AN ANNOUNCEMENT has appeared on the website of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in the City of London, that the church is in “a state of broken partnership” with the House of Bishops over the Bishops’ handling of sexuality.
The statement from St Helen’s, dated 16 December, criticises divisions in the House of Bishops over sex and marriage, and “the appointment to influential leadership positions of people who openly advocate change to the Church of England’s doctrine and/or forms of service”.
The statement from St Helen’s refers to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project (News, 13 November), which attempts to broker fresh dialogue about same-sex relations and marriage, a topic that has become a touchstone of orthodoxy for conservative Evangelical churches.
The statement goes on: “Whilst St Helen’s is encouraged by the faithful work of some involved in the LLF project, the clarity and consistency of the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage is in marked contrast to the House of Bishops’ muddled message.
“In good conscience, St Helen’s is no longer able to remain in gospel partnership with the House of Bishops until they again speak and act consistently in accordance with the plain reading and plain teaching of scripture on sex and marriage, as recognised by the Church down the centuries.”
The statement quotes “Tracey — who knew she was gay when she was 12”. Tracey says: ““Now that I’m a Christian it doesn’t mean that I have become straight. I’ve always been attracted to girls. The thing that helped me was understanding that temptation and sin were different things.”
St Helen’s, the statement says, “has a deep love and concern for those in the church who experience same-sex attraction, and seeks to provide support and care for such men and women in our own congregations”.
It is not immediately clear what the Church’s pronouncement means in practice, since it states: “St Helen’s is not leaving the Church of England and will remain a member of its deanery and diocesan structures for the most part.”
This time three years ago, the church’s Rector, the Revd William Taylor, announced that it was withdrawing from deanery activities “that imply partnership in the gospel” (News, 15 December 2017)
The new statement uses similar language, talking of withdrawing from those activities “which indicate full spiritual partnership” with the House of Bishops. Since parishes have no direct relationship with the House except through their own diocesan bishop, this phraseology has caused puzzlement. The only clue is the sentence: “This is likely to include the selection and recommendation of people going forward for ordination, as well as planting new Church of England churches.”
In response, a spokesperson from the diocese of London said on Tuesday: “St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, has been in regular communication with the diocese regarding its stated concerns. The Bishop of London has, in response, proposed working with St Helen’s to assess how the potential consequences of broken partnership could be addressed.”
Mr Taylor talks of the support of the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, appointed to provide alternative episcopal oversight for conservative Evangelical parishes (News, 5 May 2015; 15 May 2015). Bishop Thomas said on Tuesday that he had not heard from St Helen’s since the statement, but that his pastoral arrangement with Mr Taylor was in accordance with the London Plan, under which a parish can apply for oversight by another bishop with the agreement of the diocesan bishop.
Bishop Thomas acknowledged that the selection of candidates for the ordained ministry, and their ordination, would be one of the areas for discussion. At present, he supervises these, but under licence from the Bishop of London.
Although the implications of the move by St Helen’s remain unclear at present, Bishop Thomas said that its statement demonstrated the seriousness of the issue. “I would encourage all parishes to engage fully on this issue through the current conversations around Living in Love and Faith.
“In the mean time, I will continue to work with dioceses under the provisions of the House of Bishop’s Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests as well as through my membership of the House of Bishop’s next-steps group.”