BISHOPS are to spend the next two years drawing on “the best available scholarship” across the sciences, scripture, and history, to develop a new teaching document on sexuality, it was announced at the General Synod media briefing last week.
The size of the task is too great for a single group to undertake, a note to the General Synod (GS Misc 1158), released at the briefing, says. A co-ordinating group of bishops will oversee “thematic working groups” and bring a final text to the House of Bishops for approval by early 2020. Next month’s General Synod meeting will receive a presentation on the Saturday morning about the proposals.
This group will be advised by a standing group of “core consultant members”, comprising clergy and laity, and will “consult widely”. Each of the thematic groups will be chaired by a bishop. Sociology, anthropology, and genetics will be among the disciplines incorporated, as will biblical ethics, dogmatics, and church history.
The document was first proposed by the Archbishops in February, after the vote against the House of Bishops’ report on sexuality (News, 24 February). GS Misc 1158 states that, in the light of this debate, “we have become clearer about the scale and seriousness of the task.” Pursuing the “radical new Christian inclusion” promised by the Archbishops is a “formidable undertaking”, it says, and will be “costly. . . But nothing less will address the matter with the seriousness, the depth of wisdom, and the diversity of possible approaches that should characterise authentic Christian exploration of the mystery of our humanity, of which our sexuality is an integral dimension.”
Speaking to the media on Friday, the Synod’s secretary general, William Nye, denied that the proposed work amounted to kicking the issue into the long grass: “A teaching document on issues as wide as this and drawing on such a wide range of disciplines is not something . . . you can do in three months,” he said. “Much better to say, ‘To do it seriously, it’s going to take a while.’”
The aim of the teaching-document group, as set out in the note, is to produce “a major teaching document on marriage and sexuality which will be endorsed by the whole House of Bishops for commendation to the Church of England”. The note sets out eight areas that this should cover. These are:
- A summary of the Church’s tradition regarding marriage and sexual relationships, including its scriptural and theological foundations;
- An indication of how this tradition has adapted and been sustained through periods of radical social change;
- An analysis of rapidly changing social and familial structures over recent decades and the role of marriage in securing social goods in times of fluidity;
- Reflections on contemporary understandings of human sexuality and the contribution of other disciplines, especially the sciences;
- A summary of the social trends which have led to the desire for faithful, permanent same-sex relationships to be recognised and celebrated publicly, and the Church’s theological and practical responses to the advent of civil partnerships and equal marriage;
- Theological and ethical reflections on the pastoral and missional imperatives for the Church in the light of these developments;
- Guidance for members of the Church of England on the spiritual and theological importance of marriage, on options for Christians in their sexual and familial relationships, and on relationships with those who are in other relationship structures;
- Clarity about the extent, and limits, of consensus within the Church — mapping the areas where we continue to disagree.
The document would replace the House of Bishops’ 1991 teaching document Issues in Human Sexuality.
The members of the co-ordinating group, chaired by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, are the Bishops of Salisbury, Dorking, Hull, Fulham, and Bradford. The core consultant members named so far are the Vicar of St John’s, Waterloo, in London, Canon Giles Goddard, a former chairman of Inclusive Church; the Canon Andrew Goddard, a fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and member of the Church of England Evangelical Council; the Revd Dr Jason Roach, an assistant curate of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in London; and the Rt Revd Dr Bill Musk, a bishop formerly serving in North Africa.
Four thematic working groups have been announced. The Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, a former Chief Nursing Officer, will head Social and Biological Sciences. The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, will head Biblical; the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, will head Theological. The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, will head Historical. Other members have yet to be named.
In an open letter to the House of Bishops, published before the February debate on its report, 19 retired bishops wrote that “while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice” (News, 17 February).
The note to the Synod says that responses to the report “underlined the point that the ‘subject’ of human sexuality can never simply be an ‘object’ of consideration for us. . . If we would presume to say anything on this subject, we must know that we are talking about and talking to people, with the immense capacities for joy and for pain, created in the divine image and precious in God’s sight in ways we can barely begin to fathom.”
The new document, the note says, is not expected to achieve reconciliation, “but we need our internal debates to be grounded in the best available scholarship, across many disciplines and to draw in the perspectives of people in all their difference. If the teaching document can express clearly the ground on which we are agreed — and be very clear about where we disagree, and why — it will have done its work well.”
In addition to a teaching document, the Archbishops promised a pastoral-oversight group, with the task of “supporting and advising dioceses on pastoral actions with regard to our current pastoral approach to human sexuality”. The new note refers to a desire to “make explicit our commitment to show[ing] the love of Christ to all people, regardless of sexual or gender identity”.
Among the group’s responsibilities, set out in the note, is reviewing “and, as needed, revising” the advice provided by the House of Bishops on pastoral ministry to same-sex couples. A draft form will be brought to the House of Bishops. This will be undertaken “in careful liaison” with work on the teaching document, so no deadline is given.
Another task is to offer advice, when requested, regarding “specific cases” of “both pastoral care and discipline”. It refers to an “appropriate level of national consistency in approach”.
The episcopal members of this group are the Bishops of Willesden, Grantham, Exeter, and Repton. The other members are the Revd Sam Allberry, an NSM at St Andrew and St Mary Magdalene, Maidenhead, who is a trustee of Living Out; Dr Jamie Harrison, the chairman of the House of Laity, who said last year that he had been “naturally more conservative, traditional” on sexuality, but that he was “trying to read more about it, trying to understand better” (News, 15 January, 2016); the Archdeacon of Rochdale and Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of York, the Ven. Cherry Vann, who said last year that gay people had felt “very hurt and isolated and rejected” (News, 15 January, 2016); and the Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Angell Town, in south London. During the February debate, Dr Mallett said that LGBTI Christians felt a “similar pain” to the pain that she had felt as a black woman who had felt “excluded and ‘othered’”.