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Sexuality discussions opened our eyes to the harm we have done, says Bishop of London

06 February 2023

Max Colson/Church Times

General Synod members took part in small-group discussions on Living in Love and Faith on Monday and Tuesday

General Synod members took part in small-group discussions on Living in Love and Faith on Monday and Tuesday

BEFORE the hours of small-group discussions planned for the next day, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, on Monday afternoon summarised the six years of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process which had led to this point.

Beginning her presentation, she recalled the letter written in 2017 by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York which called for a new “radical Christian inclusion” after a synodical rebellion against the House of Bishops’ previous attempt to draw a line under debates on sexuality.

Disagreements about sexuality persisted throughout the Church, including among the bishops and members of Synod, she said. This conflict had tarnished the reputation of the Church of England, and distracted it from its mission, “casting a shadow over our witness to Christ”.

Countless representations, arguing passionately for opposing conclusions, had been made to the Bishops while they deliberated, and the same would take place on the floor of the Synod during Wednesday’s debate. But the call remained to seek the face of Christ in each other, to live the truth out in grace in a 21st-century context.

There had been no Damascene conversion experience for either side, including among the Bishops, she added. This meant that all had to act with humility, however confident they were in their conclusions about what God was teaching. If God was calling the Church to live with its disagreements, the question was how it could do so without causing each other pain and pulling the Church into “humiliating disrepute”.

Underneath the strident voices, the Bishops had been able to pick out a different tune, Bishop Mullally said, pointing to the growing empathy and respect on all sides that had emerged as varied perspectives and stories were discussed during the LLF process. This had begun to change the Church, especially highlighting the need to include as many voices as possible during deliberations.

“Our eyes have been opened to the harm that we have done, especially to LGBTI+ people,” she said. To separate and walk apart would impoverish the Church, and she urged all who were listening to instead choose the harder, narrow path of staying together.

Bishop Mullally also addressed the controversy over the Bishops’ specific proposals for services to bless same-sex unions. Since 2014, same-sex couples have been able to marry in law, but the legislation brought to the Synod explicitly excluded the possibility of same-sex weddings conducted by C of E clerics in churches, she reminded the Synod. This was seen as unjust by many, but for others it was a necessary consequence of the Church’s unchanging definition of holy matrimony.

Same-sex couples who were civilly married were seen in the eyes of the Church to be married, but unmarried same-sex couples were not, she said, addressing concerns surrounding the recent legal guidance from the Church on the distinction between civil marriage and holy matrimony.

Nonetheless, complex questions had been raised which should have been answered when same-sex marriage was first legalised, she admitted. The Bishops were not offering a definitive answer to these, she said, but had wanted to propose a path forward which navigated disagreement, acknowledged conscience, and avoided schism. “It will be uncomfortable for everyone,” she conceded.

The College of Bishops do not agree, and so could not propose extending holy matrimony to gay couples to the Synod, she explained. They did, however, wish to acknowledge the commitment many same-sex couples had made through civil marriage, which was why the Prayers of Love and Faith had been drawn up.

This did not mean that civil same-sex marriage was equivalent to holy matrimony. “We recognise there is a spectrum of convictions among us as Bishops and a Church — that is why the prayers are commended and not imposed on anyone.”

Bishop Mullally acknowledged that the proposed prayers did not make any reference to sex, and that there was much disagreement on this. Work on tackling the issue was due to be undertaken during the drawing up of the new pastoral guidance which is to replace Issues in Human Sexuality.

Further thinking was also needed on friendship, singleness, combating homophobia, and even issues around technology and artificial intelligence, Bishop Mullally said. But LLF had, above all else, been about inclusion and invitation, and the Bishop remained hugely encouraged that so many people did take part.

“As bishops we are eager to listen to you, as together we shape the way forward over the coming months. I hope that we will embrace the narrow way of walking together, rather than the wide way of retreating into the comfort of our silos.”

After the presentation, the Synod watched a video summarising the LLF process, which featured several bishops explaining why they had chosen to propose the Prayers of Love and Faith.

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