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Retired bishops take their successors to task over sexuality report

13 February 2017


Convenor: the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, as Bishop of Leicester, led the Bishops' opposition to the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, in the House of Lords, in 2013

Convenor: the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, as Bishop of Leicester, led the Bishops' opposition to the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, in the House of Lords, in 2013

NINETEEN retired bishops have signed an open letter to the serving bishops criticising their recent report, Marriage and Same-sex Relationships, arguing that it fails to reflect the voice of LGBT people.

“Our perception is that while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice,” they write, in a letter published on Saturday. Had this voice been heard, the signatories argue, there would have been less focus in the report on legislative change: “Going down the road of seeking a change in the law or doctrinal formulation would indeed not have been realistic — but you might not have had to spend as much time explaining why if those other voices had been allowed to come through more clearly.”

In addition, they argue: “You have really not allowed the theological voice of some of us to be heard properly.”

The letter invokes the experience of the signatories, and suggests that the serving bishops may have spent “too much time and too much effort” on the report, resulting in a sense that they were “managing — rather than perhaps enabling or leading — the conflicts that are bound to occur. . . We remember how exhausting that is, and how it seems to blunt the edge of bishops’ own passionate convictions, which might divide them but also invigorate the conversation.”

The letter continues: “The tone and culture of your document are incredibly familiar — we’ve been there and talked in that tone of voice, and it prevents calls for a change of culture, of course offered in complete sincerity by you, from ringing true.”

The letter speaks of “some reticence” about entering the debate, and acknowledges the “perhaps luxurious perspective of retirement”; but it justifies the intervention by invoking the “bond” they feel for their successors, and their concern that the Church “should be faithful in its commendation of the gospel to the society at large”.

A study of the signatories’ previous stances on sexuality reveals historic support of LGBT groups and legislative change, but also changes in their own thinking over the years, and the extent to which articulating a minority view can result in conflict within dioceses.

Among the long-time proponents of change is Dr Peter Selby, a former Bishop of Worcester, who once likened the Lambeth Conference debate on human sexuality to a Nüremberg rally (News, 12 February, 1999). His support for LGBT people resulted in some petitioning for alternative oversight (News, 12 November, 1999). Another signatory, the Rt Revd Martin Wharton, also faced a call for alternative oversight during his tenure as Bishop of Newcastle (News, 19 June, 1998).

The Rt Revd John Gladwin, another signatory, was a patron of Changing Attitude while Bishop of Chelmsford. He was lead bishop in the House of Lords during the debate on civil partnerships, during which he opposed an amendment, regarded by some as a wrecking one, that would have extended civil partnerships to family members. (It was supported by six bishops.) “It is important that we as Christians do not go around talking of civil partners as if they were married,” he told the Synod, in 2007 (News, 2 March, 2007).

Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford and another signatory, has called on the Church to welcome same-sex marriage. He welcomed the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004 and voted in favour of allowing them to take place in religious premises (News, 26 February, 2010). He also supported the repeal of Section 28 (News, 28 January, 2000) and legislation enabling gay couples to adopt (8 November, 2002).

He was a member of the working party who helped to Issues in Human Sexuality, the guidance published in 1991 (News, 6 December, 1991), described in the Bishops’ report as in need of updating. In 1997, he articulated a more conservative view to the Synod than that he currently holds, arguing that he could not commend “as God’s purpose” the decision to be in a “loving and faithful homophile partnership”. Gay clergy could not “claim liberty of conscientious dissent, like the laity”, he said (18 July, 1997).

His successor in Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, apologised in the wake of the Bishops pastoral statement in 2014, saying that its tone “had the awkward sound of scratching a blackboard” (News, 28 March, 2014) and promising that there would be no “witch hunt” in his diocese.

Evangelicals are included among the signatories, including the Rt Revd David Gillett, a formerly Bishop of Bolton, who trained at Oak Hill, and the Rt Revd Roy Williamson, a former Bishop of Southwark, who faced protests after indicating in a Radio 4 interview that he would consider ordaining gay priests who were in a stable relationships (News, 24 March, 1995).

Another signatory, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, a former Bishop of Leicester, was the Bishops’ convener in the House of Lords during the debate on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, voicing the Bishops’ opposition (News, 1 February, 2013). He also moved an amendment to the Bill to prevent the forcing of local­ authority registrars to officiate at same-sex marriages (News, 21 June, 2013). He hinted at the time that “some of us . . . would be more sympathetic to the Church providing ways in which for Christian gay people their partnerships could be recognised and prayed for” (News, 15 June, 2012).

Since publication of the letter, another five retired bishops have signed the letter, and one serving bishop, the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson. They include Dr John Saxbee a former Bishop of the diocese of Lincoln, where prayers for thanksgiving for loving relationships were made available in 2005 (News, 7 January, 2005).

Not all bishops who have spoken out about changing their mind on this issue have added their names. The Rt Revd James Jones, a former Bishop of Liverpool, wrote in 1998 of how reading of the love between David and Jonathan had led to a change in his view. He also apologised to the Dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John, whose appointment as the Bishop of Reading he had opposed (News, 8 February, 2008).

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