So the keenly awaited report from the bishops on sexuality and the doctrine of marriage and other related issues is, as they say in the LGBTI community, ‘out.’
And, it makes remarkable reading. It is remarkable in that it a) offers nothing, other than b) a change in culture and, tone.
It is remarkable in that it affirms that clergy may offer ‘informal prayers,‘ for same-sex couples, whilst carefully avoiding offering anything that looks like a blessing.
Informal prayers, now what on earth does this mean for a church whose prayers are by nature, formal? Informal prayers, at any level, is a strange and perhaps vacuous term.
Perhaps, the bishops might like to explain precisely what an informal prayer is? Is it a prayer that is somehow less effective, less binding, less directed and, less blessed than a formal prayer? Are there now two levels of prayer? Perhaps the bishops might also like to explain the rationale for praying for something which then cannot be explicitly blessed? Perhaps, the bishops might like to explain how the clergy are supposed to only use forms of service authorized by canon but at the same time insert an informal prayer or two?
But, perhaps they won’t.
So what about the very phrase ‘change in tone and culture?’ Again, it feels hollow and ever so slightly meaningless with the tone, structure and rhythm of the report itself reinforcing this sense of hollowness.
In the C of E culture and tone, as well as belief, has largely been expressed through rites and sacraments. That is our orthodoxy, othopraxis and, tradition. Rites and sacraments are both our epistemology and our style. Or at least they used to be. But, no more.
Talk of inclusivity and equity can therefore cannot be part of the C of E’s corporate language any longer, at least not with integrity. The stunning same sex relationships that ++Justin once referred to must, according to the bishop’s scheme, fall outside, or be excluded from, the celebratory and pastoral mandate of the C of E. The C of E, rightly or wrongly, depending on one’s view can only be regarded as an exclusive church.
I have been wondering what has been the driving force behind the bishops response. The desire to remain faithful to their own understanding of the requirements of remaining faithful to the apostolic deposit seems to be a significant driver and I am sure that for some, maybe even many, it was. However, as we now know the bishops are not of one mind (will the dissenters please make themselves known, don’t give in to fear). Maybe fear, fear of change, fear of the unknown, was also a major driving force? Maybe for some personal ambition was also a factor?
The interesting thing about fear is that frequently, normatively, it hides its face. Fear likes to wear different, more positive sounding garments, such as purity, sound doctrine and above all unity, for instance.
Could it just be that fear has won the day? Who knows, but it is worth thinking about.
For this orthodox progressive today has been a sad day. It has been a day where I suspect fear has won out, where our ‘leaders’ have been seen to lack moral courage, where notions of distributive justice have been sacrificed on the altar of unity and purity, where weakness masquerades as strength and, where good men and women have failed to speak and, where a particular and highly selective form of biblical literacy seems to have delivered the knock out blow.
I have one more lingering thought and its very personal: ‘what does it mean for me, given that I cannot at any level support either the document itself or the road map it proposes, to be a priest in the Church of England, which after all is an episcopal church?’