Bishops promote qualified support for gays and lesbians

by
01 March 2007

Lesbian and gay Christians

Superseded: the Revd Mary Gilbert, who argued for full inclusion for homosexual people in the Church

Superseded: the Revd Mary Gilbert, who argued for full inclusion for homosexual people in the Church

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THE BISHOPS obtained their goal for the General Synod’s Wednesday-morning debate on homosexuality. Their amendment, which had been designed to prevent any appearance of a shift of the C of E’s position in a liberal direction, was carried.

It does not leave the Synod exactly where it was, however. One speaker warned that it committed the whole Synod to Lambeth resolutions that have so far been debated only by the House of Bishops. The amended motion speaks of not “doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference resolutions”.

One other amendment was carried. The Bishops’ amendment was itself amended so that it also acknowledged the importance of participation by lesbian and gay people in the “listening process”.

It replaces in its entirety the private member’s motion from the Revd Mary Gilbert (Lichfield) calling for lesbian and gay Christians to be accepted at every level in the Church, with respect for “the patterns of holy living to which lesbian and gay Christians aspire”.

It replaces in its entirety the private member’s motion from the Revd Mary Gilbert (Lichfield) calling for lesbian and gay Christians to be accepted at every level in the Church, with respect for “the patterns of holy living to which lesbian and gay Christians aspire”.

Introducing the debate, Ms Gilbert said that the Church as a whole had been debating these issues for 2000 years. On many issues of sexuality, the Church had changed its mind: on the status and role of women, the use of contraception, and the marriage of divorcees. “Those of us who hold the view that lesbian and gay Christians should be welcomed as full members of the Church at all levels do not do so just because it makes us feel good or in tune with contemporary society, but because our study of the Bible, our prayers, and our exploration of human relationships have all led us to this conclusion.”

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Introducing the debate, Ms Gilbert said that the Church as a whole had been debating these issues for 2000 years. On many issues of sexuality, the Church had changed its mind: on the status and role of women, the use of contraception, and the marriage of divorcees. “Those of us who hold the view that lesbian and gay Christians should be welcomed as full members of the Church at all levels do not do so just because it makes us feel good or in tune with contemporary society, but because our study of the Bible, our prayers, and our exploration of human relationships have all led us to this conclusion.”

Since the Bible was written, the understanding of human relationships had changed beyond recognition. The Old Testament regarded celibacy as abnormal, and Timothy 4.1-3 called compulsory celibacy a heresy. But this was what many demanded of homosexual Christians.

“So it comes down to authority, to who decides what the Bible means. Virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting incest, rape, and adultery. But we disagree with the Bible on other sexual practices, for example celibacy, nudity, and birth control. So why do many appeal to proof texts in the case of homosexuality alone?”

Modern psychological study found that sexuality could not be separated from the rest of life. Many Christians had seen the pain and struggle of homosexuals unwilling to give up on their Church. She said that, as a divorced woman, she could understand that struggle. “At the time of the 1978 Lambeth Conference resolution, I would not have been able to be ordained as a priest.”

In the debate, she said, people might try to make a distinction between being and doing, between homosexual orientation and its practice. She did not think that this was possible. “Who I am is intrinsically tied up with what I do.”

Barry Barnes (Southwark) moved that the Synod proceed to next business. He was concerned about what the press would make of a debate so soon after the Primates’ Meeting. The public perception was of a Church obsessed with sex. His motion was lost.

Barry Barnes (Southwark) moved that the Synod proceed to next business. He was concerned about what the press would make of a debate so soon after the Primates’ Meeting. The public perception was of a Church obsessed with sex. His motion was lost.

Canon Peter Spiers (Liverpool) moved an adjournment, as this would (unlike the preceding motion) allow the Synod to return to the debate within the quinquennium. He was not convinced that this was the right time for this debate. There was ambiguity in the language: if it were not carried, it would be read as the Church’s disapproval of gays and lesbians. More time was needed to continue the listening process.

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Canon Peter Spiers (Liverpool) moved an adjournment, as this would (unlike the preceding motion) allow the Synod to return to the debate within the quinquennium. He was not convinced that this was the right time for this debate. There was ambiguity in the language: if it were not carried, it would be read as the Church’s disapproval of gays and lesbians. More time was needed to continue the listening process.

Jacqueline Humphreys (Bristol) urged the Synod to resist this motion. The Church was not just run by Primates: Synod members were elected to grasp difficult issues, “hit them head on”, and continue negotiating how these issues were to be dealt with.

The motion was lost, and the debate on the main motion was resumed.

The Revd Professor Marilyn McCord Adams (Oxford University) said that the Archbishop of Canterbury had expressed his vision of an intercultural Church with great eloquence; but lesbian and gay Christians could no longer wait in patience while the Church slowly resolved these cultural issues.

She spoke of a mother who had taken her dead son to a funeral home, because she believed that the Church would refuse to approach the body of one who had had AIDS. She also spoke of couples, some in their 70s, who had lived in faithful same-sex relationships for 30 or 40 years, and were now able to enter civil partnerships. They could not be asked to wait in patience any longer.

It was time to repent of the bad use of the Bible, and to repent of appealing to forebears’ sins as justification for committing further sins. Christians needed to repent of enforced cloister-ing, of coercing people “to bend themselves out of shape to conform to heterosexual norms and be false to themselves and to God. . . We have cheated ourselves and we have cheated God.”

The policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” held up a stick with which to threaten gay and lesbian clergy’s careers, while still seeking to use their skills in the Church.

Canon Professor Anthony Thiselton (Southwell & Nottingham) objected strongly to the background paper to the motion, which was “grossly unfair. It has put the clock back.” The paper had ignored much modern scholarship. “It is not a closed issue that the concept of homosexuality is a 19th-century construct.” Scholars had been “brushed aside”. The paper lacked integrity. It was so one-sided. “It almost makes a mockery of mutual listening.”

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Canon Professor Anthony Thiselton (Southwell & Nottingham) objected strongly to the background paper to the motion, which was “grossly unfair. It has put the clock back.” The paper had ignored much modern scholarship. “It is not a closed issue that the concept of homosexuality is a 19th-century construct.” Scholars had been “brushed aside”. The paper lacked integrity. It was so one-sided. “It almost makes a mockery of mutual listening.”

The Revd Paul Collier (Southwark) said that he could tell the Synod of the lesbian couples who would not receive communion together for fear of drawing attention to themselves; of lesbian and gay students who said: “We would like to go to church, but we are not allowed to”; of homosexual Christians who had been expelled from their churches when their orientation became known; and of clergy who found their motivation and energy sapped by hostility to lesbians and gays.

The Revd Paul Collier (Southwark) said that he could tell the Synod of the lesbian couples who would not receive communion together for fear of drawing attention to themselves; of lesbian and gay students who said: “We would like to go to church, but we are not allowed to”; of homosexual Christians who had been expelled from their churches when their orientation became known; and of clergy who found their motivation and energy sapped by hostility to lesbians and gays.

For many, the Church had become a desolate place. “Let’s not spend the next five or ten years arguing about sexuality. . . Let’s go as far as we can, without breaking any Lambeth resolutions, to acknowledge the lesbian and gay contribution to the Church.” It was a very moderate motion, he said. It could do no harm, but, if carried, could do a great deal of good.

The Revd Andrew Watson (London) said that Ms Gilbert’s paper was completely uncritical and one-sided. He admitted that she had put her case in such stark terms that one could not fail to be moved. But Jesus’s teaching had been tougher than the Law on many occasions, and had called Christians to take up their cross, which inevitably would hurt. Christians were called to repentance and costly dedication. They should celebrate the many unmarried clergy, hetero- and homosexual, faithfully living out their Christian lives. The Church was a prophetic Church, not called to be comfortable.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, speaking to his amendment, said that there were better and worse moments to face an issue where there was no consensus. In the light of the Primates’ Meeting, this was one of those worse moments.

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The clear view of the Bishops was that “the House does not believe that it would be in the interests of the Church of England or the Anglican Communion for the Synod to attempt to pass a motion that was either so ambiguous as to cause confusion and misunderstanding, or so clear-cut as to exacerbate the polarisation that already exists.”

The amendment took many of the elements from Mary Gilbert’s motion and sought to rework them into a positive statement, around which, he hoped, all could gather. “This is clearly the very wrong moment to shift our formal position and give any sense of winners and losers on an issue on which we are trying to reach consensus.”

John Ward (London) spoke to his amendment, which explicitly committed the Church to a godly and open debate on the motion. Lesbian and gay people in other countries were threatened and murdered for who they were. “All I ask is open dialogue with you.” The Bishop of Gloucester’s amendment did not commit the Church afresh to the listening process. Mr Ward’s experience was that there was little safe space: Synod members were afraid to be seen sitting next to him, as a gay man in a civil partnership; fearful of being thought “unsound” and “not one of us”. “It is time for the Church to start talking openly and honestly. Synod needs to give permission to talk to me.”

Mr Ward described himself as “having to stop myself shaking when my hand is on the door” when attending a meeting of Anglican Mainstream.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), speaking to his amendment, said that the Archbishop of Canterbury had spoken of the Communion as using the language of respect for human dignity but failing to show that “effectively or convertingly”. The Church had approached human sexuality as an ethical but not a missionary issue. As a missionary strategy, the Church’s approach was full of shortcomings. But the experience of God’s love preceded sanctification. The vast majority of gay and lesbian people heard the opposite from the Church: “a big, loud ‘No’”. But how, then, could they hear the gospel?

“What might a fresh expression of Church for lesbian and gay people look like?” he asked. In one open, generous Evangelical parish, lesbian and gay people whom he knew said that they found the institution “utterly against them”. In those conditions, they could not come to faith.

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The gospel needed to be inculturated so that lesbian and gay people could hear it. They were “far more than what they do with their genitals”. To them, the Church needed to be missionary, not just moralising.

Rachel Beck (Lincoln) said that sexuality was the core of people’s being, and views on it differed, but were held faithfully, with integrity and in prayer and love.

Alison Wynne (Blackburn) said that the Government intended in its Sexual Orientation Regulations to include sexual activity, not just a propensity, and that this was the view of the public.

Canon Jane Fraser (Worcester) said that, in challenging people to think compassionately about lesbian and gays in schools and workplaces and on courses for clergy, she had seen people move and change, but she had also seen shutters come down on people’s faces. She had also seen those who read carefully on the subject come to a different conclusion, but she still expected them to be compassionate in their relations.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) agreed about the importance of compassion, which should also include those caught up in sin. But greater humility was also needed to accept God’s word. He thought Ms Gilbert’s background paper was reckless with the truth. “If we sit humbly under the teaching of the Bible, we must recognise that homosexuality cannot be affirmed.”

Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) said that she had serious concerns about the Bishop of Gloucester’s amendment when it spoke of the Church of England’s commitment to the Lambeth resolutions. The House of Bishops had spoken, she said, but the Synod had never debated them, nor the research that led to them. She believed that the Synod should debate them in their own right, not as part of an amendment.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the dilemma of what message would be sent by implicitly rejecting Ms Gilbert’s motion without having anything to put in its place. He did not want the Synod to be rejecting outright any statement of this Synod’s commitment and listening, compassion, and the creation of safe space. He supported Bishop Perham’s amendment.

Canon Dr Chris Sugden (Oxford) suggested that the gay-gene theory had been discredited in several studies of identical twins. He spoke of Christian programmes enabling those with unwanted same-sex attraction to “journey into Christian healing and wholeness”.

Mr Ward’s amendment to the Bishop of Gloucester’s amendment was carried.

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) expressed concern that the text of the motion as amended would not be interpreted as intended across the Anglican Communion, which looked to the see of Canterbury and to the Synod as a fair and decision-making body.

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Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) found that he was “in a very difficult position”. There were ambiguities and deficiences in all the amendments discussed; but he would reluctantly vote for the amendment from the House of Bishops. The Church of England had defined its views on homosexuality in a very precise report by the House of Bishops, passed by the General Synod. Listening had been described as “a one-way journey to the conclusion you want”.

The Revd Stephen Coles (London) said that heterosexuality was not a given. Homosexuals were as they were. “We have been in the Church for centuries. It may be uncomfortable for you, but we don’t want you to go away.”

“It feels surreal,” he said of the debate, “as if our Church has lost all sense of perspective in a turbulent world, like a displacement activity.” The Church had “frozen” its view at the point of Issues in Human Sexuality, but there needed to be a new understanding of why so many homosexuals were within the Church. “Might there be something in our sexuality and spirituality that is worth exploring?” he asked.

Canon Adrian Hughes (Newcastle) said that he was troubled, not by the content or subject of the debate, but by its timing. This was a delicate and precise ecumenical process, and the motion and background document did not have the precision required.

The Revd Moira Astin (Oxford) feared that the £15,000 it would cost to finance the Mission and Public Affairs Council to research and publish mission ideas for clergy and parishes seeking to share faith with lesbian and gay people would not encourage the Council to tackle these “hard issues” as it should.

Canon Alan Hargrave (Ely) feared that the proposal to prepare ideas for sharing faith with lesbian and gay people could be used as an opportunity for “aggressive evangelism”, even among Christians, to “convert” them to a non-gay lifestyle.

Canon Alan Hargrave (Ely) feared that the proposal to prepare ideas for sharing faith with lesbian and gay people could be used as an opportunity for “aggressive evangelism”, even among Christians, to “convert” them to a non-gay lifestyle.

Bishop Perham said that the House of Bishops did not oppose Canon Butler’s amendment, but it “seems to narrow down the open listening process”. It also “allows the Mission and Public Affairs Council a role which I think Synod gave the House of Bishops”.

Bishop Perham said that the House of Bishops did not oppose Canon Butler’s amendment, but it “seems to narrow down the open listening process”. It also “allows the Mission and Public Affairs Council a role which I think Synod gave the House of Bishops”.

The Revd Hugh Lee (Oxford) said that Canon Chris Sugden had given only one side of the research about homosexuality. His wife, an academic psychologist, had heard from many people who had tried to change their sexuality as the Church had asked them to do, but had found that it was not God’s will for them.

Canon Butler’s amendment was lost.

Bishop Perham’s amendment, as amended by John Ward, was carried, on a show of hands, and the motion was carried in the following terms:

That this Synod:

(a) commend continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion;

(b) recognise that such efforts would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10);

(c) welcome the opportunities offered by these Lambeth Resolutions, including for the Church of England to engage in an open, full and Godly dialogue about human sexuality; and

(d) affirm that homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church, and acknowledge the importance of lesbian and gay members of the Church of England participating in the listening process as full members of the Church.

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