The Church of England is facing a fresh crisis over its stance on gay relationships following unprecedented criticism by a group of leading retired bishops over its failure to provide leadership on the issue, and its marginalisation of LGBT members.
The highly unconventional intervention comes before this week’s synod, which will be dominated by rancorous divisions over sexuality. Officials hope the 500-plus members of the church’s general assembly will approve a recent report from bishops which upholds the traditional teaching that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman.
But a rebellion is being orchestrated by supporters of LGBT rights who are dismayed at the bishops’ restatement of doctrine. The church insists that gay clergy must be celibate, and clergy are forbidden from conducting same-sex marriage services. An open letter from 14 retired bishops, led by Peter Selby, the former bishop of Worcester, and including Richard Harries, former bishop of Oxford, urges their successors to think again. They say serving bishops have sought to manage a conflict “rather than perhaps enabling or leading”.
The letter rebukes the former bishops’ successors for marginalising the views of LGBT members of the church. “Our perception is that, while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice,” it says.
The letter – sent to all serving bishops this weekend – acknowledges that an immediate change in church law to allow same-sex marriage would be unrealistic, given the depths of division on the issue. But, it adds, “your call for change of tone and culture, while absolutely right, does not carry conviction”.
It also criticises the bishops for not allowing “the theological voice of some of us to be heard properly” – a reference to those who argue for an inclusive interpretation of scripture.
The retired bishops’ intervention was very unusual, Selby told the Observer. “There will be some [serving bishops] who think ‘why don’t these dinosaurs shut up, it’s none of their business’. But I hope there will also be some who are glad we have put this on the record.”
Since “shared conversations” on sexuality ended last July, the House of Bishops has met four times to discuss the next steps. In a bid to avoid a split, the synod will not be asked to accept its report but merely “take note” of it.
This procedure is usually a formality, but campaigners are fomenting a challenge. They plan to demand separate votes on the “take note” motion in each section of the synod: bishops, clergy and laity. A rejection by one section – most likely the clergy – would mean the motion would be lost, in what would be an extraordinary rebuff.
Although the bishops said their report represented a consensus rather than a unanimous view, Selby said it was “regrettable that what’s come out is a kind of compromised document, with no indication that there was a struggle and there are alternative views I know there is very, very strong pressure to limit the damage that a conflict can cause.”
He added: “We felt we needed to say something, so that’s what we’ve done. I’ve no doubt I’ll get some flak, both from people who disagree and from people who think I shouldn’t open my mouth.”
While upholding a traditional definition of marriage, the bishops’ report said church law and guidance should be interpreted with “maximum freedom” without indicating what might be permitted. Conservatives in the church have welcomed the restatement of traditional doctrine but some have warned the report could lead to “theological incoherence”.
The Church of England said: “The purpose of the shared conversations process was not to change the view of participants or to seek to change the views of others, but rather to recognise Jesus in the face, story and view of those with whom they might disagree.
“There are no formal proposals being debated at general synod. The ‘take note’ debate will be an opportunity for those with differing opinions on this issue to have their views aired.”
“An open letter from 14 retired bishops, led by Peter Selby, the former bishop of Worcester, and including Richard Harries, former bishop of Oxford, urges their successors to think again. They say serving bishops have sought to manage a conflict “rather than perhaps enabling or leading”. The letter rebukes the former bishops’ successors for marginalising the views of LGBT members of the church. “Our perception is that, while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice,” it says.
The fact that as many as 14 retired Bishops of the Church of England should send a letter to the Church of England House of Bishops (serving), on a matter affecting a significant minority in the Church (LGBTI people), should alert the serving Bishops to the fact that some of their illustrious predecessors are very concerned about the ‘Bishops Report’ – on ‘Conversations on Human Sexuality’ and its refusal to recognise those members of the Church – both clerical and lay – who have entered into legal Same-Sex Partnerships – either by means of the extant Civil Partnership route, or by the newly legalised means of what has been called ‘Equal Marriage’. Despite the Report’s statement that Gay People should be respected and welcomed by the Church, the refusal to open up ways of recognizing their monogamous legal relationships seem uncharitable – if not outright contradictory.
Here is the full text of the Letter of the 14 Retired Bishops:
This is the second Letter of Protest received by the House of Bishops about their Report – the first being from the members of various groups in the Church who have petitioned the membership of the General Synod (meeting this week) to boycott the official ‘Noting’ of the Report in Synod. Whatever happens at General Synod in the Church of England, the outcome will seriously affect the general public’s understanding of the Church of England’s view of the LGBTI community – especially in the H.o.B.’s condemnation of the State’s provision of ‘Equal Marriage’ for law-abiding citizens whose God-given sexual orientation and affinity is ‘different’ and who wish to live their lives together in peace.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand