Indeed, a previous Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, specifically rejected the popular notion of the ‘three-legged stool’ when introducing the debate to Synod of the excellent Some Issues in Human Sexuality; follower Hooker, he pointed out that Scripture is our authority, but we read it through the interpretative lenses of ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’.
Taken at its most positive, that is why we have been involved in the exhaustive/ing process of Shared Conversations, and have now embarked on the process known as ‘Living in Love and Faith’, including the setting up of the Pastoral Advisory Group. But it seems that the bishops in Oxford can no longer wait for that to happen. They might want to ‘clothe themselves in love’ but this version of love doesn’t include enough patience to wait for others to catch up with their views.
Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short term for the benefit of this Diocese.
Andrew Lightbown welcomes this “highly incarnational, non dogmatic, method of doing theology…this method of ‘doing theology’ is unlikely to lead to a ‘single universal ethic.’” But the letter seems unaware of the problems facing such pragmatism, which would have been experienced had the Hereford motion been taken further, and I think has been dogging the Pastoral Advisory Group: if pastoral practice is to have any integrity, it must be connected to liturgical coherence and doctrine grounding. If you do not believe that same-sex sexual relationships are ‘a gift of God in creation, a holy way of living, which all should honour’ (and current C of E doctrine of marriage does not currently so believe) then you cannot ‘bless’ such things. The pastoral act of blessing demands that we change our doctrine of marriage. So to argue for a ‘non-dogmatic’ pastoral practice here means believing that there is no universal Christian doctrine of marriage.
The bishops appear here to be following the lead of The Episcopal Church in the United States, which others in the Anglican Communion believed tore the fabric of the Communion and damaged relations, since TEC effectively said ‘We are going to do what we are going to do, and not be hindered by the views of others’. I think the citing of the Church in Wales in the Ad Clerum is highly provocative in this regard, since the bishops there have decided to offer provision for blessing SSM even where their Synod held back. It seems that the bishops regards Christian unity, both within the diocese and between other dioceses and wider Church of England teaching as secondary to their desire to do something. Once more, it is hardly a position which reflects ‘humility’ or ‘some hesitation’.
The whole letter invites the question: ‘Do any of these bishops actually believe in the Church of England’s current teaching on marriage, teaching which, in their ordination vows, they committed not only to uphold, but to teach?’ It is difficult to offer any other answer than ‘No’, and this in turn invites the question of how they expect those who do believe this teaching to respond.
My final curiosity was the framing of the letter in the reading of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. A central theme in Colossians is that, though there are other forces at work in the cosmos, other spiritual powers and ‘elements’ (probably borrowing Stoic metaphysical language here), Christ is cosmically supreme. That means, in turn, that God’s people, those who follow Jesus, are to live out their identity as a holy people, socially engaged in, though ethical and theological distinct from, the world around them.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (1.13–14)
That will involve being discerning, rejecting attractive but misleading arguments:
I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine–sounding arguments…See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (2.4–8)
And Paul attaches such discernment directly to the person of Jesus and our discipleship following him. And, in typically Pauline fashion, he then sees the work of the Spirit in forming us in ethical living as a counterpoint to our previous lives, sinful desire and the world around us:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practice and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (3.5–14)
I confess that I searched the Ad Clerum in vain for any clue that any of this teaching of Paul had shaped any of the thinking that the bishops presented—and since Paul explicitly mentions sexual ethics here, you might have expected at least some reference to it. For Paul, the inclusive love of God, and our love for one another, are rooted in this transformation and call to holiness that we have met in the face of Christ. The unity of love flows out of this shared understanding of what God has done for us in Christ, and what we therefore have to offer the world.
The bishops don’t appear to set much store by unity; their agenda takes priority. Holiness doesn’t get a mention; what matters is being ‘authentic’. The wider view of Christians through history and around the world on this matter cannot hold back their sense of urgency to change. And the apostolic message we find in Paul does not constrain them or shape their thinking, at least as far as this letter demonstrates.
If they are signalling here that they are departing from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, why would anyone in the diocese who remains part of that church not now seek alternative episcopal oversight? Indeed, one might wonder whether the letter is not intended to provoke just that.
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