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‘I do not want to die in a Church that will not marry same-sex couples’ says Bishop Bayes

14 February 2022

The Bishop of Liverpool retired on Saturday. He speaks to Madeleine Davies

Diocese of Liverpool

Bishop Bayes at his farewell service in Liverpool Cathedral on Saturday

Bishop Bayes at his farewell service in Liverpool Cathedral on Saturday

AT THE age of 68, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, describes himself as “an old man in a hurry”.

“I do not want to die in a Church that will not marry same-sex couples,” he says. “God willing, I will live for another 20 years, but, at the moment, it doesn’t look like we are going to get there then.”

It was no secret, the Archbishop of York observed, when bidding farewell to Bishop Bayes at last week’s General Synod meeting, that his colleague had been “a great advocate for championing LGBTI+ voices”.

“This has not always made you popular,” he remarked. “Yet it has never deterred you from speaking with passion, conviction, determination, often at personal cost.”

For years, Bishop Bayes has regular attended Liverpool’s annual Pride weekend event, and, until last month, he chaired the Ozanne Foundation, set up to tackle discrimination in religious organisations (News, 22 February 2019). Many will remember the fervour with which he spoke in the General Synod debate on conversion therapy (News, 14 July 2017).

“The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime,” he said then. “If the Church suggests that it is a sickness, then all its statements of welcome and inclusion of the LGBT community are null and void.”

But, while he has advocated for some years that same-sex unions be “recognised and affirmed” in the Church, it is only in the past year that he has gone so far as to call for a gender-neutral marriage canon, and “as a necessary but not sufficient first step . . . conscientious freedom for the Church’s ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise, and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions, whether civil partnerships or civil marriages” (News, 2 July 2021).

A cynic might suggest that the prospect of imminent retirement enables greater boldness. But he denies this. “I’ve been radicalised by the oppression of LGBTI people, not necessarily by the Church, but by the world,” he tells me. “I’ve had it with the Church adding to the pain of this marginalised community by saying that we can’t even discuss the possibility of welcoming and affirming blessing and marrying.”

When the Church in Wales voted to enable the blessing of same-sex civil partnerships and marriages, he welcomed a “creative and gospel-inspired lead” for the Church of England (News, 10 September 2021), and today he points to legislative changes in other parts of the Anglican Communion, “the places that are closest to us culturally”.

“I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and with the Living in Love and Faith process that actually talking about how we talk to each other is important; but, if good disagreement is to mean anything, then we need to begin to disagree,” he says.

“I’m an old man in a hurry. And I do think that questions need to be put sharply, so that people can disagree well rather than have another course on how we can agree better.”

WHILE some colleagues in the House of Bishops have expressed a desire to offer more to same-sex couples seeking to have their union affirmed in a church (News, 17 March 2017), none has been as outspoken.

In 2017, when the General Synod was asked to “take note” of a House of Bishops report on sexuality (News, 17 February 2017), the then Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, warned that there was “very little appetite in the House for any alteration of our doctrine of marriage” (News, 24 February 2017).

It is unclear whether that holds true today. “I don’t believe it’s true that I’m the only person who wants to see a more progressive future for the Church,” Bishop Bayes reports.

“What I fear is that, unless there is some sort of understood conversation happening among bishops in the public square, then, when the moment comes for them to vote, everybody’s going to be surprised by the way they vote. . . If people hide behind processes of so-called good disagreement, then the moment of truth will come as a bit of a shock to people, and that would be a pity.”

He wishes, he says, that the present House could be “a little bit more historical” in its understanding of disagreement.

“The early councils of the Church were composed of bishops who argued with each other and didn’t seem to mind falling out, because they knew that they were in relationship and that they would stand together when decisions were made.”

What impact has his disagreement had on relationships locally? He has mentioned in the past that some have refused to receive communion from him.

“I have just promised everybody in Liverpool that we will not put a piece of paper between what the diocese does and what the agreed policies of the C of E are, and that’s how I understand my role as a symbol of unity,” he says.

“I’m supposed to hold the agreed disciplines of our Church. But I do not see that as preventing me from advocating for those disciplines to be changed. . . I think that fact has won at least the grudging acceptance, if not the trust, of colleagues here who are conservative.”

A VOTE on the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships is still a year away (News, 7 January), but the mood at last week’s Synod meeting suggested tensions. There is, Bishop Bayes says, “a lot of panic and anxiety in the Church at the minute”.

For six years, he served as the Church’s National Mission and Evangelism Adviser. How does he believe that the Church should be responding to continued numerical decline? And, as a bishop, what does he make of the way in which he, and his colleagues, are spoken about?

“If I have learned anything from the reading I’ve done, and the experiences I’ve had in mission and evangelism, it is that it’s God mission,” he replies.

“I do think, if you look at what God is doing rather than what the Church is up to, things are more hopeful. Part of the discontent in England at the moment with the present government and its loose relationship with the truth is that does actually offend people. People want truth to be spoken and people want love to be shared. And where that happens it seems to me God is being honoured.”

He defends diocesan responses to the current challenges. In his own (“the poorest diocese by a country mile”), negotiations are under way with the national Church concerning a plan “that will bring the clergy together, things that will mean people are not isolated”. In other dioceses, this has entailed parishes’ being brought into larger mission areas (Features, 10 September 2021).

“It worries me that all that is resisted, and that the Church is being fractious,” he says. “Candidly, most of the people who are in relatively wealthy parishes . . . are trying to get in the way of dioceses’ helping the poorest.”

When it comes to the “mixed ecology” — traditional parish structures’ co-existing with fresh expressions, church-plants, and pioneer ministries — he rejects the idea that it represents “meteors crushing dinosaurs. . . When it comes to diocesan budgets, overwhelmingly the lion’s share goes to parish clergy, and so I think that the fears that people have are, I think candidly, grossly exaggerated.”

Whether it is justified or not, he is alive to the current criticism of his colleagues: “The role of the bishop as manager is what is being criticised, and the role of the bishop as pastor and carer is what’s being praised.” Yet the two can co-exist, he argues, quoting a former colleague, Canon Richard Peers, now Sub-Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, who drew on his experience as a head teacher to argue that, “‘if you are going to pastor people, you have to got to see what their conditions of service are like — what their well-being is like.’ All of those are effectively management tasks.”

Bishop Bayes expands on this: “The word episcope, which is the word in Greek for what bishops do, just means ‘looking things over’. In English, the best word for that is ‘supervisor’. It’s not ‘chief executive officer’, or anything like that. My role as a bishop is to say to people: ‘Have you noticed that down the road people are doing a different thing? It may not work for you, but it would be good if you got in touch with them.’ That sort of connecting of people, I think, is a pretty non-threatening way to understand a bishop’s role.”

While he agrees that a power imbalance exists (“Bishops are powerful people”), he wishes people to recognise that the House of Bishops has become “more relational, and less foolishly formal”.

When it comes to questions in the Synod, he notes the assumption that bishops will answer rather than ask questions: “I don’t deny the need for questions and the need for accountability, but I do deeply regret this business of, in the words of Jeremy Paxman, ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ If that is the attitude whenever a bishop stands up and tries to answer a question, then we’re in a pretty toxic place as a Church.”

IT IS now more than 40 years since Bishop Bayes was ordained deacon, aged 25. He first appeared in a new story in the Church Times on the front page of the 12 June 1987 issue, as vice-chairman of Christian CND, one of 1000 people, including a young Rowan Williams, who converged on the US military bases in Oxfordshire, for an annual Peace Pentecost.

A few years later, he wrote a letter, commenting on parishes that, despite not passing a Resolution, noted in their advertisements that the appointee was “likely to be a man”. He wrote: “The cost of conscience needs to be paid by all who have a conscience.”

How different is the England in which today’s candidates will be ordained this Petertide from that of 1979?

“When I was made Bishop of Hertford, my inaugural sermon was to say that the poles of the Church of England are God and England,” he recalls: “the God who never changes, and the England that changes all the time; and that the task is to hold firm to the changelessness of God and to know that the world that is changing all the time is the one that God loves.

“So, what do you do about that? Well, the answer is that you try to be unchangingly faithful, and you try to identify with change. I was ordained in 1979, and it is a substantially different England now. I am not talking now about giving in to the Zeitgeist and all that pejorative stuff that people say. I am talking about responding missionally to what the world is doing, and what God is doing in the world — and yet holding on to the gospel.

“And I don’t think anybody who is entering ministry this year with another 45 years to go will have any more difficult a job, or less difficult a job, than I did. If someone had been ordained in the mid-1950s, when it looked as if everything was really rocking, you’d say, ‘Oh great, what a great future they’re going to have.’

“Then the 1960s came, and we were suddenly confronted with the death of God, and churches were bombing, and all that stuff; so, any given 40 years will have its up and downs, and I trust the faithfulness of God to call the right people to deal with those challenges — which I will no longer need to worry about.”

Read Bishop Bayes’s farewell sermon here

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