Since the publication of the House of Bishops report on sexuality and marriage I have been considering the concepts of unity, dissent, episcopacy and Church of England identity, all of which have been endangered by the report.
We now know that some bishops are deeply uncomfortable with the report and yet have chosen to lend their name to it. It is a shame that those bishops who are deeply uncomfortable with the report didn’t ‘do a Birkenhead’ and insist on an appendix detailing their disapproval. It is a shame because what they have done is made the lot of dissenting clergy an awful lot harder. And, this is shame because the bishops seem to have forgotten that their primary responsibility is to their diocese and not some larger institution such as the C of E, or even the Anglican Communion. Yes, the report is in many ways shameful.
Yes it is in some small, yet incredibly ill-defined way, welcome that a change in tone and culture is called for but what worries me about the report, other than it fails to present its findings through the lens of justice (the forgotten virtue), is that it is so thoroughly un Church of England.
Through suggesting that informal prayers may be offered for same sex couples (but not a blessing – or at least a formal blessing), and that there will be differences in what constitutes informal prayer in different contexts, what we are witnessing is the erosion of what it means to be a national and liturgical church. If we erode what it means to be a national and liturgical church we erode what it means to be the Anglican Church in and for England.
The great thing, it seems to me, about vast swathes of our Church of England approach to prayer is that it is not context dependent! Yes, clergy and parishes can make choices about which formal and authorized prayers to use in celebrating the Eucharist for example, dependent on which works best for a particular context, but effectively what is offered is a menu of prayers. Other rites offer a menu of choices. The Common Worship Marriage Service provides an alternative preface and, new baptism rites have been written.
The Church in Wales seems to have, in its deliberations, held onto the fact that Anglicanism is at heart liturgical, hence their decision to provide a menu of two formal and liturgical prayers, which both fell short of a formal blessing; although to be honest one of them gets very close indeed! Surely the Church of England could have followed our Celtic neighbours example? To do so would have revealed a far greater level of Anglican liturgical integrity.
The Church in Wales, in it its deliberations, was also far more comfortable and transparent in accepting, and owning up to, a level of episcopal disunity, but for some reason the Church of England bishops chose not to do so. So here is a question:
‘Why, how, and through what mechanisms did our Church of England bishops feel compelled to act as a quasi magesterium?’
This is an important question and it is one of ‘tone and culture.’ What has been the tone and culture within the House (and College) of Bishops which has led to this very un Anglican reconfiguration of what it means to be the House of Bishops? And, why on this one issue has unity been the most important ‘virtue?’ After all in the House of Lord’s bishops frequently vote in different directions.
The House of Bishops report therefore potentiality undermines ‘our’ Church of England identity in two ways:
First, through its insistence that same sex relationships can only be informally recognised and prayed for the nature of what it means to be a national and liturgical church, a church where doctrine alongside tone and culture is expressed through liturgy, is subtly (or not so subtly) changed. And, secondly, through the unexplained commitment to episcopal unity at all other costs the House of Bishops runs the risk of radically altering the historic nature of Church of England episcopacy. I am sure that these are both unintended consequences, but consequences they will be.
The discussions at synod next week are not therefore just about sexuality, marriage, doctrine and, ethics but about the distinctive nature of the Church of England’s identity.
The bishops need to be far more up front, honest and transparent about the tone and culture within their own ranks and, about the rationale and mechanisms that led them to acting as an Anglican quasi magesterium.
The future of Anglicanism as we know it depends on them being able and prepared to do so. Synod must hold its bishops to account.