More than 100 Oxford clergy criticise bishops’ LGBTI guidance

09 January 2019

GEOFF CRAWFORD/STEFANO CAGNI

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaking at a meeting of the General Synod

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaking at a meeting of the General Synod

MORE than 100 clerics in the diocese of Oxford have written to criticise their bishops’ approach to LGBTI+ people. A letter released on Monday warns that, if the bishops cannot affirm traditional teaching, many of the signatories will consider seeking alternative oversight.

The letter, signed by 104 serving clerics in the diocese, questions whether people in same-sex relationships should be ordained, or receive communion.

The letter addresses the diocese’s four bishops: “We would ask them to recognise the seriousness of the difference between us: advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both. The situation is serious.”

The letter is a response to an ad clerum, “Clothed With Love”, sent by the Bishops of Oxford, Dorchester, Reading, and Buckingham, in October, calling for “an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people” (News, 2 November). Sent to 1500 clergy in the diocese, it called for “dialogue and conversation” with clergy who are seeking guidance on pastoral responses to same-sex couples, and suggested that the diocese may produce “short-term” guidance in advance of national provision.

It also commended the five principles set out in the diocese of Lichfield, which state that “nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity”, and affirm that “LGBT+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service in the local church” (News, 18 May 2018).

In their response, the 104 clergy write that they are “disturbed by the apparent ambiguity of the language” in the ad clerum. The assertion that “LGBTI+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service in the local church” carries with it “a range of understandings about what is appropriate by way of lifestyle”, they argue. “We cannot see how it is right to accept as Christian leaders those who advocate lifestyles that are not consistent with New Testament teaching.”

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With regard to the statement on the eucharist, they observe that “indiscriminate participation seems to be inconsistent with the witness of scripture . . . [which] clearly discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves.”

The signatories are also concerned “by the references to LGBTI+ ‘identity’, when as Christians we want to urge that our identity is to be found ‘in Christ’; by the generalisation of ‘gender identity’, when there are so many aspects to this question; by the apparent desire to see the Church innovating liturgically in order to meet an expressed desire of some same-sex couples; and by the organisation of a group of LGBTI+ advisers which does not include same-sex attracted people who advocate celibacy in faithfulness to scripture”.

They express alarm that the bishops’ letter lacks “any articulation of the current teaching of the Church of England on marriage and sexual relationships, based as it is on the words of scripture, nor is there any expressed support for it”.

Their main concern, they write, is with the “direction of travel” of the diocese. “In its desire for new expressions of ‘inclusion’, it could end up excluding those who hold to the traditional teaching of scripture, and doing a great disservice to those of us who experience same-sex attraction.

“We are not here simply stating an aversion to change; we are, however, convinced that failing to hold the Bible’s teaching out to everyone, including those who identify as LGBTI+, is to show a lack of that very love the letter urges us to exhibit.”

The signatories disavow any sense of being “morally superior” and acknowledge that they have “much to learn from others, including those with whom we disagree”; but they conclude that “the issue concerns the teaching of Christ’s Church, however lacking we may be as disciples of Christ. . .

“We would love our bishops to articulate clearly God’s love for us in helping us see both the attractiveness of deep friendships, but also the appropriate setting for sexual intimacy — namely in marriage between a man and a woman. However, if they are unwilling to do this, we would ask them to recognise the seriousness of the difference between us: advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both.

“The situation is serious. If not addressed, we would all struggle to support the leadership of our bishops in this matter, and a number of our churches may want to seek alternative means of receiving episcopal ministry, in recognition that your position is seriously differentiated from theirs. This would be a tragedy.”

The letter also warns that a separation would have “both pastoral and possible financial implications for the diocese”.

The signatories say that there is “much in the letter that we joyfully affirm. . . We wish to respect all people, and we endorse the view of the Archbishops that in discussions, no person is a problem or an issue. . . We entirely endorse the view that nobody should be told that their sexual orientation makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.”

Several of the signatories to the letter lead large Evangelical churches in the diocese.

It was co-ordinated by four Evangelical priests: the Vicar of St Andrew and St Mary Magdalene, Maidenhead, the Revd Will Stileman; the Rector of Aborfield with Barkham, the Revd Piers Bickersteth; the Rector of Buckingham, the Revd Will Pearson-Gee; and the Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, Canon Vaughan Roberts.

Signatories include four clergy members of General Synod: the Revd Sam Allberry, an NSM at St Andrew and St Mary Magdalene; the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, an NSM at St Leonard, Eynsham and Cassington, and a tutor at Wycliffe Hall Theological College; Canon Charlie Cleverly, the Rector of St Aldate’s, Oxford; and Canon Frog Orr-Ewing, the Rector of Latimer Minster.

Signatories are overwhelmingly Evangelical, but Anglo-Catholic signatories include the Vicar of St Martin, Fenny Stratford, Canon Victor Bullock; the Vicar of Hanslope, Canon Gary Ecclestone; and the Vicar of St Mary and St Giles, Stony Stratford with Calverton, Fr Ross Northing.

Several of the signatories teach at Wycliffe Hall, including the Director of Ministerial Training, the Revd Greg Downes, and the Vice-Principal and Academic Dean, the Revd Dr Justyn Terry.

Six of the clergy signatories are women. The letter has also been signed by 28 members of the laity — three of whom are members of the General Synod— and 16 retired members of the clergy.

A letter of response from the bishops emphasises that “Clothed With Love” was a pastoral letter: “It is not intended as a theological statement of a position or as a contribution in itself to the wider debate in the Church.” It was written “primarily to address the significant sense of hurt and exclusion felt by LGBTI+ Christians and their families”, and had “helped each of us to have significant pastoral conversations”.

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The wording concerning the eucharist was consistent with the policy set out in the Canons, Issues in Human Sexuality, and the House of Bishops guidelines on same-sex marriage, they said.

“There is no desire on our part to diminish support for those who are seeking to uphold and to live within the Church of England’s current teaching,” they wrote. “There is no intention either to exclude in any way those who hold to the traditional teaching of Scripture now or in the future. . . If the Church discerns that some further development in polity is needed at this point on human sexuality we will need to take equal care both locally and nationally to honour and respect those who continue to hold the traditional view.”

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, wrote that one option open to him was “to remain as silent as possible on these difficult questions, avoid them wherever possible and take refuge in ambiguity. This does not seem to me to be the right course of action at this time.”

The letter began with reassurance: “As bishops we respect and value each of you, the ministry you offer, and your commitment to scripture and the historic tradition of the church.”

On Monday, Mr Pearson-Gee suggested that the letter confounded the suggestion that only a “handful” of people were concerned by the bishops’ ad clerum.

“Those opposing include almost every single leader of the largest churches, as well as many other leaders across the spectrum, including Anglo-Catholic Brothers,” he said.

On Wednesday, another member of General Synod, the Rector of Winslow, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, said that he agreed with the signatories — “who by and large represent a few of Oxford’s larger churches”  — “that the overall direction of travel appears to be moving towards greater  inclusivity, albeit one which respects those who wish to adhere to the historic position. This should, given the Archbishops desire for a radical new inclusion in the life of the Church for LGBTI people, be expected.”

He was “very concerned by the way that the term 'in Christ' was used . . . and by the seeming rejection of the Canons and bishop's guidelines in respect of admission to the sacraments. As the Oxford bishops rightly say a great many people, from both sides of the divide, have over the long-term reflected theologically on these issues before arriving at their current positions.”

Read the letter and the bishops’ response here

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