THE Church of England should lift its ban on the marriage of same-sex couples, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has said — even if this means setting up an alternative episcopal structure for conservative priests and parishes.
At stake, he says, is the Church of England’s claim to serve the whole of society. 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”.
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.
Dr Croft sent each of the bishops a copy of a new 50-page booklet, Together in Love and Faith: Personal reflections and next steps for the Church, which he is publishing more widely today (Friday). In the booklet (extract here), he apologises that the Church has been so slow “to reach better decisions and practice”, and that his own views were “slow to change and that my actions, and lack of action, have caused genuine hurt, disagreement and pain”.
Dr Croft is the only serving diocesan bishop to declare his belief that the C of E should allow clergy to marry same-sex couples in church and be able to be married to same-sex partners themselves. Neither is currently permitted, though clergy can be in same-sex partnerships on the tacit understanding that they remain celibate.
In his booklet, the Bishop describes the harm that he believes is caused by the Church’s call to celibacy for same-sex-attracted people. Some, he writes, “because of their devotion to Christ and the close support of family and friends and churches, are able to receive this call and live it out, but many are not”.
Among these many, some attempt opposite-sex marriages, some lead a double life, and some lead a “reluctant single life. . .
“Many, of course, have given up on the Church at different points in their lives because of their accumulated distress.” And he refers to the case of Lizzie Lowe, the 14-year-old schoolgirl who took her own life in 2014 because she could not reconcile being Christian and gay (Comment, 16 January 2015).
Dr Croft is aware that conservative Evangelicals — of whom he has many active and vocal representatives in his diocese — are unpersuaded by the distress of same-sex-attracted people, which they consider to be a consequence of sinful desires. And his argument about the importance of mission to a UK population alienated by the Church’s stance (he describes his Charismatic Evangelical roots) is similarly ineffective in changing the minds of Evangelicals who expect a disjunction between the Church and the “world”.
He thus turns to scripture, and Christ’s test of fruitfulness in the Sermon on the Mount: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” And he writes: “The conclusion I have drawn, from all of my listening, is that we have a situation in which the present position of the Church of England, set as we are within our present social and missional context, is producing bad fruit.”
He writes that it is paradoxical for the Church to commend the goods of permanent, stable, and faithful relationships for heterosexual people in marriage and “in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives” (quoting the preface to the Common Worship marriage service), and yet deny the same for homosexual people.
And he continues: “Is there bad fruit from acceptance of, or the blessing of, these relationships? If there is, I cannot see it. To be sure, a relationship between two people of the same sex can go wrong, just as a relationship between a man and a woman can. But overall, our society has been enriched, not diminished, by the encouragement of stable same-sex unions.”
Dr Croft tackles the prohibitive texts in the Bible, arguing that most do not apply to the present situation, though he acknowledges the seeming unambiguity of St Paul’s description of godless living in Romans 1.26-27.
He maintains, though, that these passages must be viewed in the light of four hermeneutical principles: the centrality of Christ, the primacy of mercy, Christ’s silence on the topic (as opposed, for example, to his clarity on the topic of divorce), and “permission for development” — the belief that, in giving St Peter the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, Christ was entrusting the Church “with responsibility and flexibility in matters of ethics, consistent with the principles of love, to enable development and evolution in the light of changes in knowledge and the culture in which the gospel is taking form and shape”.
And he reveals his Charismatic roots by insisting that — far from being unfaithful to scripture — those who advocate same-sex marriage are following the Holy Spirit, quoting Christ’s words: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
In the booklet, Dr Croft lists the steps that he believes the Church of England should now take:
1. Enable the provision of public services of blessing for same-sex civil partnerships and marriages.
2. Give freedom of conscience to clergy and ordinands to order their relationships appropriately.
3. Give freedom of conscience to clergy to enter into same-sex civil marriage.
4. Remove the legal barriers to the solemnisation of same-sex marriage in the Church of England.
Acknowledging that divisions remain in the C of E, despite the many years of exploration and study, he says that the Church must ensure:
5. The recognition that it remains a legitimate and honourable position within the Church of England to continue to hold to the traditional view of marriage and human sexuality.
6. Freedom of conscience to clergy and parishes not to opt into the new possible arrangements for services of blessing and same-sex marriage.
7. Differentiation of provision and oversight for those clergy and parishes who believe that, in conscience, they need to distance themselves from the parts of the Church that welcome and affirm same-sex relationships.
Dr Croft admits that mention of alternative oversight is “deeply sensitive” and “painful” for bishops, and says that his suffragans in Oxford diocese disagree with his conclusion that it needs to be considered. But, he writes, “It would be a tragedy if a journey towards inclusion for one group of Christians became an experience of exclusion for another.” He describes a “detailed listening process” with conservative colleagues over the past three years, and says: “I love them dearly. I am committed to helping them continue to flourish in the coming years if the changes outlined here are taken forward.”
Copies of Together in Love and Faith can be bought for £2.50 via the resources page of the Oxford diocesan website.
Read an extract here