EVANGELICALS in Oxford diocese have said that they are “grieved” by their diocesan bishop’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage. And they warn that more parishes will seek alternative episcopal oversight as a result.
In a new-50-page booklet, Together in Love and Faith: Personal reflections and next steps for the Church, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, argued that the Church of England should lift its ban on the marriage of same-sex couples, and that its anti-LGBTQ+ stance “is leading to a radical dislocation between the Church of England and the culture and society we are attempting to serve” (News, Comment, 3 November).
It was released after the College of Bishops met this week to debate how the issue of same-sex marriage should be decided by the General Synod when it next meets in February, at the end of the long Living in Love and Faith (LLF) consultation and education process. The Bishop of Worcester and Dudley have subsequently declared their support for same-sex marriage.
A statement from the Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship (ODEF), issued on Friday in response to Together in Love and Faith, says: “We are grieved by this publication, believing that it departs from the clear teaching of the Bible in relation to sex and marriage.”
The statement none the less thanks Dr Croft for recognising “the validity and integrity” of the traditional view of marriage, and for “his recognition that a change in the Church’s position will require, not only the protection of conscience of those who could not support this, but also a differentiation of ministry and oversight”.
It continues: “There are those in the Diocese who have already felt the need for this, believing these matters to be first-order issues and, very sadly, as a result of this publication, that number is bound to increase.
“We encourage our members to engage with this debate with the same spirit of grace that Bishop Steven has himself exhibited. We should always remember that this is not firstly a political issue but, above all, a deeply personal and pastoral one.”
The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) also issued a statement on Friday in response to Dr Croft’s publication.
It said: “CEEC continues to believe that the Church of England’s current position on human sexuality is built on the teaching of scripture and is therefore good for individuals and society as a whole. We are therefore committed to praying and working for the outcome of the Living in Love and Faith process to be one of joyful reaffirmation of this position.
“Whilst CEEC rejects the theological argument in Bishop Steven’s essay its expression highlights the fundamental incompatibility that exists between the current teaching of the C of E and the position he (and others he might speak for) have come to adopt. The essay also helpfully refers to the need for differentiation and provision of oversight in the event of change — a differentiation that CEEC believes would need to be of a structural nature and robust enough to secure the sustained flourishing of orthodoxy going forwards.”
The CEEC and ODEF both commended a new booklet by the Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, Canon Vaughan Roberts, Together in Love and Faith? Should the Church bless same-sex partnerships?, which responds to Dr Croft’s arguments. Canon Roberts describes himself as a same-sex attracted Christian who holds to the traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality.
Canon Roberts writes: “In describing the negative fruit of traditional teaching, Bishop Steven seems close to accepting the assumption of many in our contemporary culture that normal people cannot live healthy, happy lives without sexual intimacy.
“This means, in his portrayal, a range of unattractive alternatives for all but the few gay/same-sex attracted Christians who are able to embrace and live out a call to celibacy: marriage to someone of the opposite sex, a double life, or reluctant and miserable singleness. There are no doubt many who do fit within his categories, but there is a serious lack of nuance in his analysis of this fruit, which is too negative in its portrayal of celibacy and singleness.”
Canon Roberts goes on to write that Dr Croft is correct to acknowledge the “missional challenge” caused by cultural shifts in society, “but there is, of course, nothing new in the Church experiencing such dissonance within and hostility from its surrounding culture. . . In the history of the global Church down the ages a gap between it and the society it inhabits has been normal.”
He continues: “Surely what is needed in the face of the disjunction between Church and society is not accommodation, but rather a winsome, confident re-presentation of the riches of Christian teaching about sex and marriage.”
He, too, expects a significant division in the Church over the issue, were same-sex marriage to be accepted and endorsed by many bishops. Conservatives would seek alternative episcopal oversight, he writes. “My conviction is that it would need to be of a provincial nature and, not surprisingly, my strong preference would be for the creation of a new distinct province for those who wish for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice.”