THE “Bishops’ reflection group on sexuality” which will guide the next stage of the Church of England’s debate on same-sex relations has been criticised for including no openly gay bishops.
A statement issued at the end of the meeting of the College of Bishops last week said that the Archbishops had “invited some bishops to take forward work on sexuality to assist the episcopal discernment process”.
The group of ten bishops will be chaired by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, and includes three women: the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane; the Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally; and the Church’s newest bishop, the Bishop of Dorking, the Rt Revd Jo Wells, who took office this week.
The group also contains a traditionalist, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Revd Jonathan Goodall, and a conservative Evangelical, the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas.
There are, however, no publicly LGBT bishops among the ten. A joint statement by Changing Attitude and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement lamented this fact.
“Whilst expressing disappointment that a group tasked with reflecting on issues of human sexuality does not appear to include any openly gay people, we recognise that this simply reflects the reality within the Church’s leadership — that LGBT people are invisible, our voices often silenced, and our experiences unheard.”
The two pro-gay advocacy groups welcomed the group, however, and urged its members to listen to the experiences of “lived experience, deep conviction and prophetic witness of gay, lesbian and bisexual people”.
“The Reflection Group must now consider the Church’s steps into the future. We call upon them to lead the House of Bishops towards a future that celebrates the gifts of all God’s people, including the LGBTI members of the Church of England, and embodies the radical equality to which we are called in Christ.”
Other prominent campaigners have criticised the make-up of the group. Jayne Ozanne, a gay member of the General Synod and former member of the Archbishops’ Council, told The Daily Telegraph that she was dismayed by the College’s actions.
“Sadly, I fear this is a step backwards and only adds weight to those who believe the Church of England is institutionally homophobic, effectively putting politics ahead of the lives of real people.”
The conservative Evangelical pressure group Christian Concern has also questioned the appointment of Bishop James to chair the group.
In a blog published on its website, Christian Concern suggested that his previous comments in the media on same-sex marriage made him an unsuitable chairman for the group.
In particular, Christian Concern referred to a letter that Bishop James — with the other bishops in his diocese — wrote to a local newspaper in 2012, reflecting on the Government’s consultation on gay marriage and the implications if same-sex marriages were created to be exclusively civil unions and churches were banned from solemnising them.
The terms of reference of the group include assisting the C of E’s bishops in their reflection on sexuality after the Shared Conversations, which began in 2014 and concluded at the General Synod in July (News, 11 March, 12 July).
The brief statement of the group’s tasks includes coming up with questions for the House of Bishops on sexuality, especially same-sex relationships — and formulating possible answers to these questions.
When the House next convenes in November to consider sexuality issues, it will use material created by the reflection group.
Finally, the terms of reference state that the group must also “consider any matter which the Archbishops request that the group should have on its agenda”.
As for timing, the earlier statement said that the “new process of episcopal discernment” would continue during the House’s next meetings in November and December, and then the subject would return to the College of Bishops in January.
The discussions during this period of “episcopal discernment” would remain private, so that everyone involved could speak freely, the statement also said. Participants could, however, make public their own views.
The ten bishops will be supported by high-profile officials from the Church, including the Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council and General Synod, William Nye; the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chief of staff, David Porter; and the Archbishops’ Council’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown.
The full membership of the reflection group is:
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James (Chair)
The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Vice-Chair)
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft
The Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Revd Jonathan Goodall
The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson
The Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane
The Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally
The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley
The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas
The Bishop of Dorking the Rt Revd Jo Wells.