Oxford Diocese Bishops’ Letter on Human Sexuality

A letter from Bishop Steven to all Oxford Clergy and Lay Ministers.

Dear …………..

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.14)

As a Bishop’s staff, we spent some time recently reflecting on the Letter to the Colossians and our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world.

In the light of our time together, we want to offer some reflections on current debates and developments in the Church of England in the area of human sexuality. We do so with humility and some hesitation. It is not easy to make a meaningful contribution to the present debate for a number of reasons. But we have received many requests for guidance and we are convinced that remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.

What is the national process?

You will remember that the Pilling Report in 2013 was followed by a listening process with a series of regional conversations. The House of Bishops then brought to the General Synod in February 2017, a report with proposals on how to move forward from the Shared Conversations. Very unusually, the General Synod voted not to take note of the document.

In a pastoral letter issued after this debate, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced the formation of a Pastoral Advisory Group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle and the development of a comprehensive document on human sexuality to be led by the Bishop of Coventry.

The Archbishops also called in their letter for “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it”. They emphasise the love of God for all people:

“We want to make clear some underlying principles. In these discussions, no person is a problem or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’. There are simply people called to redeemed humanity in Christ”.

The College of Bishops met in early September this year and engaged with the work of the Pastoral Advisory Group and the emerging project to develop learning and teaching resources, now called Living in Love and Faith.

The Pastoral Advisory Group is seeking to issue new pastoral guidance within the Church of England’s current legal, doctrinal and liturgical frameworks accompanied by some new resources. The groups working on Living in Love and Faith are hoping to publish their work in a variety of resources in early 2020.

The wider debate

Whilst this work is going on, attitudes to LGBTI+ people in Church and society continue to change and evolve and other churches in the United Kingdom and the Anglican Communion engage in similar conversations.

LGBTI+ Christians have always been, and remain, actively involved as clergy and laity in all areas of church life, and at all levels. How open and authentically themselves they may be in this is the issue at stake. We are conscious as bishops of the pain felt by many LGBTI+ people and their families in the midst of these continuing debates. As a Church, we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ.

We are also aware of the strongly held views of many in these debates, grounded in deep convictions. We are aware that the exchanges themselves can be hurtful and damaging especially when conducted through social media or rapid email exchanges, and particularly for those whose very identity is problematised. Bullying and harassment are damaging and not acceptable as part of the reasoned and loving debate the Church needs to have.

We are mindful of the fact that a number of individuals within this Diocese holding different views are currently playing a role in national and international debates. We hope that each will be supported and respected by their home diocese in the ministry to which they have been called.

Inclusion and respect

It is clear that it will be some time before the process of discernment in the Church of England reaches a conclusion. During that period we want to encourage, above all, an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people across the Diocese of Oxford.

Talking about sexuality and gender identity in the Church may be, and often is, difficult. It involves our deeply personal loves and the attachments that shape them; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God and others, and our approach to Scripture and the core convictions of our faith. To talk about these things is to make ourselves vulnerable. Moreover, in the Church of England conversations about these matters often bear a weight of pain and distrust caused by the past and present experiences of hurt, exclusion and misunderstanding. However, many speak of such conversations as being ultimately liberating and positive.

Debates about human sexuality and gender identity in the Church seem likely to continue, and perhaps to grow in intensity, over the coming years. It is important that these debates should be grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition as well as in deep prayer and our common life of worship. They must also be conducted with attention to people’s experiences and in a spirit of love, mutual care and respect.

We want to commend to the Diocese of Oxford the five principles recently commended to the Diocese of Lichfield by Bishop Michael Ipgrave and his colleagues. These are founded on the basic principle that all people are welcomed in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table. Such radical Christian inclusion brings practical consequences for our local churches and for our Diocese as a whole:

It is the responsibility of all Christians, but especially those who hold the Bishop’s Licence as clergy or lay ministers, to ensure that all people know that there is a place at the table for them. Preaching, teaching and pastoral responsibilities need to be exercised sensitively, and with this core principle in mind.

Intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender, is inappropriate. It is also unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith.

We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We wish to affirm that LGBTI+ people are called to roles of leadership and service in the local church. Nobody should be told that their sexual orientation or gender identity in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.

Finally, we wish both to acknowledge the great contribution that LGBTI+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese, and to highlight the need for mission within the LGBTI+ community more broadly.
Liturgy and prayers

The House of Bishops Guidelines on Same-Sex Marriage acknowledges that “same-sex” couples will continue to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship” (19).

As Bishops, we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries seeking guidance in this area. There is no authorised public liturgy for such prayers. The Guidelines are clear that “Services of blessing should not be provided” (21). However, there is positive encouragement for clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively.

We warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance. This is, of course, one of the key areas under review in the Pastoral Advisory Group. Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short term for the benefit of this Diocese.

A new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families

We are also actively exploring the setting up a new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families and loved ones, across the Diocese. Over the summer we have been seeking to learn from other dioceses in this area, including in the Church in Wales. The team will probably take the form of a volunteer chaplain or chaplains in each episcopal area giving time to this ministry alongside their other work. The role of the chaplains will be to listen, to offer support and to advise local clergy and congregations and ourselves in our welcome and support of LGBTI+ people and their families, and to learn from the insights of LGTBI+ people about being church together.

In all of this, we ourselves and the chaplaincy team will continue to work within existing Bishop’s Guidelines on human sexuality in this next stage of the national process.

Continued listening

As bishops, we will continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.

We will be setting aside additional time in the coming year to listen in particular to the experiences of LGBTI+ people. Bishop Steven has drawn together a small informal group of LGBTI+ people as advisors in this process. If anyone would like to contribute to this group or feed in reflections we have created an email account for this purpose: inclusion@oxford.anglican.org
We are concerned to listen well to LGBTI+ people from a variety of perspectives including both those seeking change in the Church of England’s polity and those seeking to live faithfully within it.

Compassion, gentleness and respect

Finally, we return to our beginning. All things and all people hold together in Christ. The way we engage in debate in areas of difference is part of our witness to the world. We are to clothe ourselves in this as in everything else with love.

Therefore “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”. These are the qualities we need as the church as we continue to build a common life together.

We commend these qualities and our ongoing process to the prayers of the Diocese.

Bishop Andrew
Bishop Alan; Bishop Colin

(Diocese of Oxford; Church of England)

______________________________________________________________

Hat-tip to my friend the Revd. Andrew Lightbown for this link to the Letter to Clergy and Lay Ministers in the Church of England Diocese of Oxford, from their diocesan bishops –  

This Letter is now in the public domain (on Bishop Andrew’s Blog) and is representative of a number of bishops in the Church of England who are serious about looking for the very best way to provide a  reasonable outcome from the current  Pastoral Enquiry Group’s conversations in the C. of E. on Human Sexuality who will forward their report to the H.o.B. for further action on LGBT+ issues.

One rather telling paragraph in this Letter points to the FACT that the Church of England has made the decision to act compassionately and positively towards full inclusion of LGBT+ people in the Church’s ministry and mission:

“We will be setting aside additional time in the coming year to listen in particular to the experiences of LGBTI+ people. Bishop Steven has drawn together a small informal group of LGBTI+ people as advisors in this process. If anyone would like to contribute to this group or feed in reflections we have created an email account for this purpose: inclusion@oxford.anglican.org
We are concerned to listen well to LGBTI+ people from a variety of perspectives including both those seeking change in the Church of England’s polity and those seeking to live faithfully within it.”

One positive move that these 3 bishops in the Oxford Diocese intend is to appoint a Diocesan Chaplain for the LGBT+ Community in the diocese. This is an excellent beginning to what, hopefully, might become a regular process in Anglican Churches around the world – A commendable example of forward-looking ministry to a long-neglected sector of the Church.

See also:

https://churchofengland.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=50eac70851c7245ce1ce00c45&id=3bc0689106&e=d873124739

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Brexit, Sex and Science – Dean of St.Pauls’ Cathedral

Brexit, Sex & Science: How Do We Tackle “Fake News”?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vic Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was listening to an American political commentator on the radio the other day, who was saying that the divisions between two political sides in the USA were getting worse. Neither side is listening to the other; families and friends are divided; each side listens to what it wants to hear. He’d convened focus groups of differing views where within ten seconds people were taking sides, and within five minutes were shouting at each other. ‘Everyone wants to be heard’, he said, ‘but no one is listening.’

On Saturday 20th October there was a big march in London calling for a People’s Vote on Brexit. Three days later I sat at my breakfast table in London listening to the chanting of supporters of Tommy Robinson at the Old Bailey. Two sides, two views, and who is working to reconcile them and to listen to the other? Who will include the excluded, on either side? And what really is the truth?

The ‘post-truth’ undermining of rational evidence and reasoned argument makes it hard to know what to believe.  In the 2016 referendum campaign opinions were presented as facts; truth may be undermined by innuendo or downright falsehood. With climate change for example, doubt is thrown on carefully monitored conclusions by partial studies, in a similar way to how the tobacco lobby fought for years to minimise the harm done by its products. You don’t have to disprove the science: you just have to enable people to ignore it, by giving them an alternative narrative they want to believe, by creating ‘fake news’.

And the same thing is around in the church’s debates on sex. There’s been huge progress made in the scientific understanding of issues around human sexuality over the last 50 years, and there’s much evidence about sexuality to engage with. But that scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily fit with inherited ways of interpreting the Bible: so how do those who feel uncomfortable with the evidence respond?  The Church has been tempted to follow the way of the world: setting up binary splits (e.g. GAFCON), disputing the evidence, finding alternative narratives which undermine credible scientific studies, ignoring the challenges of the experiences of others, refusing to engage with those with whom we disagree.

A presentation at the Church of England’s General Synod in July 2018, about the work of a group reviewing the relationship between scientific understanding and the Church’s views on sexuality, began with reference to St Augustine’s comments on how literalist interpretation of the scriptures (in relation to creation) by some Christians was bringing the faith into disrepute among pagans who knew it didn’t tally with scientific understanding of the world which God had created.  Augustine’s point was that, while the Scriptures are authoritative and contain the truth of God’s salvation in Christ, the way they are interpreted needs to be carefully assessed, in order not to conflict with the truth of God made known in the world around us, the truths of reason.

Just as we no longer insist, for example, that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by water, so we need to listen to and engage with the truth of sexuality in the world around us.  We have the ability to understand the human body, the human psyche, the human brain and the human condition better than we’ve ever done before – and we should therefore be open to being challenged about our preconceptions and misguided assumptions. The science doesn’t determine our ethical conclusions, but it will helpfully inform how we should interpret and use the tradition.

That’s why I’m hosting a day in London on December 8th 2018, to help Christians understand more about how science is helping to illuminate our understandings of sexuality. This isn’t a polemical event arguing for change: it’s offering the opportunity to listen across binary divides, to listen to scientific truth which may be uncomfortable, but is the reality of how God’s world is.

A particular example is people who are born intersex, whose sex at birth is ambiguous or uncertain. Because they don’t fit the binary model of what’s ‘normal’, such people have often been forced as children, without their consent, to undergo life-changing surgery. If you’re open-minded enough to encounter four brave young people who don’t ‘fit’ and who may challenge how you think, spend four minutes watching this video:

On December 8th, Sara Gillingham will be sharing her own story about how she has been treated, and Dr Peter Hegarty will be explaining how society has responded to intersex people over time and the harm that has been done to them. We also need to be open to the truth about the significant harm many LGBTI people have suffered over the years, as evidenced by high levels of depression, self-harm and suicide. Professionals such as Professor Michael King have been studying this for years – and as Christians, we need to hear the facts from his studies, and respond pastorally to them.

Jesus says in John’s Gospel: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.’ Chapters 8 and 9 of John are concerned with ‘fake news’: how good religious people didn’t accept the truth of who Jesus was, because of what they believed should be the case. The religious group they belonged to believed the truth couldn’t be like that, and they were more loyal to their group than to God’s truth.

Jesus doesn’t call these good religious people true believers. He calls them ‘slaves to sin’ and ‘not of God’. Because God is the God of truth, even when the truth doesn’t fit with what we believe should be the case about God. Because not living in God’s truth leads us into sin.

God in Jesus calls us to listen to others, to learn and to love. Are we willing to be challenged by the uncomfortable truth? Or will the Church follow the way of the world and avoid the uncomfortable facts which don’t fit what we want to believe?

______________________________________________________________

The Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London offers his opinion on the polarities abounding in human society today – including division in the U.K. about Brexit; division in the US on the continuing abrasiveness of the current President; and, finally, in the Church’s understanding and tendency to a division on matters of gender and sexuality:

“On December 8th, Sara Gillingham will be sharing her own story about how she has been treated, and Dr Peter Hegarty will be explaining how society has responded to intersex people over time and the harm that has been done to them. We also need to be open to the truth about the significant harm many LGBTI people have suffered over the years, as evidenced by high levels of depression, self-harm and suicide. Professionals such as Professor Michael King have been studying this for years – and as Christians, we need to hear the facts from his studies, and respond pastorally to them.

Although the prospect of Brexit is not, specifically, a religious question, it will have a profound effect on the unity of people in the United Kingdom – whose views may differ, radically, on the matter of what might turn out to be ‘the best’ (or not as the case may be) for Britain’s economy and social and spiritual well-being.

Most people around the world are aware of the split between conservatives and ‘liberals’ in the United States – mainly because of the predominant self-interest of its President’s desire for a ‘Make America Great’ policy, which is leading to a severe split in the country on Trump’s ideological claims of supremacy in world affairs that is increasingly (some may even think ‘dangerously’)  isolating America from even its former allies. Sadly, in the US, a lot of support for this fortress mentality is coming from the conservative and Evangelical wing of Christian believers whose support is being actively courted by the President – to the point where he and his conservative advisors are seeking to overturn recent legislation affecting justice issues for society’s underclasses.

Although in England, at least, the public attitudes have turned around from homophobia and sexism to a more just view of its treatment of LGBT+ people, now enshrined in legal measures of support (e.g., Equal Marriage); the Church of England is still divided on how to incorporate such measures of liberalisation to the point where legally married same-sex couples can actually be openly and officially, welcomed by the Church.

This problem of division, however, is not unique to the Church in England. There is now a very real threat of an institutionalised division between parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion around the world on matters of gender and sexuality and the treatment of LGBT+ people within the Provincial Churches of the Communion. 

Part of the problem is that the governments of many ex-colonial countries, which were originally missionised by a Church which enshrined a traditional, anciently biblical, understanding of gender and sexuality – based on the binary theory of sexual activity being reserved for the propagation of the species, without reference to the possibility of sexual attraction as a means of engendering a faithful bonded relationship between two people of the same gender. Some of these countries – especially in Africa and Asia – still convinced of the impropriety of homosexuality, legislate for severe sanctions against the LGBT+ people in their jurisdiction, often aided and abetted by the leaders of the local Anglican Provincial Churches in those countries.

The formation of GAFCON/FOCA in the Global South (oddly – promoted by the one-time Sydney  Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen) has now precipitated a culture of schism within the Anglican Communion, which began with their sponsoring of rival Anglican Churches in the USA and Canada, and now even in the U.K., which operate separately from their roots in the Anglican Communion stemming from the See of Canterbury in the U.K. (Our own Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand (ACANZP) has already suffered from the schismatic departure of several clergy in the diocese of Christchurch – although, in most cases they have not taken the majority of their congregations with them).

Social and scientific observation – especially in the Western world (Global North) – has now found clear evidence of an alternative to human (and animal) sexual responses; as originally perceived to exist for the sole purpose of procreation. This gift of an alternative sexual relationship can often produce a stable and faithful couple bonding that can provide a model of propriety for heterosexual married couples – including the adoption and care of children who might otherwise not receive the care and nurture of loving parents. If this had not been possible, then secular (political) means would never have been initiated to make them legally admissible.

What has happened recently in this area could be seen as a new era of enlightenment for the Church of England which, at a recent General Synod, voted overwhelmingly to petition the UK Government to ban clinical ‘Conversion Therapy’ for homosexuals in the U.K. Another bold move was for its General Synod to declare a ban on discrimination against transsexuals whose lives have formerly suffered from an ignorance of the psychological, biological and social elements involved to properly enable the orderly accommodation of their social transformation into both Church and society.  

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

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C.of E. Ambivalent on LGBT+ Welcome

I have been actively involved with the Church of England for nearly thirty years as an openly gay priest, beginning with the Southwark Diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network (inevitably, SLAGS for short) and preceded by my membership of the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation, where we were at least out to each other.

Conversations with many people involved with the church in different parts of the country, from lay people young and old to ordinands, priests and bishops show me that the mindset of the Church of England at local, parish level is almost certainly open to the presence of LGBTI+ people and probably thinks that we would feel welcome and comfortable in their congregation, whether or not they were signed up as an Inclusive Church.

THE CONVERSION HAS HAPPENED

The majority of members of the Church of England have already undergone a conversion. They welcome women in ministry, lay and ordained, priestly and Episcopal, and they value and cherish their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex clergy. The welcome may be covert – direct questions are not asked but “they know about their curate or vicar” and welcome the partner who shares the house. Many will have learnt from their children, who are more likely than not to be open about their own sexuality or gender subtleties.

This majority is present in local parishes, the grassroots where the clergy are not aligned with Forward in Faith, GAFCON, Reform, AMiE, or the bishop of Maidstone. The Forward in Faith website records that 380 parishes in the Provinces of York and Canterbury are affiliated to FiF. A search for conservative evangelical parishes (Reform, GAFCON, AMiE, and +Maidstone) showed a total affiliation of 346 parishes. The combined total is 726. The total number of parishes in the Church of England is 12,600; 11,874 are not affiliated with either a conservative catholic or evangelical network. The common thread linking the 726 conservative catholic and evangelical parishes is, of course, their opposition to the ordination of women, not necessarily opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people.

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP

There is another view of the Church of England, the view from the top, of General Synod and Church House, the College and House of Bishops and the groups representing minority traditions in the Church. The view at the top is unclear at best and murky at worst.

This “Church at the Top” exists in marked contrast to the “Church at the Bottom.” It represents the official position of the Church of England, which is to deny equality in ministry and relationships to LGBTI+ people, prohibiting the blessing of relationships in church, the solemnization of same-sex marriages in church, and the ordination and appointment of clergy in same-sex marriages. Those at the bottom either live in ignorance of this reality or think that there will be no negative effect on LGBTI+ people, lay or ordained, in their local congregation.

Even people seeking ordination or in training may think they are being ordained into a Church that is going to be safe and welcoming. For the majority it will be, but some will find themselves in a deanery with a FiF or GAFCON presence, where the best policy will be to construct a careful closet around their identity to guarantee security.

The six sub-groups that comprise the Living in Love and Faith process working towards helping the bishops publish a new teaching document in 2020 have been appointed from the top and their brief comes from the top – of course. Their brief is not to develop a teaching document that will primarily meet the needs and expectations of the “Church at the Bottom.”

A POST-HONEST TO GOD CHURCH

The majority of members of the Church of England have moved on from the post-60s Honest to God decades, from a faith once-modelled on Biblical literalism and fundamentalism. They have adjusted relatively easily in the last two decades to the transformation of the public visibility, changed legal status and social equality granted to LGBTI+ people since 1997 when the new Labour government began a radical reform of legislation.

AN INVISIBLE GULF

This transformation has created an invisible gulf between the general acceptance by ‘the people in the pews’ of equality for LGTBI+ people and the conflicts at the top of the institution pursued by conservative evangelicals and catholics in England and the homophobic axis in the wider Anglican Communion represented by GAFCON. These networks identify themselves as the defenders of doctrinal and biblical orthodoxy. In doing so, they have created a disconnect between the Church of England hierarchy (bishops, General Synod, Church House) and the majority of members of the Church of England. In addition, they have reinforced a perception of Christianity in the general population as being homophobic, misogynistic, prejudiced and abusive.

The Church is inhospitable to lesbian and gay clergy who marry. The majority of people worshipping in parish churches Sunday by Sunday do not differentiate, as do the rules, between equal marriage and civil partnerships. Those entering civil partnerships are deemed to ‘have married’. The majority do not read the Church Times or the Church of England Newspaper or listen to Premier Radio; nor are they members of a Facebook group dedicated to LGBTI+ people in the Church of England. They are broadly oblivious to the dramas experienced by LGBTI+ people, confronted every day thanks to conservative demands that Anglicans should not capitulate to the secular world but should defend God’s will by adhering to teaching that condemns homosexual activity and resists those who explore the complexities of gender and sexuality.

The Church of England lacks the ability at the moment to map this radical disconnect between the “Church at the Top”, bishops, General Synod and Church House, and the “Church at the Bottom”, in parishes and congregations.

RESPONSIBILITY LIES WITH THE LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH PROCESS

Responsibility for dealing with this disconnect has fallen to those involved in the Living in Love and Faith process. How is Living in Love and Faith going to resolve this invisible disconnect? Those directly involved in the process have been selected to represent a spectrum of views in the Church, from the conservative to the radical, continuing the Shared Conversations dynamic. The eleven bishops who wrote to the Bishop of Lichfield last week represent one axis of this dynamic.

I have no doubt that Archbishop Justin longs for a resolution to the saga that has been running since Lambeth 1998. I have no doubt he wishes to bridge the gulf and confirm the beliefs about the place of LGBTI+ people in the Church held by the majority of congregations in contrast to the official position of the Church: the quadruple lock against marriage and the lack of equality in ministry and relationships. I doubt that the current process will result in the necessary breakthrough that reconnects hierarchy and parish.

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Fr. Colin Coward, honoured by the Queen with an MBE for his work on behalf of LGBT+ people in the Church of England, is a much-respected voice of support for the minority of people in the Church of England whose gender/sexual identity happens to be different from the ‘norm’. His distinction, in this article – of the difference of compassionate regard for LGBT+ people in the Church of England between the majority of members and the Church hierarchy – has become more obvious recently:

“The majority of members of the Church of England have already undergone a conversion. They welcome women in ministry, lay and ordained, priestly and Episcopal, and they value and cherish their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex clergy. The welcome may be covert – direct questions are not asked but “they know about their curate or vicar” and welcome the partner who shares the house. Many will have learnt from their children, who are more likely than not to be open about their own sexuality or gender subtleties.”

Regarding this paragraph, I personally know at least two clergymen in same-sex partnered relationships in the Church of England, whose ministry and presence is very much valued by their parishioners – who know about their ‘live-in partners’ and are fully supportive of them and their relationships. The local Bishop is obviously aware of the relationship – in each case – and, presumably accepts them as part of the diocesan team.

The C. of E. House of Bishops is obviously not totally united in this matter of welcoming the ministry of same-sex partnered clergy; but the fact that there are bishops willing to accept this situation reflects the general tenor of the pew-membership of the Church who clearly  (apart from those few belonging to homophobic societies within the Church) cannot understand the official stance of those bishops of the Church who are dragging their feet on this issue.

Unfortunately for the public witness of the Church, this reticence in acknowledging the credibility gap – between the majority in favour and the minority in opposition to the accommodation of same-sex partnerships – is antithetical to the Gospel of God’s loving redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ; whose own attitude towards society’s ‘outcasts’ was so very different from what is now recognised to be that of the GAFCON/FOCA/AMIE  faction that seeks to re-assert the premise of Law over Love.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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ACANZ Synods ban gay conversion therapy

Three New Zealand diocesan synods have passed motions opposing the practice of gay conversion therapy.

Gay conversion therapy refers to a course of systematic aversion or reprogramming techniques used to try and change a person’s sexual orientation. Psychologists’ professional associations in several countries have discredited this practice as ineffective and potentially harmful, especially for vulnerable youth.

Retired Judge Fred McElrea from the Diocese of Dunedin’s Social Transformation Committee presented a motion to synod rejecting the practice of gay conversion therapy.

The Diocese of Dunedin 2018 synod agreed that the church “should not be carrying out or promoting any ‘ministry’ or ‘therapy’ that leads to the expectation a person’s basic sexual orientation can or should be changed.”

Speaking to the motion, Fred said that the term ‘conversion’ was an insult to God and to the person concerned, because it assumed that an LGBT person was ‘ill’ or needed to change. He said that also caused offence to many Christians because of their understanding that all people are made in the image of God.

The Dunedin motion went on to call on Government to introduce legislation making gay conversion therapy illegal in Aotearoa New Zealand.

That call for a legal ban was echoed by the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki synod in a motion moved by Archdeacon Malcolm French, which also noted the Church of England’s 2017 decision to condemn gay conversion therapy, and subsequent moves towards bringing a gay conversion therapy ban into British law.

Both dioceses were careful to point out that a ban on the set of practices covered by the term conversion therapy would not prevent various pastoral responses to human need, which Archdeacon Malcolm French stated may include supporting LGBT Christians who wished to live celibate lives.

A similar motion against gay conversion therapy was moved in Wellington by St Peter’s Willis Street synod delegate, Neill Ballantyne. In response, the Wellington synod crafted additions to the motion adding statements on differing pastoral responses to LGBT identifying Anglicans.

Wellington’s final motion took a stand against harmful gay conversion therapies, and also recognised the diversity of views and pastoral responses on issues of sexual identity and Christian life that were present in the synod.

The full texts of the three synods’ motions are here.

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I had long thought ACANZP to be one of the earlier Provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion to incorporate in its synodical procedures those princples of justice that seek to implement the better treatment of disadvantaged members of the society we live in.

New Zealand Anglicans were the first to include lay representatives at its diocesan and provincial synods. We also ordained women (as both priests and bishops) way ahead of our dear old Mother Church of England – which, however, still has ‘Flying Bishops’ to ensure the protesting parishes are free from the ‘taint’ of women clergy!

However, on this matter of protestation against enforced ‘conversion therapy’ for those who are intrinsically homosexual, the normally conservative Church of England, perhaps surprisingly, managed to beat us to the post.

Our New Zealand General Synod has yet to tackle this matter of human indignity but it has now become obvious – perhaps in the light of the positive action of the Church of England General Synod on this issue – that the Church must do something about what amounts to an act of human indignity against a sector of society that has been judged to be anti-social and aberrant in its sexual behaviour. Three of our New Zealand Anglican dioceses have now decided to take action to prevent undue pressure on people who are intrinsically gay to submit to what is known as ‘conversion therapy’, in the hope that they can be programmed to act other than their innate sexual-orientation indicates.

The old idea that homosexuality is an unnatural, perverse, or wicked distortion of the more prevalent binary sexual instinct – an opinion backed up by a traditional ‘Christian’ understanding of the interpretation of certain biblical passages – has now been long discredited. Therefore, to attempt to ‘convert’ a person’s natural sexual identity to comply with an outdated understanding of its aetiology is not only psychologically unwise but also in conflict with the laws of creation reflected in each person’s identity as created in God’s image and likeness.

I am hopeful that our ACANZP General Synod will take note of the courageous action made by the dioceses of Dunedin, Taranaki/Waikato and Wellington and be encouraged to present a Church-wide Petition to outlaw this currently misguided but not illegal ‘therapy’.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Schism in Orthodoxy?

CHURCH LIFE JOURNAL

The Orthodox Schism Under Western Eyes

schism is underway between two major Orthodox Churches, one with significance for Catholicism. And yet, in Catholic media the phenomenon—called by many the biggest split in modern Orthodoxy history—has gone conspicuously unnoticed. A single Catholic News Agency article from October 14th summarizes the problem tellingly and laconically:

The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, claiming his recognition of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine departed from Orthodox Christian norms . . .

. . . Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.

There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in 1054.

Something is afoot that should capture the Catholic imagination. It has something to do with unity, authority, and Apostolic Christianity. Its precise meaning, however, remains elusive not merely because the situation remains in flux but also because the inner workings of Orthodox Christianity seem—to many anyway—obscure, opaque.

As a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic myself, this crisis hits a bit closer to home. For us, the Orthodox—with whom we share a liturgical, theological, and ritual patrimony—never seem very off. In many ways, they are closer than our Latin brethren. Regardless, this particular controversy is worthy of the attention of all members of the Catholic Church, whose response should be neither a simplistic triumphalism nor a willful ignorance. In fact, the Schism cuts right to the heart of our ongoing kerfuffle about authority and primacy.

With this in mind, let us try to understand exactly what is transpiring in and around Ukraine.

Whose Schism? Which Rationale?

The short version of events is that, since about the collapse of the USSR, there have been three competing jurisdictions in Ukraine: the UOC-MP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate), the UOC-KP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate), and the UOAC (Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church). Until the beginning of this crisis, only the first of these was recognized as the legitimate, canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine; it is subordinate to the “Moscow Patriarchate” (hence the MP), and thus, in the eyes of many Ukrainians, is an arm of the Russian nation-state, which is obviously not incredibly popular in the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea. The other two jurisdictions arose in 1992 and 1921 respectively, in the hope that Ukrainian Orthodox believers could, for the most part, govern themselves—a concept known as autocephaly(something even the MP Church asked for when the Soviet Union fell). What the Ecumenical Patriarch—traditionally the protos (head) of the Orthodox Church—has done is to ask all three groups to unite into one body, which would (hopefully) be free of outside influence. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has ceased Eucharistic communion with all believers under the omophor (pastoral protection) of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Most other Orthodox Churches are sitting on the sidelines, figuring out what to do, still in communion with both, though many have notable Russian sympathies.

The arguments of each faction betray a different vision of how authority ought to work, that is, what exactly the Orthodox Church is. Supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarch argue that only his see has ever been allowed to grant autocephaly, that even Moscow’s headship over Ukraine was a temporary right granted under duress by Constantinople. This move is merely an attempt to bring back into communion millions of people who have existed outside of canonical Orthodoxy for no good, dogmatic reason. Politics should not separate those who are united in the Faith. Thus Bartholomew’s move is not only in the spirit of Christian charity but also wholly in line with the traditional understanding of autocephaly, which can only be granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch, and, who in bestowing it, preserves himself as the rightful, visible head of the Orthodox Church. Archbishop Job of Telmessos summarized this position well in a recent interview:

— If you study the history of the Orthodox Church, according to texts and documents, rather than created myths and false historiography, it is evident that absolutely all modern autocephalies have been proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Even if we take the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia, we see that its autocephaly was self-proclaimed in 1448, when Moscow elected metropolitan Jonas independently, without the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is interesting to emphasize that the Orthodox Church in Russia has never been given a tomos of autocephaly! In 1589-1590, Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II simply normalized the situation by raising this see to a patriarchal rank, while allowing the Moscow bishop “to be called” patriarch, provided that he would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch and consider him “as his head and protos,” as stated in the letter.

Later autocephalies that were proclaimed in the 19th and 20th centuries—all were proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate: the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Greece (1850), in Serbia (1879 and elevated to the a patriarchate in 1922), in Romania (1885 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1925), in Poland (1924), in Albania (1937) in Bulgaria (1945 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1961), in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998). Each of these proclamations was linked to a political factor and autocephaly was proclaimed as a way of ensuring the unity of the Church, within the interior of each of these states, as well as the unity between the Local Churches.

In addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the history of the Orthodox Church, no other Local Church has proclaimed autocephaly. True, the Orthodox Church in Russia may claim that it proclaimed the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1943), in Czechoslovakia (1951) and in America (1970), but these autocephalies were not recognized by the fullness of the Orthodox Church as the Orthodox Church in Russia does not have such a prerogative of providing autocephaly. Therefore, these three Churches themselves appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for providing tomoses of autocephaly. Over time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate normalized the situation by declaring the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998).

Supporters of Moscow fire back that this is an infringement on their canonical territory; it is effectively a power-grab by Constantinople, whose traditional position of authority is undermined by the fact that the Russian Church is, by far, the largest in the Orthodox Communion. Of course, with many of its faithful and 12,328 of its churches located in Ukraine, the Russian Church stands to lose the prestige that comes with these numbers should Bartholomew succeed. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of External Church Relations for the Russian Orthodox, has said that he hopes “common sense prevails.” Here, “common sense,” means: “you gave us authority over this territory long ago. It’s ours and now you seek to mettle in it to your own benefit. You initiated this schism by overreaching.”

There are many ways of staging this conflict: nationality v. universality, tradition v. pragmatism, etc. Ultimately, however, all of these pairings may be reduced to questions of authority and institution, questions that have already been raised in the pages of this very journal.

READ MORE:

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It would seem that Russian politics is disturbing the uneasy status quo in the situation of the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. After the recent Russian Invasion of Ukrainian Territory, the Russian-led Patriarchate there (which was granted autonomy by the Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarch) has been seen by the Constantinople Patriarch Batholomew to be trying to annex the other two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine – (1) the Patriarchate of Kiev, and (2) the Autocephalous Ukraine Patriarchate – which, historically have  been part of the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

Because of this unease about Russian dominance, the Protos (Ecumenical Patriarch), Bartholomew, has called for the three branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine to consider joining together as a single Patriarchate – free from domination by Russian political influence – which has angered the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, to the point where he has declared the Churches under his own jurisdiction to be ‘out of Communion’ – (Eucharistic Fellowship) with Churches under the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The irony of this recent schismatic furore is that the Anglican Communion is currently under a not dissimilar threat from the efforts of the GAFCON-FOCA  group – to place itself outside of Eucharistic Fellowship of all other Anglican Churches which do not subscribe to the Jerusalem Statement of Faith that has been raised up by Gafcon in direct opposition to the Lambeth Quadrilateral – which has traditionally bound the Anglican Churches around the world in fellowship with the See of Canterbury.

A similar ethos of claims to numerical superiority by both Russia and Gafcon seems to have become the excuse for rival claims to authority over the primary (Protos) jurisdiction of both Orthodox and Anglican Churches.

How both historic Churches (each severed from the original papal claims of Roman jurisdiction) will sort out their rival claims to ‘orthodoxy’ in their own jurisdictions has yet to be seen. However, claims based on numerical adherence are hardly tenable in matters of spiritual efficacy. Politics and temporal power bases were never part of the Gospel initiative.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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C.of E. Response to UK Gender Recognition Act

Reform of the Gender Recognition Act – Government Consultation. A Response from the Church of England.

We have read with interest the consultation document concerning the Gender Recognition Act (2004) and note that the Minister is particularly interested in hearing from (inter alia) religious bodies. The Church of England, in its role as the Established Church, seeks to contribute, where possible, to the development of government policy and to the promotion of the common good in our society. Given the Minister’s desire to hear from religious organisations, it would be remarkable if the Church of England did not acknowledge the consultation process and seek to contribute to it.

The concern of the consultation to minimise the burdens borne by trans people in the process of seeking legal recognition of their gender identity reflects a clear pastoral concern. However, we find ourselves unable to make use of the questionnaire format of the consultation response form because to do so would mean pre-empting ongoing work that we are currently undertaking ourselves.

Living in Love and Faith
The Church of England is engaged in a major exercise of addressing its own pastoral practice among LGBTI+ people (including transgender people) and is conducting an extensive study to enable the church and its members to understand better, and reflect theologically upon, questions of gender, sex and sexuality (This project is entitled: Living in Love and Faith). This involves a programme of careful listening to many groups of people within and beyond the church, including trans people and other church members, and those who lead developments in the academy and professions.  the process has only recently begun. Careful listening relies upon hard-won trust supported by a willingness on all sides to be open to new insights and challenging truths. Those involved in these processes accept that, given the way understandings of gender are changing rapidly, the church still has much to learn.

As this work is ongoing, expected to run until at least 2020, and because it involves attentive listening to many people within and beyond the church who contribute to our learning from different perspectives, we are necessarily cautious about any step that might damage the trust on which these deep conversations depend. Responding to the detailed questions in Annexe B of the consultation document, most of which are in a Yes/No format, will inevitably mean pre-empting some of our discussions unhelpfully.

The Church of England and Trans People
We are aware, from transgender colleagues in the Church of England, that the current Consultation has proved divisive, even among trans-Christian people themselves. Some are in favour of retaining medical scrutiny while others point out that the current proposals still require people to commit to transition and that similar legislation operates uncontroversially in other jurisdictions, for example in the Irish Republic.

In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England voted unequivocally to both welcome and affirm transgender people and that is the basis for our pastoral practice. Trans people with gender recognition are already able to marry in our churches. Being transgender does not prevent someone from offering themselves for ordained ministry and we have transgender clergy as well as laity.

Our commitment and practice in this regard does not in itself give us a clear steer on the issues on which the Minister is consulting. We can say with some confidence that excessive bureaucracy in the process of gaining a Gender Recognition Certificate is neither welcoming nor affirming of transgender people in relation to the structures of the law and society at large – but we do not have a settled view in the Church of England about precisely which aspects of the legal process are necessary in this case.

However, in the course of our Living in Love and Faith programme, and as we have discussed and reflected upon the current Consultation, we have sought many views and have made some progress in clarifying the issues behind the questions in the consultation on the Gender recognition Act and the possible direction of future policy, none of which will be evident from this necessarily brief response.

Should the Minister wish to consult the Church of England further we would be delighted to engage more fully on the underlying issues, sharing the fruits of our current work and outlining the ways in which our thinking is developing. Should you wish to take this possibility further, we shall consider carefully how to include and to reference the views of LGBTI+ – especially transgender – people within the church.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown (Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England) following consultation with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of Coventry and Newcastle.

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It is perhaps not common knowledge throughout the Anglican Communion that the Church of England has already committed itself to the acceptance of transgender people as both clergy and laity in that Church. The paragraph included in this response of the Church to the UK Government’s intended legislation to provide for official recognition of such people clearly shows this:

“In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England voted unequivocally to both welcome and affirm transgender people and that is the basis for our pastoral practice. Trans people with gender recognition are already able to marry in our churches. Being transgender does not prevent someone from offering themselves for ordained ministry and we have transgender clergy as well as laity.”

This is a step forward in the process of recognising the validity of LGBTI people as legitimate members of the Christian community – a process which is still ongoing through the work of the House of Bishops commission that is currently investigating the claims of those in the Church whose innate gender or sexually-responsive identity is different from the binary norm.

What now remains to be sorted out is all the complex legal and social ramifications that need to be addressed, so that the most appropriate pastoral responses may be made by the Church to accommodate the needs of those in the Church whose gender-sexuality – though innate – is still a matter of proper recognition by both Church and society.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Looking for God in Messy Places – Bishop Jake

As October gives way to November this year, my life’s odometer will have rolled over to sixty-one. Turning sixty-one marks no significant milestone for me. To be honest, none of the usual big birthdays—the new decades like 40 or 50 or 60—proved to be important turning points.

And yet, lately I find myself especially pensive about life’s “why.” It’s more of a feeling in my soul’s marrow than a sequence of clear, discrete thoughts. Somebody brought me to a moment of clarity when he repeated a line from the Qur’an: “We are all returning.” 

That says it. Life is about returning. That’s the key to our why. And taking hold of life as a returning will make all the difference to the “how” of living it. Jesus could have said—and with different words actually did say—precisely the same thing.

DB1E8CB3-BEB2-4EBD-AB90-9164A411F17CThe poet Rumi helps me—and may help you—glimpse the hues and the textures of a life anchored in returning. Life is like wandering home from a tavern late at night. He writes:

Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

How different this is from the drive to achieve that defined so much of my life as a younger man. I knew where I wanted to go and believed that I could get there only through toil and competition. Without effort and without impressive results, I would go nowhere. And I would be nobody.

Correlatively, other people would be more or less, higher or lower than me. I would look up in envy or down in condescension. And I could not rest until I had arrived. It was all on me.

Perhaps incongruously for some, there is no difference between those who seek financial success and those who pursue moral and spiritual rigor as achievements. The logic remains the same. My life’s significance derives from what I accomplish and accumulate.

432D9DE1-0091-4E53-AD5D-A209A3FDC862By contrast, Rumi invites us to a strikingly different posture. I suppose you could characterize it as humility. He writes, “Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.” We belong elsewhere. We yearn to get there. And we will only arrive by admitting that we cannot get there on our own.

In Jesus’s terms, we were meant from the beginning to dwell in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is not some distant spiritual realm separate from the world we inhabit. God reigns with love. Where love animates us, that is the Kingdom of God. Yes, that Kingdom stretches into eternity. But it begins right here. Right now.

Jesus teaches us to walk the way of love in order to bring the Kingdom of God near. To bring God’s reign to our neighborhood, to our school, to our workplace, and to our supermarket. To bring it near to the broken-hearted, the neglected, the despised, and the destitute. In other words, Jesus teaches us to let his love express itself in our actions. With our hands and our feet, with our votes and our checkbooks. 

His love restores, renews, and remakes a world debased by violence, prejudice, and greed. Heals a world wounded by hunger, oppression, and suffering. To put it differently, Jesus urges us to live in this world as the place that God is returning to the dream that God had for it in the first place. The place where love reigns.

We struggle to get our hearts around this way of living. That’s not surprising. Jesus’s first disciples didn’t exactly catch on all at once, either. For instance, James and John asked Jesus to sit at his left hand and his right hand once he had finally arrived. They wanted to be at the head of the table. You know, higher up than everybody else. (Mark 10:35-45)

Jesus had good news for them and bad news for them. Nobody would have a higher place at the table than them. But, then again, their place would be no higher than anybody else’s. The table, as it turns out, is round.

38D75CA6-64D6-4A7A-9CFF-59CBEE3F0519Followers of Jesus are not striving to make a place for ourselves in the world. We’re cooperating with God to make the world a place where everybody—simply everybody—gets the place of honor due a beloved child of God.

Jesus-followers are servants in that respect. We devote our lives to Jesus’s ransom project, to liberating the world from nightmares like poverty and sexism and racism to God’s dream of dignity for every of human being.

Together, we walk and, at times, stumble together back to the home we yearn for. We are all returning. As Ram Dass put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

Our path homeward is long and uneven. We will endure detours and setbacks. But the one who brought us here will bring us home.

Jake Owensby

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I’m really into this blog by Bishop Jake Owensby of TEC. His reflections mirror so much of what is going on in my life. He’s only 61 (I’m 89) but the wisdom he percolates through his blog ‘Looking for God in messy places’ has so much common sense and godly wisdom for his readers, that I find him always a compelling spiritual guide.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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