I am somewhat reluctant to trespass upon the time and attention of this Synod to talk about internal Church of England concerns, when I would rather be talking about our missionary presence in and engagement with the world around us. But of course the two are not unconnected, because what might be seen as internal church concerns (and indeed disputes) have a bearing on our capacity to engage in the mission into which God calls us. And that is not least because of the particular position and calling of the Church of England in our society, whereby things that go on in our life attract rather more interest and comment than may be the case with other ecclesial bodies. I am, therefore, going to speak about two issues which have hit the ecclesial headlines in the last few weeks, namely Bishop Philip North’s withdrawal from nomination as Bishop of Sheffield, and the General Synod’s vote not to take note of a House of Bishops’ document on marriage and same-sex relationships. I want to try to take stock of where we are, and to offer some comment on where we might go and what that might mean. Behind much of this lies the question of the kind of church we aspire to be.
Earlier this week I wrote to you and to the clergy of the Diocese concerning Bishop Philip. Bishop Philip is a noted evangelist, with a passion for the church’s mission in disadvantaged communities; he is also of traditional catholic spirituality and holds to the traditional catholic position on the ordination of women as priests and bishops. As you will have gathered from my letter, I was motivated to write in part because I wanted to express my concern for Bishop Philip, especially in the light of some of the very personal comments made about him. But I also wrote as an unashamed advocate of the ordained ministry of women as deacons, priests and bishops, something for which I have argued for many decades. I am also of course the person who to some extent had responsibility for the 2014 settlement which made it possible for women to receive episcopal ordination.
I fully understand the depth of feeling out of which some responded negatively to the news of Bishop Philip’s nomination. I also understand that some of them have also been subject to some fairly vituperative responses, and that too should not be how we behave towards one another. Some have always argued that we should have had a simple Measure to allow for the ordination of women to all orders of ministry, with no provision for those who could not in conscience accept that development. Others argued that, while provisions of some kinds were appropriate, we should not have allowed for the possibility that somebody unable to ordain women could become a diocesan bishop once the legislation had been passed. Those viewpoints are perfectly proper ones to hold, but they are not the viewpoints around which the church reached agreement in 2014.
What we did agree in 2014 was a finely nuanced settlement, which contains admitted tensions, in which not everything is neatly tied up, and which depends significantly on generosity and trust. Thus there is the requirement that all must accept that all orders of ministry are open to all regardless of gender and that anybody so ordained and appointed to any office is the true and lawful holder of that office. At the same time, there is the acknowledgement that this is not the agreed position of the universal church, that those who hold that women should not be ordained stand within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, and that pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority will continue to be made without limit of time.
Given the inherent tensions within that settlement, living it out in practice was never going to be easy and was always going to depend on the health of relationship as much as on the resilience of any structural arrangements. I dare to think that at diocesan level, certainly in this diocese, we have in fact been gradually working out how to do this, though we have further to go. Having the Bishops of Richborough and Maidstone as Assistant Bishops (and not just as episcopal visitors) is part of that, alongside having a diocesan bishop (and almost certainly also a suffragan bishop once nominated) who unequivocally supports and seeks to develop the priestly and diaconal ministry of women within the diocese.
But clearly the 2014 settlement is now being tested, certainly in the specific matter of the appointment of a diocesan bishop holding a traditional viewpoint, an eventuality for which the House of Bishops’ Declaration made specific provision. It is far too soon to be making any judgements on all of this, but there will need to be serious consideration as to where this leaves us. And behind the particular circumstances of Bishop Philip and the Diocese of Sheffield, there lies that rather more fundamental question of what kind of church we aspire to be. That is the underlying question which was around for us in 2013-14 as we sought to find a way forward, and it is a question that remains.
Having been part of the process which led us to that 2014 settlement, people have asked me from time to time whether we could not agree something similar in relation to our divisions over sexuality issues, and specifically the affirmation or otherwise of same-sex relationships. It is a fair question, but I am increasingly of the view that there is not an easy read-across from one issue to the other. When in November 2012 the previous set of proposals for the ordination of women to the episcopate failed to secure agreement, almost everybody (including many who were in principle opposed to that ordination) agreed that we had to find some way by which this could come about, together with an honouring of those with differing convictions on the substantive issue. That is not where we are on sexuality and especially on same-sex relationships. Put somewhat bluntly, much as many might wish to find such a way forward, my perception is that on this issue there are many who cannot conceive of being part of a church in which the contrary position to their own is acknowledged as having validity and being worthy of accommodation. I may of course be wrong in that perception, but my sense is that that is where we are. And so, much as I might wish to, I do at present struggle to discern a way forward which might hold us together.
So where do we go? When the General Synod (and the House of Clergy in particular) voted not to take note of the House of Bishops’ report, the voting figures in the Houses of Clergy and Laity show very clearly that we seem to be a long way from any kind of consensus. The day after the debate and vote, the Archbishops wrote to all General Synod members seeking to map out a possible continuing process, which includes continuing discussion at diocesan level. As requested, the General Synod members in this Diocese will meet and with others take stock and see where we might take this. We do need to do that because, and again this is my perception, where we are now is unsatisfactory for almost everybody. What do I mean by that?
For the Church of England as a body, we continue to be dependent on a document from 1991 which was never really intended to bear the weight which we have come to place on it. That document has then effectively been added to piecemeal as we have had to respond to wider developments such as the legislation for same-sex marriage. We also continue to devote a great deal of time and energy to issues around gay and lesbian relationships, while in the wider world the discourse is really very different and now encompasses concepts of inter-sex, gender fluidity and much more. Those changes within and beyond the church over 25 or more years are such that I do welcome the Archbishops’ proposal for a thorough-going and coherent piece of theological work around human sexuality, the doctrine of marriage and related matters. My own thought is that this needs to be framed around a clear Christian anthropology for the 21st Century, articulating what we believe it is to be human beings made in the image of God, including our sexuality.
The present situation is also unsatisfactory for those who hold to a conservative position on these matters. While the report which Synod did not accept did affirm the doctrine of marriage as expressed in Canon B30 and that was reassuring for some, nonetheless those who take the traditional view were rather less assured by some of the language around exercising maximum freedom within the present legal frameworks. And some of the language in the Archbishops’ letter – the language of inclusivity – has also raised some questions and indeed suspicions for those who hold the conservative position. Anxieties about slippery slopes have understandably been expressed.
But perhaps most clearly, the present situation is unsatisfactory for LGBTI people within our church. In brackets, I apologise for the acronym and I realise that some choose to use others; I also do not intend to imply that all LGBTI people hold the same viewpoints on all of the issues – manifestly that is not the case. I spoke there of LGBTI people within our church, and I did so quite deliberately. It is really important that we resist the tendencies to speak of LGBTI people as if they were somehow somewhere else – I have been rightly challenged about that tendency, and the way in which LGBTI people are made to feel as if they as people are not people but a problem. We are talking about those who are within our parish and chaplaincy congregations, working within our structures, and indeed members of this Synod.
The House of Bishops’ report called for a change of tone in our conversation; and then, I think must be admitted, didn’t do too well on that score itself. Be that as it may, what we are in effect now asking of LGBTI Christians (and their advocates) is to wait some more and even to continue to participate in yet more discussions. In my own informal conversations with LGBTI friends, clergy and church members, I am reminded (forcefully at times) that for decades ecclesial bodies, including Synods and Lambeth Conferences, have used warm-sounding words about welcome for LGBTI Christians and about listening to their experience. I’m not sure we’ve ever really done it; or if we have listened, then the perception is that we haven’t truly absorbed what we have heard. In terms of message given, I think that if we are honest we would have to acknowledge that when civil partnerships first became a possibility, we only grudgingly as a church came to a view that they might be OK. And it was probably only when same-sex marriage came on the agenda that some then became rather more enthusiastic about the civil partnership option. I think there is some justice in the demand for penitence of attitude, and if we are once again asking LGBTI Christians to believe that the church is going to listen, then we have a serious credibility gap to deal with. We are once again asking LGBTI Christians to be not only gracious but courageous in sticking with us while we continue to talk. But, within the realities of our corporate ecclesial structures and processes, I’m not sure what the alternative to such conversation can be.
The vote and debate at the last General Synod indicates our continued divergences; my sense also is that there is a growing impatience and a suspicion (on more than one side) that we are simply stringing things out in order to avoid making decisions. I have suggested that where we are now is not a good or helpful place for those of a conservative viewpoint, or for those who are LGBTI Christians (together with those who are advocates for them), or indeed for the church as a whole. But if debate and discussion is to continue, I think I need to say that for me it is listening to the LGBTI voices that needs to be my priority. That’s not because I don’t want to hear the conservative voices, but rather because I already hear those voices pretty well – they are clearly and cogently expressed in a variety of ways – and I am grateful for that. But it is actually far harder for LGBTI people to raise their voices, especially to bishops because of the particular roles that bishops have. I recognise the courage of those who do speak to me, and I hope others will find the courage to do so – or if not, to seek somebody who will do so on their behalf. I do want us to find some way in which honesty of discussion on all sides can be possible.
And this takes us back to the question I posed earlier about the kind of church we aspire to be. What is it that forms the church, how are we defined, what marks out our borders, what is our common life, what is the common bond that holds us together? For me these are the underlying questions in relation to both the specific issues about which I have spoken. I pray that we may find right and good ways to define and express our answers to those questions, and that we do so with grace – and a degree of alacrity, because time is not on our side.