If the rumours are correct, the House of Bishops will next Thursday, 26 January, publish the outcome of work started in January 2012, when the working party chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling was commissioned. The report was published on 28 November 2013 and its recommendations led into the process which became the Shared Conversations.
The current leaks from conservative sources reported to me indicate that the bishops are going to offer nothing that really changes current practice. I have been reflecting on the implications for my place in the Church of England if this is true, and on the preparedness of our various groups to respond to the news.
I’ve taken a glance through the Osborne report this morning, wondering how next week’s announcements and proposals will compare with those made twenty-eight years ago. Here are a few excerpts which are still apposite. I smiled ruefully as I read. Some things have changed, such as the conservative attitude of lay people. The bishops have done some work. I’m not sure they’ve done the work Osborne thought necessary.
#358. We noted that the bishops did not comment, possibly because of the way we asked our questions, about lay experience on the one hand, or about their attitude to homosexuals in the House of Bishops on the other. The issue seemed to be at a distance from them and mainly about clergy problems.
#359. The bishops’ replies suggested that they felt to be under some pressure on the issue. [C]oncern about the conservative attitude of lay people and the effect this would have if they took a different line, concern about scandal and its effects on opinion, the lack of an agreed policy was seen as both a good and a bad thing, and the general climate of the present times- all these were quoted as matters of concern. Some bishops felt themselves to be in the public eye at present.
#360. Many bishops commented on the outstanding contribution made by homosexual priests. Some saw this as a result of the struggle such priests had had with their own sexual identity. This was directly related to their growth to maturity and to the developments of skills for the work of a priest.
#366. Some bishops clearly feel that they are colluding with deception and encouraging dishonesty which are themselves morally corrupting.
#368. It is important that bishops, if they are to offer pastoral help to individuals and guidance to the Church, should have done their own personal work on the questions. The understanding of ourselves, as far as we may, is crucial to the task. Attitudes to matters of sexuality and specifically to homosexuality may be rooted deep in personal training and development. There may be a considerable contrast between the attitudes which prevailed in the generation in which the present episcopate was brought up and those which prevail for younger clergy. The relationship between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ is crucial to this question. The capacity to reflect on personal development is vital in those who wish to offer help to others in their personal relational growth.
Jayne Ozanne has commented about her expectations on her blog. Towards the end she writes:
“This time [the bishops] know that they have to make some clear and concrete decisions, because otherwise they will undermine all the trust that has been placed in them, at their own request, by the LGBT community, by those desiring an inclusive Church and by society as a whole.
“Because otherwise the trust we have put in them would be broken. And as we all know – it would be impossible to rebuild. Many would just walk away knowing that yet again they have been let down by an institution that is bound by fear and compromise.”
All indications are that the clear and concrete decisions will be to do nothing to respond to the hope of the majority that the celebration and blessing of relationships will be authorised and marriages recognised.
If this is so, my trust in and respect for the bishops, including my own, will have been broken and I will probably walk away from the church, following many of my friends and colleagues. This will be as much because the spiritual landscape is richer and healthier and more creative and adventurous outside the church. My faith is deeper than ever. The institution fails to respect and enrich me.
This recent Statement by Fr. Colin Coward of ‘Changing Attitudes’, bespeaks the disappointing expectation of ‘business as usual’ in the Church of England by those whose hopes had been pinned on a positive outcome from the recent round of ‘Conversations’ on Sexuality, that took place in the Church of England over the past year.
The secret meetings of the C. of E. House of Bishops (no Press reports came out of those meetings) seems to confirm the probability of ‘No Change’ in the current situation of a conservative stand-off from the prospect of the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions within the Church of England let alone that of any recognition of Equal Marriage – despite the civil recognition of such marriages in the public realm.
Here in the relevant commentary on the Osborne Report, is a note about the evaluation of C.of E. serving clergy who are known by the Bishops to be Gay:
“#360. Many bishops commented on the outstanding contribution made by homosexual priests. Some saw this as a result of the struggle such priests had had with their own sexual identity. This was directly related to their growth to maturity and to the developments of skills for the work of a priest.”
Surely, this paragraph alone ought to alert the Bishops to the urgent need for an agreement on the just treatment of clergy who happen to be of a sexual orientation that is different from the majority but no longer considered by society to be either pagan or toxic.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand