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Leader comment: Affirmations that all can affirm

16 February 2024

EVEN an organ as long-lived as this one (160 years and counting) has to admit to being puzzled occasionally by the actions of bishops. Theological “affirmations” were proffered last week by seven conservative bishops in the context of the Living in Love and Faith discussions. We might wonder in what way these affirmations are “sponsored” by the seven signatories, or how they know that they are acting “on behalf of a wider grouping within the House and College [of Bishops]”. But our chief confusion is why they were composed at all; for the four sections — “credal orthodoxy”, “universal Church”, “supernatural faith”, and “sacrificial discipleship” — contain nothing that ordinary Christians would wish to challenge. Were there a tick-box after each sentence, an adjudicator would accuse the exam-setters of rigging the paper to allow all students to pass. “We declare a confident faith in the lifegiving and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. We hold to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist and the efficacy of prayer. We recognise the unseen dimensions of spiritual life” . . . etc. Some of the language is a little old-fashioned, but we are used to that in theological pronouncements.

We are, of course, also used to coded messages, and it is hard to believe that all this was written just to make the point that marriage is “the joyful, lifelong union of male and female, the two forms of created humanity”. Again, this is basic orthodoxy, although perhaps some readers would wish to remove an article or two. The only problem would be if the seven bishops expected this to be the full and final definition of the Christian faith; but of course they don’t. They even suggest that it be read in conjunction with an earlier, rather rambling, paper on marriage, which contained the bizarrely apocalyptic claim that same-sex marriage would “risk undermining our understanding of the nature of the Church” and “unravel the scriptural story of salvation”.

These latest affirmations can be read in conjunction with any number of statements that enrich the Church’s understanding of the call to discipleship, including others that affirm a scriptural basis for same-sex marriage. Different statements place different emphases on the three legs of the three-legged stool that many, but not all, writers see as the Anglican sources of authority: scripture, reason, and tradition. These affirmations are a little light on the middle one. But, since they have been produced, we can commend them as a humble contribution to a debate in which vast tracts of common ground are frequently ignored. We are happy to believe them to have been framed, as the sponsors state, in answer to “the prayer of Jesus that his people should be united”.

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