CHURCH doctrine on marriage will not be changed to accommodate same-sex relationships, but more detailed teachings should be issued to the clergy offering “fresh thought”, and understanding of the Church’s gay and lesbian members, in the context of “changed” social attitudes towards sexuality, a report from the House of Bishops has concluded.
Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations was finalised by the House on Monday, and published with the remainder of the General Synod agenda, on Friday of last week. It is to be presented by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, on Wednesday 15 February.
“Society was in a very different space only 25 years ago,” Bishop James told a press briefing last Friday. “The Church has got to sustain some fidelity to its historic teaching, while also recognising that it seeks to affirm all its lesbian and gay members. That is the tension.”
The report recommends that the Church adopt a “fresh tone of welcome and support” for its lesbian and gay members, and, through “rebuke and affirmation”, shed any homophobic attitudes regarding same-sex relationships.
But it also reaffirms the teaching, recognised by canon law, that marriage is “the lifelong union of one man and one woman”, and suggests that a change in doctrine would have an impact on the relationship between the C of E and the Anglican Communion.
“We are mindful of the unity of the Church, which is not an insignificant consideration,” Bishop James said. “For the Church of England to change its understanding of the doctrine of marriage when the overwhelming majority of Churches have not done so would need a very compelling theological case — for the moment, the House of Bishops is not clear that that is the truth.”
The report suggests, instead, that the Church should issue a detailed teaching document, which would offer guidance to the clergy on both same-sex relationships and marriage. In the House of Bishops, it says, there was “a clear (though not unanimous) weight of opinion in favour of the option framed in the following terms: ‘Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law or the doctrine of the Church”.
Its teachings — which Bishop James said he would like to see debated in the Synod within two years — would replace those issued by the House in the 1990s, when the Local Government Act forbidding the public promotion of homosexuality was in force.
Guidance should also be issued to clerics on the provision of pastoral care to same-sex couples and their families, the report says. Current guidelines suggest that clerics may conduct “informal prayers” to mark or celebrate civil partnerships or same-sex marriages in church. But many of the clergy had been “puzzled” by what this permitted, said the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Peter Broadbent, who was on the panel for the briefing.
Bishop James agreed, but said that he had been struck by the loyalty of the clergy to the Church’s existing teaching. “There is much less disobedience than people imagine,” he said. “There is some variety of practice, and that is one of the reasons that we want to address this issue and give better and more consistent advice.”
Last, the report suggests that fresh guidance should be issued on the “nature of questions” put to ordinands and clerics about their lifestyle. The current questioning about relationships and lifestyle was not working well, Bishop James said. “It’s felt that there’s too much concentration on whether ordinands or clergy are in sexually active same-sex relationships, rather than framing questions about sexual morality within a much wider examination of the way in which all ordinands and clergy live their lives.
“The Church of England has always been suspicious of intrusive interrogation of its members, preferring to trust clergy and lay people in their Christian discipleship. However, all clergy are asked at their ordination whether they will fashion lives ‘after the way of Christ’. We believe we should revisit how this is explored beforehand, so that the same questions are addressed to everybody.” This was not, he said, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” — “in any shape or form”.
There is no indication in the report that there will be any attempt to change Canon C26, which states: “A clerk in Holy Orders shall not give himself to such occupations, habits, or recreations as do not befit his sacred calling, or may be detrimental to the performance of the duties of his office, or tend to be a just cause of offence to others; and at all times he shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.”
Writing of the 1991 statement, Issues in Human Sexuality, which framed the policy that the clergy could not “claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships”, the Bishops state: “There are good grounds in law for holding the clergy to an exemplary standard of behaviour consistent with the Church of England’s doctrine, where the laity are not bound in the same way, and that the clergy open themselves to disicipline if they contravene the guidance of the bishops on such matters. But the nature of those standards, and the kind of discipline to which the clergy might be subject, follow from the agreed teaching of the Church, and the nature of the guidance offered by the bishops.”
The report draws on feedback from the Shared Conversations on sexuality, the first of which took place over a year to March 2016, and involved about 700 lay and ordained members of the C of E (News, 11 March). A second session of conversations took place behind closed doors at the end of the York meeting of the Synod in July (News, 12 July).
“There was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage . . . [and] a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited,” the report says.
But the most “useful and fruitful” reflections came from group discussions within the House and College of Bishops, Bishop Broadbent said. Similar group-based work was to be offered to Synod members during the February sessions, though it would not be a continuation of Shared Conversations. “We anticipate that the groups will enable further good listening and thoughtful reflection across the Synod between people of a diversity of viewpoints.”
Read the report here: www.churchofengland.org
There was talk, but who was listening? PARTICIPANTS in the regional Shared Conversations on sexuality have expressed disappointment with the Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships, arguing that it fails to reflect this broader dialogue, writes Madeleine Davies.
“Having been part of the Conversations, it felt like we had exhausted our usefulness, dare I say not come up with the answer the House of Bishops was looking for, and [were] therefore disregarded,” said the Vicar of Wychwood, the Revd Kate Stacey. “The statement certainly does not bear a great deal of resemblance to the Conversations that we had.”
While the report contained “hints of grace”, it seems “to be ‘same old, same old, sorry about that’, which just doesn’t seem to me to be good enough. We are living in times when extraordinary appeasement is happening, and this statement seems to me to be another demonstration of that.”
The Shared Conversations were never designed to achieve agreement, but to enable dialogue to take place, as was acknowledged by participants. But concerns were raised early on about how they might be “fed upwards or outwards” (News, 11 March).
The Rector of East Barnet, the Revd James Mustard, said this week that his group had been told that a “short summary” of the Conversations would be sent to the Bishops. It would have been “very helpful” if this summary could have been included as an appendix to last week’s report, he said, “in order to demonstrate that it is indeed a response to common concerns raised by those Shared Conversations”.
The report’s commitment to a “fresh tone and culture” was “laudable”, he said, and the call for “theological coherence” encouraging, given the “paucity of theological reflection” during the regional Conversation. “If they do, as pledged, make pastoral theology, ecclesiology, and moral theology ‘cardinal points’ to aid their navigation of ongoing discussion, this could be a transformative process for the whole Church.” But these two points were “undermined”, he said, by the refusal to explore liturgies for blessing.
Professor Helen King, of the diocese of Oxford, another participant, queried why the regional Conversations had taken place. She could not see “any sign” that the experiences shared had been taken on board by the Bishops.
“What is a new teaching document on marriage going to say to people like me, married in church to a divorced man after going through the Church’s set process for this?” she asked. “As a church, we have found ways to accommodate those who don’t believe a woman can preach or lead. Why can’t we also find ways to enable those who, in conscience, can bless a marriage between two men or two women?”
The Rector of Steeple Aston, the Revd Marcus Green, said that, during the Conversations, there had been “expectation that people were going to be listened to”. The Conversations he was part of had “in no way been heard in this report”.
He was “deeply disappointed” by the report, which contained “deeply discriminatory” elements. The doctrine of marriage was “not credal, not central to who we are,” he argued. He heard the report saying that “gay people are not quite people”.