The united front

by
03 February 2017

ANYONE expecting any sort of solution from the House of Bishops to the Church’s seemingly endless dilemma over same-sex relationships has allowed hope to triumph over experience. The group of bishops chosen by the Archbishops to help their peers reflect on the issue was more than usually conservative; and the House and College of Bishops now contain younger members who have done little thinking outside their particular traditions. As the Bishops’ document says, the matter is “not open to easy, painless, or rapid resolution”. That the different parties in this debate are prepared to contemplate a little pain for their opponents is merely a measure of the frustrations now being felt about an impasse that already causes pain to many.

In the absence of such a solution, the fact that the report was agreed nem. con. by the Bishops suggests only one thing: that each party sees something to its liking in the document. This has been achieved by separating doctrine from pastoral practice. The doctrine of marriage, enshrined (a telling word) in Canon B30, has been reasserted, as being “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side”. This pleases the Catholics, to whom doctrine is their link with the received deposit of belief and the universal Church, and the Protestants, who like things to be stated plainly and unambiguously. At the same time, both these parties, with liberals, welcome — perhaps even relish — the freedom to respond to difficult pastoral situations in ways that do not challenge the doctrine directly, but which might, in effect, set it temporarily aside. An analogy has been been made to second marriages. The doctrine of a permanent union is preserved, since that is certainly the intention of the couple at the time of the wedding.

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There are, perhaps, two reasons why the report is so modest about a solution. The first is to do with the changing nature of Anglicanism. In a farewell interview, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, lamented the loss of an Anglican Communion that valued diversity: “that some Churches could say: ‘This is where we stand on human sexuality, but you stand somewhere differently — but that’s OK; we can cope with that.’” Any whiff of permissiveness in the Communion has been jumped upon by conservatives around the world as undermining their own Church’s reputation. It is for this reason that the Bishops’ report should be seen as yet another holding position: all will depend on the details in the teaching document that has been promised, to replace the 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality.

The other reason is more serious: the growing gap between what is being formalised here and how people in the general population, including many in the Church’s pews, understand marriage. We appear to be heading towards a two-state solution: “marriage”, a permanent-ish agreement between two people of either sex contracted for their mutual flourishing, with sexual intimacy (whatever that means) likely, children optional/possible/present at the ceremony; and “holy matrimony”, something churchy for straight people because the Church believes gay sex is wrong. For an example of what happens when pastoral practice and doctrine come apart one need look no further than the birth-control fiasco in Roman Catholic countries. Those who see Christianity as a counter-cultural movement would see no problem here. For those who believe that the Holy Spirit works in wider society as well as in the Church, such a divorce is pastorally disastrous in ways too many to mention.

Much rests on whether the Church takes note of the stern language used in the report about homophobia in any form. It is no small thing to know that all the bishops have committed themselves to a “fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people”. If people are asking themselves what good the two years of Shared Conversations did, it is perhaps here. If attitudes to same-sex relationships are to change, and we believe they must, it will come about when theoretical opinions are tested against real-life situations. Having to consider actual case-studies has clearly had an effect on several of the bishops, and could prove significant in the forthcoming General Synod discussions.

The best way to regard the Bishops’ report is to take it on its own estimation, as a search for “tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community”. In this way, attention can move swiftly towards a new teaching document, informed by theologians, sociologists, and experts in pastoral care; new guidance for clergy about what pastoral provision for same-sex couples might allow; and a new approach to those preparing for ordination. If these next steps can convince the population at large that the Church is no longer motivated by homophobia, this latest report will have proved its worth.

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