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Everything hinges on three words

10 February 2017

The Bishops’ report on sexuality emphasises no change in doctrine, and the virtue of canonical obedience. We asked Andrew Davison for an analysis of its argument


Colours to the mast: the pride flag flies from St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London

Colours to the mast: the pride flag flies from St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London

I WILL cut straight to the point. Everything about the report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (News, 3 February) hinges on a slip between one paragraph and another, and the addition of three words: “and sexual relationships.” Those words mark the difference between a creative accommodation between traditionalists and progressives, and a position of complete inflexibility (with better window dressing).

For the past few years, the Shared Conversations have held centre stage in the Church’s sexuality debate (News, 11 March 2016). The ten bishops behind this report were asked what the next stage should be (News, 23 September 2016). They held a “very wide spectrum” of views, but they found “substantial” consensus on at least one point: “there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage, as expressed in Canon B.30.” (§18)

From there, the report can be summed up in a single sentence: no change over marriage, either in law or doctrine, but a desire to explore what is practical within those limits. The Bishops would not sanction development beyond that boundary, but they invite exploration within it.

This, however, is where the discrepancy comes in. What I have said so far draws on what the report says about the Bishops’ meetings, where the line in the sand concerned the law and doctrine of marriage. Skip forward in the report, and this principle morphs to “proposing no change to . . . law . . . or doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships” (§26). That shift is important because, in the next paragraph, this phrase limits what is up for consideration, not least by theologians.

I have gone into a fair bit of textual detail because, until it is clear what the Bishops take as immovable, we cannot go forward. Is it marriage, as laid out in Canon B.30, or the entire jumble of central-office convictions about anything to do with sexuality? The report suggests the former. The emphasis on marriage as the red line emerges from the account of the Bishops’ group; it is reiterated in relation to liturgical practice (§39); it is what they want to uphold ecumenically (§60); and it is also where the report ends, with an annex devoted entirely to questions of marriage.

Confirming this, the “no change to marriage” message was what both the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, emphasised last week, in their press release on the forthcoming Primates’ Meeting. The “key outcome”, the Archbishop said, was that “the Church of England’s teaching on marriage should remain unchanged.”


THAT is five paragraphs on the addition of three words, but everything that follows rests on it, especially the prospects for the four practical developments that the Bishops desire.

The first is finding “a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people”. If it is not just our definition of marriage which is is inviolable, but the whole existing stance on sexual relationships, I see little hope there. Individual parishes and chaplaincies will “welcome and support” — they already do — but they will receive no help from the centre.

The second proposal is for a theological teaching document. Again, what is left to talk about matters a great deal. Rule out discussion of same-sex marriage and there is still plenty worth considering. Allow no room for development over “sexual relationships” in any way, and the Bishops will find it difficult even to recruit a representative sample of theologians to have a conversation at all.

The Bishops wonder what form this document should take. It is vital that the text can bear the weight of its conclusions, showing its workings. Combining a detailed study with an approachable summary may be the right solution. However it is laid out, let it include some science, as a vital part of what theologians have to consider in the human sexuality debate. Science receives no explicit mention in the Bishops’ report, beyond a nod to “human knowledge and reason”.

The Lambeth Conference of 1978 called for “deep and dispassionate study” in relation to both “the teaching of Scripture” and “the results of scientific and medical research”. This was reiterated in 1988, with an emphasis on the “biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies”.

The third proposal relates to pastoral and liturgical provision for same-sex couples. Whether to “authorise” liturgy here, or to “commend” it, or to do neither, deserves an article of its own. (The lawyers did a great job, however, with their analysis in the annex to the Bishops’ report.) Certainly, there would be something of the genius of Anglicanism in approaching breadth with generosity. To care nothing about a rift between the “form” of practice and the “content” of doctrine, however, would perpetuate the present-day “post-Anglican” misadventure of the Church of England.

One thing is sure: the report demonstrates a new appreciation among the Bishops for the doctrinal freight of liturgy and their duty to uphold the Canons on public worship. Let us take this in good faith. An attempt to rebaptise someone who was baptised as an infant (even if “conditionally”, but only on those grounds) breaches the liturgical Canons on a point of foundational doctrine. I hope that that will be policed with the same zeal found in this report.

In 2015, we read that a parish priest refused to baptise an infant because his parents were not married. Will the Bishops deal with such abuses with the seriousness of something touching on salvation? How will they stand on celebrations of the eucharist that hold the text or the proper elements in contempt?


FINALLY, we come to the scrutiny of clergy and ordinands, and the desire for a more equitable parity between those who are gay and those who are straight. (Let the Evangelical right talk of people experiencing “same-sex attraction”; it is not usage that I endorse.)

There is no cogent case against asking some people about the bedroom, and not others, but what that amounts to comes back to the addition of those three words. If there is room for development (other than over whose marriages we recognise), then we could move towards the sort of parity that the report hopes for.

If, however, we are simply putting a better face on what we already have, in toto, there isn’t. Yes, we might now ask everyone about their sexual situation, but, for one group, the reply “Sex is an expression of our life-long, monogamous commitment before God” would receive three cheers, while for the other it would receive a reprimand, or the decision that they cannot have a vocation to ordained ministry after all.

This, and the rest, depends on the discrepancy between paragraph 18 and paragraph 26. Taken one way, the process moves on to a new stage; taken the other way, it has just been stopped dead.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and currently a member in residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations is available at www.churchofengland.org.


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