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, today. 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 today. “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 that 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. 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.”
Lastly, 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 discipline 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 last March, 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.”
The report has already drawn fierce criticism from participants in the Shared Conversations, however. Jayne Ozanne, a Synod member, condemned the paper as “unbelievable, unacceptable, and ungodly”.
“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 on Friday. “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 disappointment with the report on Friday, and its use of and response to the Shared Conversations, in an open letter to the House of Bishops. “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.”
Read the report here: www.churchofengland.org