Angela Tilby: Clergy can be trusted to use discretion

31 January 2020

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WHEN the House of Bishops published its pastoral statement last week, my immediate response was exasperation. The document was so obviously clumsily written and lacking in theological perspective that I dismissed it.

But then, as outraged clergy, laity, and media commentators began their assault on the Bishops, I began to feel a double exasperation. No one seemed to recognise that there was nothing new in the statement. The Church’s response to heterosexual civil partnerships would always have to be the same as for same-sex partnerships. Unsatisfactory, but inevitable. Meanwhile, the teaching that the proper place for sex is within marriage is also what it has always been. I began to find the cries of incomprehension and “hurt” faintly irritating.

And that is because it has always been obvious — to me, at least — that parish clergy are not controlled in their thinking and pastoral response by the Bishops. A bishop once tried to bully me over a poor review that I had given to Issues in Human Sexuality. Although I was disconcerted, there was not much that he could actually do, and his threats changed neither my opinion of that earlier document’s sad incoherence nor my pastoral practice.

The Church of England does not have a magisterium. The clergy are meant to be learned in scripture and of godly conversation. They are trusted to exercise “discretion”, discernment. This is why the document contains an important sentence (21) suggesting that clergy who are approached for prayer by people entering civil partnerships should respond “pastorally and sensitively”.

It is this general guidance that undergirds the many services of celebration for same-sex civil partnerships that have been going on cheerfully for some years. I have attended two — both, as it happens, in cathedrals. Some will see this as rank hypocrisy and demand clear rules one way or another. But this is unrealistic, not least because the Church of England is in a position in which neither liberals nor conservatives are able to control the narrative. A pragmatic approach has to be found. Even Jesus employed double-speak tactics when he was put in a tight spot. Consider his response to the question about tribute to Caesar.

There is, of course, a need for the Church to consider its teaching on sex, and it is in the middle of a process of doing just that. Many believe that the time has come to be more affirming of same-sex partnerships, not least because so many gay couples have given ample proof of their loyalty and faithfulness, both to one another and to the Church.

It is, however, profoundly un-Anglican to “make windows into men’s souls”, or their bedrooms — and the Bishops know that.
 

Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column

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