Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Bishops' Report on Same-Sex Relationships

What can I say about the House of Bishops' long awaited report published yesterday, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations?

I share the sense of disappointment expressed by many (not only gay Christians) who have taken to social media in the past hours. We had dared to hope that the bishops would be more courageous, less risk averse. After the careful shared conversations about human sexuality across the country, after all the emphasis on listening to the experience of gay people, we had glimpsed the possibility of genuine progress in the theological and ethical understanding of same-sex relationships. We had looked for a new liturgical and pastoral practice that would recognise our LGBT friends and colleagues as beloved sisters and brothers. We had longed to celebrate their full participation as clergy and laity in the life of the church.

We hoped for these things, not as a matter of expediency or political correctness, but because we believed they were right in principle. That's to say, right as a matter of good biblical interpretation, good theology, good science, good morality and good pastoral awareness, not to mention a sense of history, an awareness of culture and a longing for justice. I've argued the case for committed, covenanted same-sex relationships in a number of blogs here, here, here and here. I don't know that I have much to add. 

So why blog yet again on this subject? With feelings running high and the prospect of a febrile debate in the General Synod next month, I don't want to raise the temperature. But here are some thoughts on where we are as a national church just now.

It's clear that the bishops were not agreed about what line the statement should take. Whatever reservations we have about the report, it's refreshing to see this recognised. (It's tempting to infer that the debate may have been sharp at times: the online text of the report I have in front of me speaks of "the conclusion of the Shard Conversations" (para 26).) So because there was a spectrum of views in the House of Bishops, their approach is described as "provisional". 

Nevertheless there is nothing provisional in the principal recommendation for the way forward. This is that there should be "no change to ecclesiastical law or the C of E's existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships". The status quo is unambiguously retained. So many hopes dashed at a stroke. Is it worth reading any further? Well yes, out of fairness to the bishops who ask that their report is read as an entirety. So even if it's with a heavy heart, let's proceed. 

The Bishops want to commission new work in four areas: (a) establishing "a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support" for LGBT people; (b) producing "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships"; (c) giving clear "guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision  for same sex couples" and (d) providing new guidance "about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle". These are the themes they particularly draw to the attention of the General Synod when it debates the report in February. I want to comment on them in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear.


(a) Questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle (paras 44-55)
This may seem a small point compared to the first three, but it isn't. It betrays an attitude in the church that should seriously worry us. I mean the prurience that needs to scrutinise the mores and sexual habits of the church's office-holders. It's true, as the bishops argue, that the clergy by virtue of their public role are "exemplary disciples". The ordinal does indeed spell this out. But there is a very Anglican reticence about probing too deeply into personal lives, in Elizabeth I's great phrase, "making windows on to men's souls". In any other profession such scrutiny would be both unacceptable and illegal. It makes no difference that this will now be applied to all ministers, not just gay clergy. When I was ordained, my bishop and I spoke candidly during the retreat. But while he stressed how essential it was for a priest to live in a morally responsible way, there was nothing like this. If I were contemplating ordination today, I'm not sure I'd want to go through with it if it meant this degree of intrusion into matters that belonged to the bedroom. 

There is a real risk, I think, to the affection, warmth and trust that ought to exist between bishops and their clergy. Trust especially. In a grown up community, especially a Christian one, there should be a presumption that office holders are behaving responsibly and ethically until there is evidence to the contrary. Trust creates confidence; suspicion erodes it. No-one should be subject to this embarrassing process. Statutory safeguarding checks are all that should be necessary if we want to build up humane, spiritual capital in our relationships within the church. The last thing we should be doing is sowing the seeds of suspicion or defensiveness that micro-management and excessive scrutiny always lead to.

(b) Guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples (paras 36-43) 
At present clergy "may pray informally with same-sex couples" but there is no authorised or commended form of worship to follow a civil partnership or marriage. In practice, what clergy may offer such couples is far from clear. It is similar to the position thirty years ago with regard to prayer following civil marriages where a partner had been divorced. At that stage the church was not clear, in the light of its teaching that marriage is a permanent relationship, what it believed about the remarriage of divorced people. It then seemed odd to imply through a public act of liturgical prayer that the relationship was, after all, one that God could at least live with. But faith can be paradoxical at times. The law of the church was later revised to permit the solemnisation of such marriages in church (though not all clergy are willing to preside at them). 

The position with regard to same-sex relationships is precisely the same and the bishops recognise this. But this time they are not proposing services that are authorised or commended. This implies a high degree of ambivalence. Certainly, guidance is essential if the clergy are not to find themselves breaking the law. But since the traditional teaching of the church is that both remarriage after divorce and same-sex relationships are disallowed, why are the bishops so much more wary this time than they were before?
 There seems to me to be a clear precedent in issuing public prayers that can be used with those who ask for them while the church takes the time it needs to work out a new moral framework for its pastoral practice. As we know, liturgy and prayer inform how we think and believe and what we do. I'd say this was important not just in our ministry to LGBT people but also to help the church itself reflect on its own spiritual and liturgical practice.

(c) New teaching document on marriage and relationships (paras 34-35)
No-one is going to question the need for this. The bishops set out a list of issues to be covered, including "the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing", the role of single people, a theological exploration of friendship, and the meaning of marriage in society, family and the church. But then we hit a clear constraint. The penultimate entry in the list is to "reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life". 

In an agenda of exploration and enquiry, this statement is disappointing. It begs the very question that has given rise to this report in the first place, and that is crying out for theologians, ethicists and church leaders to give attention to. The final item is "to explore the distinction that has opened up between the state's conception of 'equal marriage' and the Church's doctrine of Holy Matrimony". Might the document be open to the discovery that as a covenanted relationship between two persons before God, the state's conception and the church's doctrine might turn out to be the same? 

(d) Establishing a Fresh Tone and Culture (paras 29-33)
It's good that the church's welcome to and support for those in same-sex relationships is placed first. The bishops recognise the importance of asking how LGBT people experience the church. I don't doubt the sincerity of everyone (well, almost everyone) who says that they want the C of E to be a generous, inclusive place, whatever they believe about same-sex relationships. The problem is, as the bishops acknowledge, that acceptance and welcome can sit uneasily alongside judgmental attitudes which, if not expressed, are still present. 

I wanted to invert the order of these four themes because that way round shows that despite their best intentions, the bishops fall right into this trap. Whatever they say about the goodness of LGBT relationships, there is always a big "but", stated or implied. When you read their priorities starting at the other end, it's hard to see how the text reads as anything other than this "but" in the cautious attitude it takes towards LGBT people. Questions about lifestyle, guidelines for the clergy, a new teaching document all imply that gay people are a problem that needs to be solved rather than adult responsible men and women who are flourishing in relationships they are asking the church both to affirm and celebrate. Of course we all look for "a fresh tone and culture", but only complete acceptance and mutuality in the church will achieve this. This is precisely what is missing in this document. It's not surprising that so many LGBT friends and colleagues are angry. 


The bishops have an important section devoted to theological method (paras 56-66). To reflect on this would double the length of this blog so it must be for another time. It treads a wary path between two approaches. On the one hand, they want to affirm the fidelity and mutuality of stable same-sex relationships and recognise how the changing social context brings fresh insights. On the other hand, they are clear about the need to uphold the traditional teaching of the church, not least because the unity of the church must always matter to Christian people (and bishops are meant to be the guardians of unity). They recognise the legitimacy of diversity in Anglicanism, and also its ethos of "reserve", not imagining that there can full and certain knowledge of anything this side of the grave. I would have said that these two aspects of our church's self-understanding offer precisely the mandate the bishops are looking for to proceed in a more confident, less hesitant way. 

We have been here before, many times: contraception, remarriage after divorce and the ordination of women were all once regarded as unthinkable departures from the church's teaching. They were all debated vigorously, often with great heat and sometimes with bitterness. But each time, the church's teaching proved to be larger than we had imagined, capable of including within it the new dimensions each development brought. In particular, marriage did not cease to be marriage because the divorced were permitted to remarry. 

The same has been proved true now that the state permits people of the same gender to marry. Far from subverting marriage, it affirms it! History tells me that I can be confident that there will come a time when LGBT relationships are fully accepted, integrated, honoured and celebrated in the sacramental and pastoral life of the church. Then, the great institution of marriage will at last be truly "equal" without discriminating between straight and gay people. I may not live to see it (though I hope I do). But the momentum is unstoppable. And I see in it nothing less than the act of God's Spirit. I'd like to see beyond the timidity of the bishops' report to what I suspect many of them also acknowledge and even welcome. 

One final thing. Since the bishops have told us that they were not all agreed about the position they adopted, may we have a minority report from those who dissented? The bishops have already found that there is nothing to fear from open, candid debate. Why not let it happen publicly? I am sure that the whole church will respect them all the more. Next month's Synod will be a good place to start. 

Meanwhile, as the church goes on talking to itself about sex, the world stops listening and starts burning. 


  1. "New teaching document on marriage and relationships (paras 34-35) No-one is going to question the need for this."

    If such a document is going to come from the bishops, I do question the need for it! The bishops have shown time and again, and especially in this latest statement, that their understanding of marriage and relationships is deeply flawed and inadequate. Over the years they and their predecessors have commissioned several reports in this area from people who know what they are talking about, and every single one has been either ignored or suppressed. I'm sorry if this seems harsh, but the bishops are the last people I would go to for Christian teaching on marriage and relationships, much needed though that is.

  2. They also had some good teaching and reflection in the Pilling Report from a panel and process that included input from noted theologians and a diverse range of participants - but Pilling is gone and forgotten with 'Issues' still being quoted as the definitive, cast in stone authority that it was never meant to be...

    The appearance of the word/typo 'Shard' in the report could be a glorious example of the Holy Spirit sneaking in a measure of truth though... 'Shard' for spiky and angular? Or 'Shard' for gloriously out of touch with rest of the world outside its glass and steel bubble?

  3. You are right. The world has indeed stopped listening, moved on, and I think for many we are no longer seen as worth the debate. I find some younger people just see us as weird, with this strange and slightly dodgy obsession...

  4. Judging by other blog sites, many people online at least consider us just plain bonkers. "Unfit for any public office", "It's obviously all just an invention and they know it" are the kinds of things I see.
    I am very saddened by what I've seen. My view of human sexuality has changed considerably, basically due to my ignorance of such things. I can't help feeling I must be fairly typical. But I now know people who have been married (to opposite sex partners) and are now in single sex relationships. And I know one man who was in a civil partnership, and who is now married (to a woman) with a baby. I am sure that most people thought, when I was younger, firstly that there were only a few gay people, and secondly, that a good deal of gay activity was just some people wanting a bit of a change! Although, there have always been of course, people who just used sex as a bit of fun, rather than as part of a committed relationship. And there are lots of people outside the church who can't see why not!
    One of the people interviewed said it was important to stick to Jesus' teaching, and Jesus "clearly" (alarm klaxon) taught that it was wrong. Never mentioned it all, actually. This was a priest, on television, going for the big lie and getting away with it. (Come on Martin Bashir!)
    I would agree with the comments about the intrusive line of questioning. It is in my view wholly unacceptable. I am old enough to remember when women were routinely asked at job interviews what they would do if the children were ill. Some employers graduated to asking the men as well, and claimed it was therefore not prejudicial! It is now illegal to ask that question at all. I know of a priest who is now on her fourth partner. Live in, that is. She would never have been ordained if she had not simply expunged one of them from the record. I have said it before, but if you wish to ordain only virgins, you will ordain only liars.

  5. There is a betrayal of trust implicit in this document, whether provisional or not. Many people engaged in the shared conversations in hope and trepidation about how their engagement will affect their future ministry, now they can see that plainly, there is no future past their current appointment. And for potential gay or lesbian ordinand's, the future is bleak indeed. The HoB have ensured their exclusion whether by their policy or by causing bright prospective clergy or even laity seeking to test a vocation choosing not to undergo the pain and discomfort of an interrogation about their sexuality. In fact, many who are straight, might also be put off by the process.

    My own painful experience of the discernment process, including being required to participate in an extended and intrusive process, which caused both me and my spouse great pain (we were both divorcee's) persuades me that I wouldn't want any one else to undergo the process.

    You point out the hope that in time, things will change, but even if it does, the damage is done and the situation cannot be retrieved. Many people will now be considering whether or not they have a future in a discriminatory church, where their relationships will be viewed with suspicion and be regarded as at least second best.

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  7. I'm afraid, Michael, despite your characteristically gracious response, all this tells me is that the culture of dishonesty will continue (and more so now that the bishops have the green light to probe across the board). Some of us had hoped that the decades of having to lie about being gay, lie about the truth of our relationships, and live a double-life of pretence were over. The cost to the psychological health of many clergy will continue to rise; as will the culture of insecurity and fear - especially now that the majority of bishops are very firmly 'on message.' Shard Conversations indeed - because that's all you're left with after the vessel has been smashed.

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