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Bishops apologise for tone of sexuality report

24 February 2017

A PRESENTATION preceded the debate on the House of Bishops’ report Marriage and Same-sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, talked about why he hoped the case studies would prove useful. For almost 41 years of his ministry, the Church seemed to have been discussing same-sex relationships. He had led a deanery-synod discussion on the Gloucester report in the last 1970s. It was a very “provisional report” that, like others that had gone before it, had “not received a rapturous reception in all quarters. I regret any pain or anger it may have caused. If we have got the tone wrong I am very sorry.”

Throughout his ministry, he had cherished the friendship of gay clergy and had tried to make the Church a “safe and welcoming place for their ministry. Only they can say whether they feel that’s true. But I know the Church of England owes them much. Some minister in our most challenging parishes and situations.”

He was also a bishop who “seeks to be loyal to the Catholic tradition of our Church and to the doctrine of the universal Church as we have received it”; and he had “learned much” from Evangelical clergy and laity who had challenged him in his understanding of scripture. He spoke of the promises he had made at his episcopal consecration.

It would be “misleading” not to confess that he had been “conflicted in presenting this report”. In that, he was far from being alone, among the Bishops and wider C of E. He moved on to talking about the history of the C of E’s history of dealing with these issues. It was, perhaps, because the House of Bishops was “so conflicted” that it found case studies “valuable”. He suggested that “we may discover that our pastoral response begins to re-shape our theological convictions. There is always a dialogue between doctrine and pastoral practice.”

The case studies had revealed the “breadth of pastoral responses which lay within the present disciplines of the Church. Sometimes it is our own pastoral imagination which is lacking rather than pastoral possibilities.” It was this that had led to the phrase “maximum freedom”.

He moved on to looking at previous statements, which had been in place since 1987 and 1991. They “did not begin to anticipate the wider situation in society we now experience with the advent of same-sex marriage”. They followed the publication of the Wolfenden report, chaired by an Anglican layman. A “growing acceptance” of homosexual lifestyles had been “well reflected” in the Gloucester report (Homosexual Relationships: A contribution to discussion), published in 1979.

The Lambeth Conferences of 1978 and 1988 had been the first to have resolutions directly referring to homosexuality. The latter had called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”. He was “not sure” the Church had been attentive enough to these two things. The possibility of a such a study had been a “vain hope”, partly because of a “shift of opinion in the public mind”, fuelled by a popular media that had been “hostile” to homosexual relationships, and including Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.

He spoke of the Osborne report of 1989, which was never published, and the Revd Tony Higton’s Private Member’s Motion in the Synod in November 1987: “It was argued that it simply restated traditional teaching, though it did so in the terse terms of a General Synod motion.”

Nearly everything that had happened since in the C of E had been a “reaction to that motion”, which had been voted in by 403 to eight. At the time, some in the popular media had criticised the Church for being too liberal.

In 1991, Issues in Human Sexuality had been published, and, despite not being the “last word”, had become policy. This was “surprising”, given what the document said about itself. It had not even begun to “glimpse” civil partnerships, let alone same-sex marriage; hence the need for a new teaching document.

The case studies sought to “present us with the tension which can exist between our determination to uphold firmly the teaching on marriage and sexual relationships as currently expressed in our Canons, and the commitment to affirm the place of LGBT people within the Church”.

Any group drafting the teaching document proposed would need to include lesbian and gay people, theologians, parish clergy, and others. The case-studies work by the Bishops had produced “conversations of a very different character and quality on this subject”, and the House believed that it would be helpful for the Synod to engage in a similar process.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said that he did not want to attempt “an exercise in self-justification” or to “make excuses” for the report. “I do want to apologise to those members of Synod who found our report difficult, who didn’t recognise themselves in it, who had expected more from us that we actually delivered, for the tone of the report.”

He denied that the Reflections Group had “suppressed the diversity of understanding and the range of views that exist in the House and College. What we have tried to do is to come to a common mind — an expression of where the House’s thinking has got to. It’s a pretty conservative document, but it is owned by the whole House and the vast majority of the College. So it would be wrong to suggest that this is a constipated exercise in maintaining a false unity among us.”

The group work done by the Bishops was not “a way of objectifying the flesh-and-blood lives of lesbian and gay members of our churches”, or of “ignoring” the Shared Conversations. The group had considered a range of possibilities, from “a more conservative pastoral approach” through to full acceptance of same-sex marriage.

He urged people to take part in the group work: “being part of the process is always preferable to non-participation. . . We want every voice to be in the room and to be heard.” Groups could appoint alternative chairs to bishops, if they wished.

He reiterated that the debate was on a “neutral motion”, but acknowledged that not taking note had become “totemic for many members”. He urged the Synod to take note of the report, which was not “the last word. It’s a situation report. It represents where our thinking has got to. You may not like it, but that’s where we are. Taking note doesn’t commit you to our thinking.”

Behind the debate lay “major faultlines. There is not shared understanding of theological positions between those who see themselves as upholding . . . an orthodox position and those who see themselves advocating, from the point of view of scripture, a position of change.”

Also lacking was a consensus on what was meant by “good disagreement. . . many who want change believe that it’s possible . . . to have pluriformity of practice in the Church. Others don’t believe that it’s possible to live in that way because of the canonical and legal constraints of uniformity that exist in our Church.”

He continued: “We will find this debate a continuing source of disagreement, because we haven’t coalesced around an end-point. When we legislated for women to be bishops, even those opposed came to the view that the Church of England had to make it possible for women to be bishops.”

The report “acknowledges a place of starting. More conversation is needed. We don’t yet know the next stage — nor yet when and whether we can bring any further report to Synod.” There were, he said, “no secret plans up the Bishops’ sleeves about what to do next”.

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