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Synod: We will take our time over sexuality, Welby says

14 July 2017

Sam Atkins

Not the long grass: the Archbishop of Canterbury outlining how progress would be made through a pastoral advisory group and a teaching document

Not the long grass: the Archbishop of Canterbury outlining how progress would be made through a pastoral advisory group and a teaching document

A PRESENTATION on the House of Bishops’ preparations for a new teaching document on sexuality was followed by a Q&A on Saturday morning.

Presenting the latest work and discussions in the House of Bishops on sexuality, the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the “tough and realistic” debate on the previous sexuality report, in the February group of sessions in London.

“Every Church is struggling in the same way on this issue,” he said. “February demonstrated the need for a fresh approach, while ensuring there was consistency in advice, acknowledging our differences, and approaching controversy through scripture, reason, and tradition.”

His presentation was an update of progress, and this remained a work in progress, Archbishop Welby said. There were two key steps to this process: a pastoral advisory group, and a teaching document.

The topics had been drawn up with three key assumptions: first, that every person was created in the image of God, and for whom Christ died, rose, and ascended. “This is about people who are to be treasured, loved and valued,” he said. “We must act without fear, except the fear of God, and we must come to these processes as a Church of history, not a blank sheet.”

Second, most would agree that witnessing to beauty and love were essential to the Church, while having diverse disagreement. “We come with a long-established practice of listening through scripture with gifts of reason and understanding, listening to each other, the Anglican Communion, the wider Church, of other faiths and no faiths, and other sources of knowledge. As Anglicans, we should not be afraid of engaging with anyone.”

The Archbishop suggested that listening was “often confused” with agreeing. Listening meant paying attention, and showing that one deeply valued, and loved those with whom one engaged. The Church had also come, more recently, from a process of reception, that “with listening and taking time for theological study, reflection, and engagement, we will find God’s path in Jesus Christ for all people.”

Third, the Church, while picking up traditions across the Communion, did not have an “authoritarian hierarchical structure” and must therefore have realistic expectations of what it was able to do. The House of Bishops, led by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, was aiming to take its time over the issue, taking into account the wide-ranging views of many people, while also taking on pastoral guidance.

The intention was not to produce a document that was to be “the answer”; rather, it was “to map” where the Church agreed and disagreed. “It should be a prayerful process; we cannot overstate that,” he said. “We do not talk in a bubble, and what the Bishops hear does affect the way we witness and live.”

The pastoral advisory group had the easier job description, but a more complex part to play: to advise dioceses on sexuality, and to show the love of Christ to all, regardless of sexual identity.

The autonomy of dioceses, and the part played by bishops was to be preserved, taking on good pastoral practice and consultation. “Not everyone will agree or do the same in different places,” he said. “There will be a degree of untidiness, as there always is in the Church of England.”

Quoting the summary of the House of Bishops on the issue, he said that the teaching document was to reflect a “radical new Christian inclusion, founded in scripture”. The whole phrase was essential; every word mattered.

The thematic working groups for the document were to be “inclusive as far as we are able; gender, a lay/clergy balance, disability, and understandings of all the views concerned, but always with expertise in the relevant areas”.

The ultimate responsibility, however, was to be entrusted to the Bishops, who aimed to produce a large-scale document to be available for study across the Church in a “digestible” form, to be discussed by the Synod by early 2020.

There were often comparisons between human sexuality and the ordination of women, the Archbishop said, but the only parallel was that in all the debate and argument the Church was seeking to discern and explore the mind of Christ, assuming that all those involved were of good will, seeking what was best for the whole of humanity in the service of Christ, to reflect his nature and being.

“We are called to unity, not as an alternative to truth, or instead of truth, or undermining truth; that would be absurd,” he said, “but in the service of mission in the world where diversity and disagreement is almost invariably badly handled; to preach and live as whole human beings, in Christ, in our sexuality, so that the joy of Christ is seen in our relationships; that we may speak wholly in a world of repentance, love, mercy, and injustice.”

The joy of Christ had not always, invariably been seen in the relationships of the Church, he concluded. “Above all, we preach Christ, God with us. We are called to this as a Church reconciled, growing in God as we think and reflect, study and pray, and relish the love of Christ on which we feast.”

Canon Rosie Harper (Oxford) said that Issues in Human Sexuality from the early 1990s had also not been meant to be a final answer, but had become “quasi-doctrinal”, and was used to restrict vocations. “How will you ensure this new teaching document doesn’t become doctrine through the back door?” she asked.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) said that he was grateful for the emphasis on the full phrase of “radical Christian inclusion”, and not just limiting it. He still queried what it meant, however, given that every Christian who was not Jewish was already proof of “God’s radical inclusion”.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison (Southern Deans), asked what steps the Archbishop would take to ensure that young people were also included in the various working groups and the process of producing the new teaching document.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, replied that the process was still a work in progress. It was important to work out what kind of teaching document they wanted — one that simply helped people to think well, or a document that “identifies and rejoices in the teaching of the Church”. The key task would be engaging with scripture, and then to take that work to the College and House of Bishops to see how it wanted to use it.

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, reminded the Synod that one of the terms of reference for her Pastoral Advisory Group was to explore what “radical Christian inclusion” really meant. “We can’t divorce pastoral action from theology because it’s clear that everything needs to be rooted in our understanding of God and God’s purposes.”

Archbishop Welby said that he was sorry for not including age in the list of things the working group should be aware of.

The Revd John Dunnett (Chelmsford) also disliked “doctrine by the back door” and sought clarification about “whether the intent is to offer a front door? By that I mean not just a guide as in Some Issues, or a report as in Pilling, but a teaching document more akin to GS2055, which clarifies and confirms for us what it is that C of E preaches and teaches in these important areas.”

Dr Cocksworth said that, “to an extent”, the answer depended on how the House of Bishops and College of Bishops wanted to work with the material and thinking that the groups produced. He used a geographical image. The mapping would begin with setting out some coordinates: “Where are the views? What are the perspectives? And why are they there? What are the deep roots? Can we really understand them and understand each other?”

This would be followed by a coordination exercise, looking at “where the landmasses are. Where is the common ground and what are the foundations of that? I would hope that would be pretty large. We have deep Trinitarian, incarnational understandings of God, which gives us deep understandings of humanity and the way society works. . . But no doubt we will find there are islands which look to be a fair way apart. I hope we would do something about what bridges can be built between those.”

With regard to these land masses, it would be asked “which ones belong to the continent of one Church? There are certain boundaries which are determined by fundamental Christian positions as articulated in our sources of authority.” He hoped that the Bishops would then be able to articulate “some really powerful common ground” and also identify areas of “real disagreement, and either further thinking needs to be done, or some clear decisions which need to be made about certain understandings”.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Church Representative) asked whether deaf people would be included in the process.

Bishop Hardman spoke of a tendency to see those not “well-educated, white, male” as “having less authority and credibility in what they say”. She sought to offer reassurance that they would seek to appoint the best academic in each field, regardless of factors that had been used to discriminate in the past, including disability.

Professor Joyce Hill (Leeds) asked whether the Bishops were “sufficiently aware of the urgency of this issue. The issue is one which is of great importance to the nation and to the relationship between the C of E and the nation. Though, as an academic, I am very aware indeed of the need to investigate thoroughly, I am very concerned that there is a lot of long-grass potential growing in the programme put before us.”

Archbishop Welby said that views on this would differ: there were “many people who think that this should take a lot longer and many who think we should come to a quick decision now and get it over and done with. I think all of us would like it if there was a magic wand to be able to wave it and have a solution. There is no magic wand.”

He defended the timescale: “we believe very firmly that a timescale of two-and-a-half to three years both does justice to the depth and range of questions that need to be addressed, which are profound and extraordinarily difficult questions, and to the need to begin to draw some conclusions for the Church.”

Given the size of the document, it was, in fact, “a remarkably short period”. He said: “We are aware that there is urgency, but we are also aware that there is huge importance to sustained and serious theological considerations, including very careful listening to different voices and perspectives before views are formulated.”

The essay by the Revd Dr Jessica Martin in the Pilling report was praised by Canon Dagmar Winter (Newcastle), who wanted to know whether the essay could be used to “inform and inspire” the episcopal teaching document; and whether Dr Martin could be asked to be a contributor.

Dr Cocksworth replied that there was “a whole lot of really good material out there”, but he did not want to “get drawn into particular names”. The Bishops were still drawing up the groups, and recognised the “need to get the right balance and expertise”.

The groups would be encouraged to “draw widely and deeply on the extensive resources that are out there” and to “seek views beyond their own membership”.

Hannah Grivell (Derby) asked that DDOs should be advised to stop using Issues in Human Sexuality in the discernment process for new ordinands until the new document was available, because it was “never intended to be used this way, and is now 26 years old”.

Bishop Hardman replied that this was one of the questions she would want the Pastoral Advisory Group to explore. The group’s members, she said, “do not have any authority to change the doctrine of the Church of England, but to look at what kind of questions we ask consistent with that doctrine will be one of our tasks.”

Responding to an earlier answer by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Martin Sewell (Rochester) asked how the Church could resolve the paradox of having young people on the group while saying that group members needed to have expertise.

Archbishop Welby replied that he had been “aware of the paradox” as he gave his earlier answer. He did not know how it could be resolved, but said that the groups would “seek views beyond [their] membership”.

He said that “there is not going to be a proportional representation of all possible views, ages, sorts, types and backgrounds within the Church. That would not be possible without having hundreds of people within each working stream.”

The Bishops would “do our best to be as inclusive as we can be”.

The Prolocutor of the Convocation of the Lower House of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), asked whether the document should be called a “learning and teaching document” instead. “Education is part of what this process is about, as well as telling us the mind of the bishops,” he said.

The Revd Paul Hutchinson (York) pointed out that the timescale for this document’s production was very similar to that of the latest Anglican-Methodist report. “Is the work we’re doing here going to be keeping an eye on the state of deliberations in the Methodist Church?” he asked.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) asked why moral theology had not been given its own work stream in putting together the teaching document.

Archbishop Welby replied to Canon Butler that inevitably it would be a process of learning as well as teaching — an “interactive process” for the whole Church. But in the end it was the job of the Bishops to deliver doctrine, for better or worse. He also said that the process would engage with other denominations, not just the Methodists.

Dr Cocksworth said that moral theology would be “very much” part of the work running through the whole process, especially in the theological stream.

Canon Jane Charman (Salisbury) asked what arrangements the House of Bishops were making to consult the Scottish Episcopal Church, which had just completed its own deliberations on these matters.

The Revd Dr Mark Bratton (Coventry) asked why experience was not included among the sources of authority. “Surely it is the visceral experience of those who have found the Church’s inherited position a burden too hard to bear that has impressed this issue on the mind of Synod?”

Archbishop Welby said that they would seek to learn from all the Provinces in the Anglican Communion, including those that had chosen to affirm same-sex relationships, such as Canada and New Zealand, and Provinces that were heading in different directions.

Dr Cocksworth said that, when handling scripture in the living tradition in the Church, with “our God-given gift of reason . . . we are always engaging with experience”. “There’s no way of doing theology without engaging with real lived experience. It’s the air that we breathe.”

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