VARIOUS criticisms have been levelled at the reflection group formed after last week’s College of Bishops discussion about same-sex relations. But the inclusion of conservatives and traditionalists makes sense if the group is to function as a sounding-board for any new attempt to reach agreement. Also, the fact that its members are all bishops makes sense if the problem they are trying to solve is defined as what the Bishops should do next. No one seriously believes that the Bishops are in a position to direct opinion on this subject, either in the Church or wider afield. Their task is purely to work out how to cope with the diversity of opinion that exists within their organisation. All those opinions have been expressed exhaustively in the past few years, officially through the Shared Conversations, less carefully elsewhere.
The Bishops are well aware that the time for action has arrived. Over the course of the next two meetings of the House of Bishops, the College of Bishops meeting in January, and the General Synod sessions in February — or, at the latest, July — the Church’s leadership has to decide whether it will authorise same-sex marriage in church and cease to frown on priests who marry a same-sex partner; or, if not, what it will do to those who decline to comply with their bishop’s strictures.
It is always dangerous to underestimate the ability of the C of E to avoid resolving an issue, but it does seem clear that many of the Bishops, and possibly both of the Archbishops, are determined to halt the Church’s endless wrangling about sexuality, on the obvious grounds that it undermines mission, brings the Church into disrepute, and causes real harm to many individuals. The direction of travel is towards liberalisation. The sticking-point is how to accomplish this without compromising the consciences of conservatives or triggering an exodus — or, at least, too much of one. The lesson learnt by most during the Shared Conversations was that it is possible to respect the opinions of another without relinquishing one’s own views. But the growth of what has been, in essence, a greater sense of perspective exposed the few who cannot see sexuality as anything other than a communion-breaking matter.
The remarks from GAFCON after the revelation that the Bishop of Grantham was in a celibate same-sex relationship marked a new low: “We remain opposed to the guidelines for clergy and bishops, permitting them to be in same-sex relationships as long as they publicly declare that the relationship is not sexual. This creates confusion in terms of the Church’s teaching on the nature of sex and marriage, and it is not modelling a helpful way to live.” This has rarely been said so boldly, and conservatives of this stripe cannot expect the bishops to come up with any measures that satisfy them. The C of E is a broad Church with able bishops, but it is beyond their ability to accommodate a view that rejects even the existing compromise.