Heaven is Weeping: An Open Letter to the House of Bishops @C_of_E @JustinWelby @JohnSentamuMarch 1, 2014
MY LORD BISHOPS,
Greetings in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, your Lord and mine in our common journey of faith: to him be the glory for ever and ever!
I am writing this letter hesitantly because, as a member of a clergy household myself, I am aware of the immense pressure that you live under and of the immense burden of responsibility that you shoulder as the Lords Spiritual in our land: may the Lord give each and every one of you the courage, grace, strength and wisdom you need as you carry out your duties in his service.
First of all, I would like to thank you for all the time and effort that you put into so many different and often conflicting areas of life, especially on matters of injustice here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Thank you, in particular, to those who put their names to the letter recently published in the Mirrornewspaper challenging the government over the impact of its welfare reforms; my thanks also for the work that went into producing the Pilgrim Course, which has been well received and appreciated in the parishes I belong to; and for all the other work you carry out, so much of it unseen and unheralded by media attention.
My further thanks for the time, consideration and careful reflection that went into your recent Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage: this brings us to my main purpose in writing as I add my voice to the many others expressing concern and dismay over this matter.
I’d like to start by sharing something of my own faith journey: I was brought up as a free-church, conservative evangelical. The Bible, prayer and church were the bedrock of my early life: I read the Bible and prayed daily, more than daily; I attended the Christian Union at school and at college; and I became a Sunday School teacher and a street evangelist whilst still in my teenage years. I knew the Bible better than any of my contemporaries and was referred to as ‘the living concordance’, such was my enthusiasm; and I knew — or rather, believed I knew — what the Bible taught about sexuality. Homosexuality and Christianity were mutually exclusive: to be gay was a lifestyle choice that set a person at odds with Scripture and the revealed will of God. This did not mean that I hated gays: they were no worse sinners than anyone else and I followed the mantra of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’
I know, then, how some of you and some the churches under your care feel about homosexuality in the Church, for I too once felt that way; and in those days, not surprisingly, I had no dealings with gay people: why would any gay person want to know me, a person who would claim to offer them Christ’s unconditional love whilst simultaneously condemning that which lay at the very core of their being?
That was to change, however, not overnight or by any dramatic experience, but over time as I began to encounter gay people; and not simply gay people but gay Christians; and it became clear that God was as much at work in their lives as mine. Without any sign of repentance for their ‘lifestyle choice’, God was blessing them: the fruit and work of the Holy Spirit was as evident in the lives of gay Christians as it was in the lives of straight Christians!
What was going on? Was God a liar, saying one thing in Scripture yet doing another? Was God the ultimate hypocrite, playing games with people’s lives and sexuality? Surely not! So I revisited the Scriptures and by God’s grace my eyes were opened: it became clear that faithfulness was the key. From beginning to end, from Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in the Garden of Eden, through the Law, the Histories and the Prophets and all the way on to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus’ trust in the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond into the book of Revelation, God’s call to his people has been to be faithful: faithful to God, faithful to our neighbours and faithful to one another. God loves faithfulness!
Everything fell into place: the condemnations of same-sex activity that we see in Scripture all represent betrayals of trust. The world of the Bible, of ancient Israel and of the Early Church, was a world where heterosexual relationships formed the bedrock of society, where homosexual activity could only represent a betrayal of trust; and so homosexual behaviour was condemned in the same way as other promiscuous behaviour such as adultery. This, however, is not the world we live in today: today we find ourselves in society where long-term, faithful same-sex partnerships co-exist and thrive alongside straight relationships; and against such relationships there is neither law nor biblical prohibition. Loose living, promiscuity and adultery are out, for all of these betray both human and divine trust; faithfulness is in, for this echoes the very heart of God.
Like St Peter in prayer on the rooftop, who found himself confounded by God’s apparent change of attitude towards the things and people he believed that God had declared unclean, I too was confounded; but also like Peter, seeing God transforming the lives of those whom I once regarded as unclean, I am set free and I ask, “Who am I — who are we, the Church — to deny blessing to those whom God is blessing?”
This, then, has been my journey of understanding and this is why I support equal marriage; this too is why I believe the Church of England should support equal marriage; and this is why I now find myself dismayed by your Lordships’ Pastoral Guidance on the matter when I see you making such a prohibition. Gentlemen, you are the Lords Spiritual: you yourselves commissioned the Pilling Report, which included the following amongst its recommendations:
… we believe that parishes and clergy, who conscientiously believe that celebrating faithful same sex relationships would be pastorally and missiologically the right thing to do, should be supported in doing so. […] Consultation and agreement between clergy and PCC on the policy would be essential, although the decision whether to conduct such a service in individual cases should be for the priest alone. (Pilling, paras 391-2, p.112)
Yet rather than accept that recommendation, rather than offer priests that support, rather than allowing them to follow their conscience, you advise that any prayer with a same-sex married couple should “be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it” then state unequivocally that “Services of blessing should not be provided.” (Pastoral Guidance Appendix, para 21).
How did this come to pass? How have you managed to turn that which is supposed to provide pastoral support into a blunt instrument that can only serve to drive a further wedge between the Church of England and LGBT people? How has welcoming a same-sex couple to prayer for their ongoing relationship become an opportunity to berate them for departing from church teaching? For make no mistake about it, that is how such a so-called “pastoral discussion” — no matter how sensitively broached — will be perceived by those on the receiving end. This approach, your Lordships, is a betrayal of trust that flies in the face of all that has gone before, that undermines almost all of your introductory remarks about gay people being children of God, loved and valued as full members of the body of Christ.
In your early paragraphs you cite Part 6 of the Dromantine Communiqué of 2005, stating that “The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us” — but then you go on to do precisely that very thing, victimising and diminishing LGBT people by excluding their relationships from the possibility of affirmation or formal recognition by the Church, even going so far as to declare that “it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage” (Pastoral Guidance Appendix, para 27).
So you place both gay clergy and gay laity in a double-bind, in a Catch-22 situation, caught out by the Church’s proper teaching that sexual activity belongs within the context of marriage but, when presented by the State with a lawful opportunity to marry, either denied that opportunity altogether (clergy) or denied the opportunity to celebrate that relationship (laity) by the Church.
You cite the Canons in support of your position; but you cite them selectively, for the Church’s Canons in the Thirty Nine Articles (Article XXXII) stipulate quite clearly that the call to the Priesthood within the Anglican tradition is not a call to celibacy: the clergy are free to marry at their discretion. So as the law of the land changes, you override one canon at the expense of another, making that canon which describes marriage as being between a man and woman more important than that which grants clergy freedom to marry, at the same time as denying the validity of state-sanctioned marriage in any case.
Which is it to be, your Lordships? Is the state sanctioned marriage in fact valid, such that it carries sufficient weight to threaten canon law? Or is it invalid, in which case it carries no weight whatsoever and is no different to a civil partnership?
As so often happens in theological disputes, your Lordships, you are right in what you affirm, but wrong in what you deny. You affirm the sanctity of marriage, but deny it to gay people. You affirm God’s love for gay people but deny them full inclusion as God’s people. You open the door to the sacraments of baptism and communion, but close it to marriage: you weigh the sacraments and say, “Thus far and no further!”
You are right when you say that Jesus affirmed male/female relationships; but you are wrong when you say that by that affirmation he denied same-sex relationships: for you know full well that Jesus did not say a word either for or against such relationships. He did, however, speak of the sanctity of marriage and declared that anyone who divorces and remarries, except in the case of their partner’s unfaithfulness, commits adultery — yet you allow priests discretion over whom they will remarry. Thus you not only pick and choose which aspects of Christ’s teachings you follow, but you make an area in which he gave no specific teaching more important than one in which his teaching is clear. If a priest’s discretion is permitted over remarriage of divorcees, upon what basis is it not permitted over a public act of worship which recognises a same-sex marriage?
A song from Boy George/Culture Club comes to mind and I’ve rewritten the lyrics for you:
You are men of deep conviction,
You are men who surely know
How to tell a contradiction?
You surely know, you surely know!
Your Lordships, you surely know! You surely know how Jesus responded to those whose lives were riddled with such contradiction, the religious leaders of his own day, men who swallowed camels whilst straining at gnats. I appeal to you, do not be like them! Do not say of LGBT people that the Church welcomes them as equals but deny that welcome in what you permit or prohibit!
You speak of ‘facilitated conversations’ but rather than pave the way for them, you make such conversations futile by issuing a statement that reinforces barricades instead of taking them down. You say, “[…] we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.” What, then, is the point of these conversations when you have unanimously predetermined their outcome? Forgive me, my Lords, but I find it difficult to believe your declaration that you are all in agreement on this: was there truly not even one dissenting voice, not one person open to the possibility of change?
More than this, gentlemen, I find your choice of words here less than helpful:the Christian understanding… — what? Is there but one definitive Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage? Do you really set your understanding over and above that of other Christian churches? By all means speak of the Church of England’s traditional understanding, but please do not presume to speak for the entire Christian community!
Your approach to this matter, your analysis of it and your response to it are not the way of Christ, the living door, who opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all who will come in. I appeal to you, as a fellow pilgrim on the way: do not close the doors that Christ is opening. Do not seek the way of the law when we are saved by grace: heed the warnings of St Paul, that those who choose to live under the law are obliged to obey the whole law — do not return to slavery but accept the freedom Christ offers!
Listen also to the wisdom of Gamaliel: if what is happening here is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to stop it — in which case you may even find yourselves fighting against God!
At the beginning of this letter, I thanked those of you who spoke out recently about the disastrous impact of the government’s welfare reforms: you protest injustice on the one hand whilst you practice it on the other, for that issue and this are both matters of injustice. Thus we have a government that is pro-equality in one arena but blind to its obligations to the poor, whilst we have a Church leadership that has a clear vision of its obligations to the poor but appears blind to injustice here: can you not see, then, why the media cry out and people castigate the Church as a haven for hypocrites?
May the Lord grant you, the leaders of his Church, the vision of our government to see that equal rights require equal rites; and may the Lord grant our government, the leaders of our nation, the compassion for the poor that you see so clearly.
And may he further grant you, as Bishops in his Church, grace and wisdom to facilitate conversations — as some of you are doing — rather than close them down, and so ensure that the gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed good news for all people in all times and situations.
As I draw to a close, the sun is shining in our garden, the sky is no longer weeping; but heaven is weeping, weeping over every lost sheep driven away from the Church by this failure of love. You are the Chief Shepherds appointed over Christ’s Church: I urge you, then, to behave as the Good Shepherd himself and follow where his Spirit is leading to help bring heaven’s tears to an end.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
I decided to quote this amazing letter on my blog – directly from Phil Groom’s blog, which was linked on the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ site – because it makes all the relevant points about the Letter from the Church of England House of Bishops on the subject of Same-Sex Marriage, that many people (including leading Church historians) have objected to.
From his early life of believing that homosexuality was taboo, and strictly forbidden to all Christians, Phil has – by dint of actually mixing with monogamously-partnered homosexual couples, and reflecting further in a modern understanding of the Scriptures – come to the realisation that Gay people are entitled to the same sort of partnered relationships as the majority of heterosexuals, who take their right to marry for granted.
Phil’s basic arguments for the Church to overcome its traditional resistance to the blessing of Same-Sex relationships are so logical and fulsome in their extent, that I don’t intend here to try to encapsulate them in my own poor words. His letter needs to be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested – by the Bishops of the Church, as well as the rest of us who might be tempted to take issue with them.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand