When the C of E wanted to talk

by
18 January 2012

A new (all-male) group is rethinking Issues in Human Sexuality, the 1991 report that remains the Bishops’ line on homo­sexuality. Jane Shaw recalls a more open approach

Leak: the Church Times story about the disclosure of the contents of the Osborne report in February 1990

Leak: the Church Times story about the disclosure of the contents of the Osborne report in February 1990

The increasing acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the wider society in the 1970s and ’80s meant that the Church of England had to address the subject. In 1979, a church report, Homosexual Relationships: A con­tribu­tion to discussion, was published, but was considered too liberal by many in the Church.

So, in 1986, a standing committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a working party to advise the bishops. This resulted in the Osborne report of 1989 (chaired by the Revd June Osborne, a member of the Board), which drew on the direct testimony of gay and lesbian Chris­tians.

The group set itself the task of listening to homosexual people, and gave the results of that listening in its report: “first by a series of personal stories which are rooted in actual life histories”; and, second, by showing “the range of options with which Christian homosexual people are struggling as they seek to make some sense of their lives as Christians”.

The Osborne group was making no judgements, but rather attempting to set out “the experiential facts — the realities which responsible Chris­tian moral reasoning is dealing with”. The group wanted the Church’s discussion to face up to “what actually happens”, and to be based in the reality that “Homosexuality is about homosexual people. We should never lose sight of the painful and stressful journey many homosexual people have to make in the Church and in society — with little under­standing from either.”

The Osborne report was an advisory document for bishops, and it reminded them that they had an important part to play both in affirming “the catholicity and in­clusiveness of the Church”, and “in helping the Church live with un­resolved issues”.

Crucially, and ironically — in the light of events that would unfold a decade-and-a-half later — the group reminded the Bishops that “The way to resolve the conflict and tensions between groups is not by the exclusion of one or more minority groups. We have been very conscious of the poor experience of the Church encountered by many homosexual people. . . The Bishops, as the chief pastors of the Church, have a particular responsibility to set a tone of welcome and acceptance in these matters.”

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The Osborne report heralded an important call for all voices to be heard, but a new atmosphere of hostility and acrimonious debate about homosexuality entered the Church before the working party had finished its task. In the General Synod in 1987, there was a fierce debate on homosexuality, prompted by a motion put forward by an Evan­gelical, the Revd Tony Higton, which resulted in the passing of a con­servative resolution.

The Osborne report responded: “You would expect us to regret that such a debate took place when a piece of work such as this was already in hand. We regret much more the sense of isolation it engendered in many homosexual people and the climate of distrust it created.”

By the late 1980s, the Church was not ready to face up to the “facts” presented by the Osborne report. The report was leaked in February 1990, and sparked pressure for an official statement on this in­creasingly controversial topic. The House of Bishops tried again, this time producing a short booklet, Issues in Human Sexuality, in 1991. This called for further dialogue and education. In the preface, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, wrote: “We do not pretend [this] to be the last word on the subject.”

Issues in Human Sexuality was intended only as a discussion document, but it came to be seen as the Church of England’s definitive statement on homosexuality. Its distinction between laity and clergy was considered of particular sig­nificance.

The document maintained that it was acceptable (although not ideal) for gay and lesbian lay people to enter into same-sex, monogamous rela­tion­ships (although these could not be blessed in marriage-like services in church), but not permissible for clergy to do so (although no witch-hunts were to be promoted).

That distinction made between clergy and laity in Issues — a distinction removed in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation with its doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the marriage of clergy — has been regarded by many as problematic, and at odds with the modern Church’s emphasis on our common baptism in Christ.

A decade later when another House of Bishops working party came to write its guide to the continuing debate (Some Issues in Human Sexuality, CHP, 2003), it was clear that this line, held by the Issues document in 1991, was not to be challenged.

Issues has therefore been treated as a discussion document by some; as the “mind of the Church at this time” by others; and as the “rule” of the Church by yet others.

This has led to a situation where the Church has called for dialogue and exchange on the one hand, but has punished those who have engaged in it (from the liberal side) on the other. At worst, Issues has been used as a litmus test for the soundness of candidates for senior appointments. The true listening process, called for by the Osborne report, has yet to happen. The two new groups that are examining the Church’s approach to sexuality (News, 6 January) need to address this.

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. This article is based on her chapter in Public Life and the Place of the Church, edited by Michael Brierley (Ashgate, 2006).

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. This article is based on her chapter in Public Life and the Place of the Church, edited by Michael Brierley (Ashgate, 2006).

Members of the Osborne- report working party

Members of the Osborne- report working party

The Revd June Osborne (chair), Team Vicar of the Old Ford Parishes, Tower Hamlets, London

The Revd June Osborne (chair), Team Vicar of the Old Ford Parishes, Tower Hamlets, London

The Revd Dr David Atkinson, Chaplain and Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

The Revd Dr David Atkinson, Chaplain and Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Brother Bernard SSF, Guardian, Hilfield Priory, Dorchester

Brother Bernard SSF, Guardian, Hilfield Priory, Dorchester

The Rt Revd Peter Coleman, Bishop of Crediton

The Rt Revd Peter Coleman, Bishop of Crediton

The Revd Malcolm Johnson, Rector of St Boltoph’s, Aldgate, London

The Revd Malcolm Johnson, Rector of St Boltoph’s, Aldgate, London

Miss Elizabeth Shedden, Director of Lay Ministry, diocese of London

Miss Elizabeth Shedden, Director of Lay Ministry, diocese of London

Prebendary John Gladwin (secretary), Secretary to the Board for Social Responsibility

Prebendary John Gladwin (secretary), Secretary to the Board for Social Responsibility

From the preface to the report

From the preface to the report

In the Summer of 1986 the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a working party to advise the House of Bishops on questions concerning homo­sexuality and lesbianism. The Board agreed the following terms of reference:

In the Summer of 1986 the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a working party to advise the House of Bishops on questions concerning homo­sexuality and lesbianism. The Board agreed the following terms of reference:

• To review current thinking about the nature and practice of homosexuality and lesbianism and how the Churches have responded to these matters.

• To review current thinking about the nature and practice of homosexuality and lesbianism and how the Churches have responded to these matters.

• To consider the method and content of Christian theology and ethics as they relate to these issues.

• To consider the method and content of Christian theology and ethics as they relate to these issues.

• To advise the House of Bishops how to handle homosexuality matters in the Church of England.

• To advise the House of Bishops how to handle homosexuality matters in the Church of England.

The Working Party began its work in July 1987. . .

The Working Party began its work in July 1987. . .

Our work was not in any way to repeat the ground of the Gloucester report [Homosexual Relationships, the report of a previous working party chaired by the then Bishop of Gloucester, and published in 1979]. We understood that we were not being asked to attempt to resolve questions concerning homosexuality.

Our work was not in any way to repeat the ground of the Gloucester report [Homosexual Relationships, the report of a previous working party chaired by the then Bishop of Gloucester, and published in 1979]. We understood that we were not being asked to attempt to resolve questions concerning homosexuality.

Rather our task was to consider where the Church of England is in relation to this divisive issue and to advise the House of Bishops as they seek to bring healing and unity. Indeed our work convinced us that none of us can speak of resolution until there has been much greater engagement between the Christian loyalties to Scripture, tradition and experience.

Rather our task was to consider where the Church of England is in relation to this divisive issue and to advise the House of Bishops as they seek to bring healing and unity. Indeed our work convinced us that none of us can speak of resolution until there has been much greater engagement between the Christian loyalties to Scripture, tradition and experience.

Our conclusions are mainly about strategies, future tasks and the leadership of the bishops as they address the issue and conflicts in both our Church and society.

The Osborne report can be downloaded via this link (PDF, 8mb)

Our conclusions are mainly about strategies, future tasks and the leadership of the bishops as they address the issue and conflicts in both our Church and society.

The Osborne report can be downloaded via this link (PDF, 8mb)

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