A NEW chaplaincy team for LGBT people and their families is to be set up in the diocese of Oxford, where bishops are considering producing “short-term” guidance on pastoral responses to same-sex relationships.
In a letter sent to all clergy in the diocese on Tuesday, the four bishops express concern about the “pain” caused to LGBT people and their families by the Church’s ongoing debates over sexuality, and set out a range of actions designed to ensure better pastoral care.
In addition to a volunteer chaplain in each episcopal area the bishops invite “dialogue and conversation” with clergy seeking guidance on the recognition of same-sex relationships: the subject of “an increasing number of enquiries”.
While acknowledging that the House of Bishops guidelines prohibit services of blessing and that the Pastoral Advisory Group, led by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, is still at work, the bishops write that they “warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance”.
They continue: “Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short term for the benefit of this Diocese.”
The letter acknowledges the work under-way nationally — including the teaching document Living in Love and Faith (News, 13 July) — but suggests that, given the timescales involved, an episcopal response is required.
“It is clear that it will be some time before the process of discernment in the Church of England reaches a conclusion,” they write. “During that period we want to encourage, above all, an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people across the Diocese of Oxford.”
They write: “We have received many requests for guidance and we are convinced that remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well. . . We are conscious as bishops of the pain felt by many LGBTI+ people and their families in the midst of these continuing debates. As a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ.”
The letter notes that the presence in the diocese of “a number of individuals . . . holding different views are currently playing a role in national and international debates. We hope that each will be supported and respected by their home diocese in the ministry to which they have been called.”
Debates should be “grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition as well as in deep prayer and our common life of worship”, they write. “They must also be conducted with attention to people’s experiences and in a spirit of love, mutual care and respect.”
Online exchanges that can be “hurtful and damaging” are noted. “Bullying and harassment are damaging and not acceptable as part of the reasoned and loving debate the Church needs to have.”
The diocese is home to both Jayne Ozanne, a prominent LGBT campaigner and member of the General Synod, and the Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, the Revd Vaughan Roberts, a signatory of the Nashville Statement (News, 8 September 2017). The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, is an outspoken advocate of a change in the Church’s teaching on sexuality (News, 3 October 2014).
The bishops envisage that the role of the new volunteer chaplains will be “to listen, to offer support and to advise local clergy and congregations and ourselves in our welcome and support of LGBTI+ people and their families, and to learn from the insights of LGTBI+ people about being church together.”
Emphasising that both they and the chaplains will “continue to work within existing Bishops’ Guidelines on human sexuality”, the bishops pledge to “continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.”
They also announce plans to set aside time to “listen in particular to the experiences of LGBTI+ people”, some of whom have been convened as advisers by the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft. “We are concerned to listen well to LGBTI+ people from a variety of perspectives including both those seeking change in the Church of England’s polity and those seeking to to live faithfully within it.”
The letter did not come as a surprise to the Rector of Winslow, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, whose daughter, Lilly, is gay. He praised the Bishops’ intervention which was in line with the diocese’s vision to be “contemplative, compassionate and courageous”.
“If we are really going to unpack ‘radical new inclusion’, it has to have there elements to have currency within Anglican ecclesiology: pastoral, sacramental, liturgical,” he said on Wednesday, noting that one of the sub-headings of the letter was “liturgy and prayers”.
The letter contradicted the idea, expressed in the Evangelical bishops’ letter (News, 19 October), that there could be a “single, universal ethic”, he suggested. “That position is not sustainable. The idea that bishops will speak as one is a boat that has sailed. Bishops should be able to speak their mind.” The letter “talked very much about experience and listening and not relegating that to being second priority vis a vis the plain words of scripture.”
It proposed, he wrote in a blog, “a highly incarnational, non dogmatic, method of doing theology. In proposing this methodology the Oxford bishops, are in my view, offering an approach which meets the demands, made by the eleven evangelical bishops, for ‘serious intellectual engagement’.”
The Rector of Buckingham, the Revd Will Pearson-Gee, said: “I welcome everything in the letter that helps our churches be more genuinely welcoming places for all people. I also welcome the way in which the bishops are careful to make the point that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity should inhibit anyone from playing a full part in the life of the church.
“However, what is less clear . . . is whether they wish the Church to be welcoming of everything for which LGBTI+ people may campaign. The recent ‘gay pride’ eucharist in Reading Minster is an example of an event that those who hold to an orthodox view of marriage found upsetting.”
He quoted the evangelical bishops’ letter, which stated that: “faithful, sexually abstinent love in singleness and non-marital friendships, is the teaching of Scripture. It therefore expresses the character and will of God.”
“Any new teaching or liturgy that is inconsistent with this will therefore be divisive and will lead to many orthodox parishes wondering whether they still have a future within a revisionist Church of England,” he said.
With the deadline for completion of national work still almost two years away, several dioceses have sought to issue guidance on the “radical Christian inclusion” called for by the Archbishops last year
The Oxford letter commends the five principles set out by the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, earlier this year, which include a proscription of “intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender” and of barring people from leadership on grounds of sexuality (News, 18 May).
Last year, the Bishop of Chelmsford said that his diocese must work with LGBT Christians to “find appropriate ways of expressing their love — for it is not good for human beings to be alone — in permanent, faithful, stable relationships”. There was “no reason why prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships – perhaps a eucharist — cannot be offered” (News, 17 March, 2017).
The diocese of Hereford has asked the House of Bishops to commend an “order of prayer and dedication” to be used for same-sex couples after a civil partnership or marriage (News, 20 October 2017).
The Business Committee has ruled that no such motions will be scheduled for debate at General Synod until Living in Love and Faith is completed (News, 15 June).
In July, the Bishop of Newcastle told General Synod that the Pastoral Advisory Group was working “within the current boundaries of our current teaching and doctrine as the Church of England has received it. . . I am very relaxed about the fact that we will not please anybody. If we don’t, we are probably doing really well (News, 13 July).”