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Setting an example: bishops spend two days talking about sex

18 September 2014

Thanksgiving: The Revd Dominic McClean (left) and his partner, Tony Hodges, plan to hold a service of thanksgiving after their civil partnership a week on Saturday 

Thanksgiving: The Revd Dominic McClean (left) and his partner, Tony Hodges, plan to hold a service of thanksgiving after their civil part...

IT WAS, perhaps, appropriate that the small town of Market Bosworth, chosen to host the meeting of the College of Bishops this week, was itself a microcosm of the issues under discussion.

The Team Rector in the Bosworth and Sheepey Group benefice, in Leicestershire, the Revd Dominic McClean, plans to celebrate his civil partnership with Tony Hodges, also a Christian, at St Peter's, in the town, a week on Saturday. "It's not a gay wedding or a blessing," he said on Wednesday. "In the context of the eucharist, it is a service of thanksgiving and commitment."

He is positive about the shared conversations on sexuality, piloted by the College of Bishops in the town for two days this week: "Without that conversation and really listening to each other, it will divide the Church, and that is the last thing we need."

After emerging from the conversations on Wednesday, the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, reported that the College had "got the emotional tone right. . . Whilst I came, obviously, with people in my heart, and carrying some of their hopes and fears with me, I felt I was able to participate as an individual and not having to be the flag-waver for any particular group within the Church." 

It was, he said, "more important to get it right than get it quick. . . If we rush at this, we will simply end up repeating tired old failures to reach solutions."

He was interviewed alongside the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, by the Church of England's director of communications, Arun Arora. Bishop Dakin appeared more ready to emphasise the extent of the division within the College. 

"These are Gospel issues that we are talking about," he said. "They go deep. They are very important to many of us, personally, or by conviction, or by a sense of deep commitment to a way of life."

He went on: "Our different traditions of wisdom and our understanding of reason have actually probably brought us to the point where we have got some deep disagreements and we need to be able to speak the truth in love to one another in a Christian way and then work out what we're going to do."

The "good disagreement" sought by the Archbishop of Canterbury found echoes in the conversation, during which Bishop Dakin challenged Bishop Walker's interpretation of the account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts. Bishop Walker suggested that "what really carried the Church forward . . . was not the particular nice little points they decided at the end about not eating meat with the blood in it, it was about just having been together - that very diverse group."

Bishop Dakin sought permission to argue that, "the statement that was made after the Council was as important as the experience of getting together." They had been able to "state something of the truth". 

Among the issues likely to be discussed during the shared conversations is the potential for the Church to bless same-sex relationships. On Tuesday, Mr McClean said that he "understood" why a liturgy for the blessing of his relationship was not yet available: "The Church hasn't evolved its teaching as yet on this. . . I have had tremendous support from the Bishop and diocese on this issue, and so I respect where the Bishop is coming from, and I am delighted we can do something like this."

He and Mr Hodges "did consider" getting married, he said, but, "from where I am, in rural Leicester, I felt it was the best thing to try to be open to where people are at. There are people here that could not have coped if it had been a marriage, but they are delighted to be involved because it is a civil partnership. So I have been able to include more people that way. I look forward to the day when it will be OK to have the marriage of same-sex couples in church." But it was "important that we have priests that have gone ahead [and got married to same-sex partners]".

One of these priests, the Vicar of St Mary with All Souls', Kilburn, and St James's, West Hampstead, the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, believes that the conversations are "pointless, because its OK for straight men to stand around saying how important it is to have a conversation, but meanwhile the Church is seen as homophobic, and discrimination is continuing, and that is affecting real people."

On Tuesday, he said that he had spoken to a number of ordinands who had withdrawn from the process, and others who had been told to "lie about their sexuality in order to get through the process by DDOs".

Also on Tuesday, the Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas's, Burnage, the Revd Dr Rachel Mann, said: "I pray and hope this will not be the case, but I fear that . . . it is LGBT people who will pay a deep personal cost in this process of conversation. Why? Because to enter into this process fully they will not be putting arguments, but their very selves on the line. I pray that it is worth it."

The Vicar of Emmanuel Church, Northwood, the Revd Mike Talbot, who chairs the Board of the Evangelical Alliance, said of the conversations: "I'm not sure it will result in views' being changed, but it may help folk understand where others are coming from. In a relationship, I trust you if I have got to know you. Therefore, I am open to hearing what you have to say in a way I wouldn't have been when you were just lobbing press statements at me."

Another priest who was positive about the principle of conversation was the Vicar of St Mary's, Battersea, Canon Simon Butler. "It sounded to me like they had given considerable thought to both the content and the process," he said this week. "This is inviting people to do work in terms of their own self-understanding. That is difficult and challenging and possibly even a little bit threatening. . . It seems to be wrong to ask a gay bishop to declare their own sexuality without the straight ones giving some input themselves on what it means for them to be sexual people."

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