The letter below, published by the U.K. ‘ViaMedia’, from Simon Butler, a former member of the Archbishops Council in the C. of E. and member of General Synod, offers an affirming – yet critical – response to the recent address made by the Bishop of Southwark, to the diocesan Synod, on the subject of the need for the Church of England to accept the fact of Same Sex Marriage in the community, and to pastorally deal with both its supporters and those who, by dint of personal conscience, oppose the prospect yet want to remain in the Church.
The point of difference – between the bishop’s statement and Simon’s written response – is that Simon believes the Church must tackle the prospect of Same-Sex Marriage unequivocally, by unreservedly allowing for its celebration in Church, while yet accepting the fact that there may be some objections from clergy and members of the Church who have problems with this issue of radical inclusion.
As will be seen from his letter (below) Simon has been having conversation with an eclectic grouping of both liberal and conservative members of the Church of England – meeting under the title: ‘St. Hugh’s Conversations’ – all of whom are concerned for the unity of the Church, despite their respective differences.
Regarding the proposal of Bishop Christopher, that stops short of allowing for the celebration of S/S Marriage in the C. of E. From his experience of the St. Hugh meetings Simon has this to say to Bishop Christopher: –
“By all means, if your answer is ‘no’ (to S/S Marriage) or ‘not yet’ then please make that a little more clear. But if you do (say ‘not yet’), then I ask you to consider that your solution risks the very unity you wish to preserve, and condemns the Church to another round of politics, electoral games and harm. It offers nothing to conservatives and not a great deal to progressives. I think it just offers a way for bishops to avoid biting the necessary bullet rather than working to the maximum unity we can achieve where everyone – in a deeply broken Church – comes away feeling, if not happy, then secure and free to minister according to their conscience.“
This challenge of Simon’s urges Bishop Chrisopher and all the bishops of the Church of England, to say clearly whether they support Same-Sex Marriage in the Church, or not. This question needs to be at least as decisive as the C. of E.’s current commitment to Women’s Ordination.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
Dear Bishop Christopher… An Open Response to my Diocesan Bishop after his Address to Southwark Diocesan Synod
by Simon Butler, former member of Archbishops’ Council and member of General Synod 2005-2022
Dear Bishop Christopher,
First of all, I want to express my gratitude for your remarks at Diocesan Synod. I read them at a distance in New Zealand where I am currently travelling and was grateful for the clarity with which you spoke. It is important now that all bishops join the rest of the Church of England in saying exactly what they think about human sexuality. Otherwise Living in Love and Faith would be a dead letter.
I want to thank you for the way in which you have quietly and often publicly affirmed the ministry of LGBT+ clergy and lay people in the diocese. You have, in many ways, fulfilled the call we gave you in the Diocesan Statement of Needs at your appointment in relation to sexuality. I declare an interest: the drafting was my work! Thank you for your faithfulness here.
Being Bishop of Southwark has always been about herding cats – our clergy are outstanding in their passion and commitment, conservative and progressive alike – and you have gone as far as you possibly can – and as far as your conscience will allow – to appoint and encourage LGBT+ clergy in their ministries. You have been a pastoral bishop to us all, even if that has been frustrating for some colleagues who have wanted you to go further, and faster. After all, this is Southwark!
Your address to the Diocesan Synod was, as ever, the words of a pastoral bishop in the best tradition of Anglican Catholicism. I was not therefore surprised by a phrase I’ve heard you use before: “I do not expect to see the marriage canons changed in my lifetime.” It is something you often say, and it has served you well in Southwark, because it avoids you having to say what you think about same sex marriage. It does have the sense of being a politician’s answer, however, but one that I have often thought was both clever and perceptive. Only recently have I come to disagree with you, and from a surprising direction.
I have been privileged to take part in a series of – until recently – entirely confidential series of discussions called the St Hugh’s Conversations. They began between Conservative Evangelicals and some progressive bishops, but have in the past three years broadened to include some conservative bishops, and those, like me, who want to see change to the current teaching on sexuality changed (it is worth noting that the majority of members are senior members of General Synod, who have an eye to getting things through our decision-making bodies). Despite our profound differences as members, we have agreed we can now identify ourselves individually and share themes. During the Conversations, we have listened to one another with great respect and affection, particularly to the concerns of conservative colleagues who remain deeply concerned about any change to the current position, including the one you advocated in your address.
The uniting spirit of the St Hugh’s Conversations is a desire to bring to a conclusion the battle over sexuality that has beset the Church since 1987. None of us – conservative, progressive, LGBT+ or those who prefer to identify themselves as same-sex attracted – want to see our fragile unity further fractured, or the harm we do to one another as Christians continue its toxic tone. We believe – at least tentatively – that now must be the time to find a settlement which will suit us all. I have come to agree with this position.
To that end, I am very sorry to say that I think your proposals outlined at Diocesan Synod fall short of such a settlement. I think that to preserve the maximum amount of unity by virtue of an incremental settlement through a liturgy of blessing same sex relationships (including marriage, I assume?) is a mistaken, if understandable, episcopal desire to kick the can down the road on same sex marriage. You will expect a progressive like me to say that, but what has been a stunning development in the St Hugh’s discussions is that conservatives can see a church which accommodates such a development. There is a growing unanimity that – noting how painful it would be for conservatives in the Church to agree to such a development – a Church which allows same sex marriages to be solemnised, while at the same time making provision for those who cannot agree to such a development (which in their mind goes some way beyond the sort of conscience clause you propose), is the best way ahead. We need to make fair and just provision for both sides here if we are to reach the possibility of a settlement. Only in the St Hugh’s Conversations have such possibilities been aired and a fragile consensus sensed.
It is easy to see what provision for progressives would look like – an inclusive version of the marriage service. But what do conservatives want? To be honest, my sense is that there is not agreement here yet among them – like women bishops’ opponents, they are an alliance between impossibilists (who baulk at any change and would prefer an even more conservative settlement than the current position of the House of Bishops), those who want a very firm and clear boundary at every level of church life and governance (as laid out by the Church of England Evangelical Council, and something akin to a new Province), and those who are somewhere in between. It is not clear to me what their settled position is, and I sense it is not clear to them either! But it is much more than a conscience clause for opting out – rightly, in my view, they want some assurance of a future honoured and secure place in the Church.
Questions of ‘provision’ will stir strong emotions among bishops (and many women clergy too) who have to deal on a daily basis with the settlement we have made on women in the episcopate. It is not hard to see why such steps will fill episcopal hearts with dread! But, as you and I have shared with women colleagues the tortuous pain of the women in the episcopate synodical journey, I regrettably have concluded that likelihood of inadequate provision, which I firmly believe that what you propose in your Synod address offers conservatives and progressives, will lead to another round of politics, campaigning and rancour. Such an incremental approach may well appeal to some in the College of Bishops, but in the wider Church I think the College risks not reading the signs of the times adequately.
I once agreed with your ‘politician’s answer’ and thought it clever and necessary. But I am afraid now a politician’s answer won’t do. Living in Love and Faith has taught us to be clearer, rather than avoiding the elephant in the room. I want to know whether you are able to offer your support to an extension of the doctrine of marriage to same-sex couples or not. And I think you owe it to the process to give it.
By all means, if your answer is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ then please make that a little more clear. But if you do, then I ask you to consider that your solution risks the very unity you wish to preserve, and condemns the Church to another round of politics, electoral games and harm. It offers nothing to conservatives and not a great deal to progressives. I think it just offers a way for bishops to avoid biting the necessary bullet rather than working to the maximum unity we can achieve where everyone – in a deeply broken Church – comes away feeling, if not happy, then secure and free to minister according to their conscience.
My prayers are assured for your next meeting with episcopal colleagues in the College.
Your brother in Christ,