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Critics call Bishops’ gay report ungodly

03 February 2017


LGBT CHRISTIANS, gay-rights campaigners, liberal clerics, and members of the General Synod have reacted with anger and frustration to the conclusions and “tone” of the report on human sexuality from the House of Bishops, while conservative Anglicans, and campaigners against gay marriage in the C of E, have expressed concern about its “ambiguous” recommendations.

The report, which was to include feedback from three years of Shared Conversations on sexuality, has already drawn fierce criticism from participants of the private group sessions (News, 27 January). Jayne Ozanne, a Synod member, condemned the paper as “unbelievable, unacceptable, and ungodly” after its publication last Friday.

“There is no evidence in this report that the Bishops have listened to the Shared Conversations, save their own voices and that of the Anglican Communion,” she said in a statement. “The costly and timely process, which demanded so much vulnerability from those of us who are gay, has been a complete waste of time.”

She continued: “This report fails to recognise the mounting evidence that was given of the prolonged and institutionalised spiritual abuse that has been meted out against the LGBT community. To demand that they be celibate for life because of their sexual orientation, and to only recognise one interpretation of scripture on the matter, is cruel, unjust, and ungodly.”

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement also expressed dismay over the report, and its use of, and response to, the Shared Conversations, in an open letter to the House of Bishops, last Friday. “It is now clear that the process has almost entirely failed to hear the cries of faithful LGBTI+ people. You are proposing to formalise ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ among clergy in same-sex relationships.

“This essentially asks clergy to dissemble and keep the nature of their relationships hidden. . . You have done nothing to acknowledge the goodness or sanctity of the relationships of LGBTI+ people, lay and clerical. . . This outcome is an almost complete betrayal of the trust that has been placed in you.”

The chief executive of the gay-rights charity Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, said this week that she was disappointed with the decision by the bishops not to allow same-sex marriages, or blessings, within the C of E, but that proposals for new guidance on same-sex relationships offered some hope.

“LGBT people of faith need to be respected and included in their faith communities, just as they need respect and acceptance in wider society,” she said. “But [the] recommendation for new guidance on same-sex relationships is a positive sign of hope ahead. We’re also pleased that the bishops recognise that it’s time for the Church to adopt a ‘fresh’ approach to how lesbian, gay, and bi people are treated.” The report offers an opportunity for the Church to “work closely” with the LGBT community “to get the next stage right”, she said.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, wrote in his blog this week that he was “glad” of the angry responses to the report, and to the Bishops, on social media — including, he said, accusations of weakness, lies, and cries of “the bastard Bishops” — because they might “be tempered” and bring about a change.

“I am particularly grateful to the people who have contacted me directly to express their emotion and to make their points,” he wrote. “For some, the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when applied to people like me, who have spoken of the need for change in the Church. Where was I? What happened to my voice?”

He answered: “I believe that the suggestions in the report, insufficient as they are, are none the less necessary: that they will help LGBT people in the Church, will make a Church less toxic than the one we have now. But all that is, of course, debatable.”

Once the report had been debated by the Synod, Bishop Bayes wrote, “the road will go on, and no one’s voice will be silenced, as I do not believe mine has been silenced, or will be. And we will continue to learn together what it is to listen, and to dissent, and to pray.

“My prayers will include in particular my LGBT sisters and brothers, inside and outside the Church, whose real-life love has been marginal to our conversation as Bishops, and whose explicit voice so far has been absent there. And I will pray, too, for all the Church, and all the Bishops — the other bastard bishops like me.”

Because, he continued, “on many matters, I know before God how much I am a bastard bishop. But I also have a name: my name is Paul. Every bishop has a name. . . I encourage you to learn that name, and to use it in a conversation shared. It is in this way that the anger of which I wrote some months ago, the anger I welcome even though it is excoriating to me, will be tempered and used by God to change the world.”

But one Synod member, the Revd Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who is the Vicar of Belmont and Pittington, Durham, said that the tone of the report — “begging us to sympathise” with the Bishops — was “not good enough”.

“Emotionally, the tone throughout is all too familiar from the interminable reports on women’s ordination that we had to wade through,” she wrote on her website, “from the basic assumption that these people are an inconvenience, a problem to be solved, a difficulty we would much rather not have to deal with.”

The Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, the Revd Dr Rachel Mann, wrote on her website: “Reading [the report] was an emotional experience. . . When I read the tense prose of a document like this, I see friends, family, and colleagues hungry for affirmation, and not receiving it.”

Speaking on the Sunday programme on Radio 4, Dr Mann said: “I am quite tired, and that is a reflection of the emotional strain that I have felt since first reading the document. On the one hand, I am being told that LGBT people like me are loved; and then we are told, ‘but maybe not as much as you would like to be’. It feels like we are second class.”

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, who has written an open letter to his diocese supporting the report, told the programme: “I am not surprised by the reaction. I understand that this is not offering what some people would have wanted.

“The report has said that we are not at the point where we can change the law, because there is no point trying to change the law if we don’t think that we can achieve it. . . We would not get the two-thirds majority needed in each of the three houses of the General Synod in order to make a legal change. Offering a legal change we couldn’t deliver — that would be a betrayal.”

The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, agreed: “The report represents what can be done in the Church at the present time. But it goes further: it charters a positive way forward for the future, because it recognises that there is more work to be done; but in the context of understanding what a marriage is . . . we need to be clear that the Church’s understanding of marriage is different to that of the State.”

The chairman of GAFCON UK Task Force, Canon Andrew Lines, said: “It is clear that the Bishops haven’t bowed to secular pressure. . . But I would not say I am celebrating. We have a bit of time to pause and think again. I long for a time when bishops are free to do what they have promised at their consecrations: to diligently preach the word of God, and administer godly discipline.”

GAFCON, a conservative Anglican group, issued a statement on Saturday saying that it was “grateful” to the report for its reaffirmation of canon law, but expressed concerns over “ambiguities” in its recommendations. “The Bishops have taken seriously the views of the global Anglican Communion, and the need to maintain consistency with historic and apostolic teaching, while admitting the serious differences in interpretation of this deposit.

“However, we do not have confidence that this document will guarantee the maintenance of orthodoxy within the Church of England for the future. We need to express our serious reservations about the many ambiguities in the text relating to how we, as Anglicans, understand truth and goodness, sin and salvation, and how we should carry out pastoral and liturgical practice.”

The campaign group Christian Concern also said that there were several areas in the report, including its affirmation of same-sex relationships, and promise of “penitence for the treatment” of the Church’s gay and lesbian members, “that need clarification, and that leave the door open for significant changes” to the Church’s practices.

Its chief executive, Andrea Williams, who is a Synod member, said that urgent clarifications were needed to uphold church doctrine. “I am pleased that the Bishops have clearly upheld the teaching of the Church that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, and that sexual relations are properly conducted within heterosexual marriage.”

But, she continued, “it is time for the Bishops to uphold the Church’s teaching, not only in words, but also in practice. There should be no double standards. Clergy who openly and defiantly live and teach in contravention of the Church’s doctrine should be disciplined.”

The Anglican Evangelical network Reform went further. Its chief executive, Susie Leafe, said in a statement: “In adopting a framework which seeks to take a middle path between biblical truth and cultural sensitivities, the Bishops have ensured [that] theological incoherence and hypocrisy will prevail for the foreseeable future, with all the hurt and confusion that will cause. In so doing, they have failed in their primary pastoral duty to teach truth and drive away error.”


‘Key messages’ A BRIEFING document sent to every diocesan communications officer (DCO) in the C of E has summarised the “key messages” of the House of Bishops’ report, and reaffirmed the Church’s official view, which “remains that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman”.

“We believe that all of God’s people find their identity first in Christ. Our differences, be they of gender, age, sexuality, nationality, region, dialect, or class, are secondary to our baptism and first identity in Jesus Christ,” it reads.

The document also offers DCOs official responses to questions about the report, including whether its conclusions put an end to the possibility of same-sex weddings in the C of E. “For the foreseeable future,” it suggests. “Any change [in doctrine] would require both Parliament to change the law and Synod to pass legislation to that end.”

But, it says, this may not be the case “for ever”. “This is about discerning the right next step, not necessarily the end of the road.” Other examples include: “Surely ‘interpreting the existing law to permit maximum freedom’ means carte blanche to clergy to bend the rules as far possible without having to face the hassle of changing the rules.”

In answer, the briefing states: “Part of the purpose of the new teaching document will be to set out not only what is possible, but what is not. The Bishops have made clear that it will be important to set careful boundaries. Any act of public worship needs to be consistent with the doctrines of the Church of England.”

This means that “it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy, but that clergy should be free to apply pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances,” the document says.

Divorcees who intend to remarry “are not an exact parallel” to same-sex couples, and therefore should not be used as a model, it says.

On whether the report condones homophobia, the document states: “Many Christians, including many who experience same-sex attraction, support and believe in the teaching that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, and that marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual relations.”

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