Last Sunday afternoon I drafted a letter to the Church Times (reproduced in full at the end of this commentary).
The letter was submitted on Monday lunchtime as I was booked on a conference that started on Monday tea time. When I drafted the letter I sent it to four or five friends, my usual ‘revisionist’ friends, and asked whether they might like to be co-signatories. Some of them asked if they could invite other friends. The result was that within eighteen hours we had 112 signatories. We live in a networked world! But, the reality is that I have been inundated with messages from people saying that they would like to have signed had they not missed the deadline. This is significant because it shows the overall level of diss-ease with the trajectory of travel and, the mixed messages that are coming out of ‘head office.’ There is a very strong feeling that the Church of England needs to do far better both in terms of governance and, for many, as an ethical institution. Again, for many, Mr. Nye’s letter crossed a boundary both in terms of content and process.
Over the last few weeks I have spoken to a fair number of LGBTI Christians and heard their stories, and their treatment has not been good. They are wounded, yet we (the C of E) refuse to let them be our wounded healers, instead we write letters and make proclamations designed to keep them at the very margins of the fold. It is almost as if we are saying ‘we want to include you, but not as an embarrassment, still less a challenge.’
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic but this week I heard of a bishop saying to a group of gay clergy that they were the first gay people he had ever met. Now you might think that this is a) unlikely and b) as I say, tragic. The question ‘where have you been all your life’ feels apt. Do we really want, or need, ‘seniors’ whose experience and word view is so restricted?
It is my strong belief that the Church of England also has to ask itself what it might mean to bind up the wounds of this community and to reflect on what it might mean to proclaim release to those held in a form of ecclesial captivity. It is also my strong belief that the time has come to stop making sweeping statements based on grand, but very probably mythical, narratives and actually to the hard work of finding out where most members of the Church of England are at. If the Church of England fails to do this the (in) famous teaching document will be issued into a vacuum, or black hole, entirely of our own making.
Finally, it is time to (and I can’t quite believe I am saying this!) stop trying to manage the process and exercise some leadership. The Church of England, or at least her ‘seniors,’ seem to be lurching from one crisis to another; always reacting to the last critical incident. These critical incidents occur because there is no sense of overall direction and an absence of ‘leaders’ who are prepared to nail their colors to the mast.
Every official statement, letter, slogan or catchphrase seems to be issued as a reaction and what we are left with is ambiguity and contradiction. Let me give just one example: how does Mr. Nye’s letter, both in terms of (doctrinal) content and tone, sit alongside the archiepiscopal promise of a ‘radical new inclusivity?’ Of course the catch phrase itself (radical new inclusivity) was the fruit of a failed attempt to close off the issue through the bishops report to synod; the one that the clergy declined to take note of! In failing to take note of the report the clergy rejected and then ejected the previous guiding slogan ‘change in tone and culture.’ The irony is that Mr. Nye’s letter is entirely unreflective of any supposed change in tone or culture, let alone movement towards ‘radical new inclusivity.’
The reason that our seniors are trying so hard to manage (rather than lead) the process to an uncertain end, in my view, boils down to one word: fear. Fear of course never seldom likes to fess up, instead it likes to masquerade as strength (but rarely courage, for this is a harder act of mimicry to pull off). Maybe our seniors need to spend some time dwelling in the biblical phrase ‘do not fear’ and reflect on what this might mean for them in the field of sexual ethics asking themselves who and what are we truly afraid of? The opening verses of Psalm 27 address these two questions: who and of what I am afraid?
My own suspicion is that the bishops are deeply afraid of the ultra conservative ‘over my dead body’ few and that if they exercised real and courageous leadership they might just find support, respect, friendship and loyalty from the many (even the majority) in our famously broad church. This doesn’t mean or imply that conservative bishops need to jettison their own theology on this one issue, but it does mean an acceptance of difference and a recognition that their own theology, on this (second order) issue, is of secondary importance. Spreading this message through the House of Bishops and then into the church would of course be the responsibility of our most senior leaders.
In the absence of courageous leadership all we end up with is the continuation of a badly managed process the result of which will be ambiguity, reactivity, vacillation, lax governance, chaos and worst of all the pain and further marginalization of those who are already hurt, bleeding and hanging on in there by their very finger tips.
The Church of England response to the US Episcopalian consultation
From the Bishop of Buckingham, the Dean of Guildford, the Rt Revd David Gillett, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, 76 others of the clergy, and 36 members of the laity
Sir, — We have read William Nye’s letter to the Episcopal Church in the United States (News, 20 April) with considerable interest, surprise, and, to be honest, disappointment, and wish to dissociate ourselves from it.
Mr Nye writes about pressure from the Church of England to dissociate from the Episcopal Church. We think this is a misleading statement. Pressure may well come from various conservative groups in the Church of England, but (unless the content of the letter is tested synodically), he surely cannot claim to speak for the Church of England as a whole.
Mr Nye’s letter, written on Archbishops’ Council stationery, gives the impression that he was acting as an agent of the Council and its trustees and writing with its authority. But, as he acknowledges, his response is simply the fruit of conversations held among a small cadre of professional staff. As a governance matter, this will not, we think, do.
The letter refers to a majority belief in the Church of England that the only legitimate locus for sexual relationships is within heterosexual marriage. This sweeping assertion cannot, in fact, be substantiated, as the Church of England, to our knowledge, has never asked her regular worshipping community what it thinks and believes about this.
Given the House of Bishops’ work on human sexuality, now would be a good time to find out. Would it be too much to suggest a survey of worshippers on the middle two Sundays of October, the dates used for the compilation of mission statistics? We would not be surprised to find, for instance, that, among lay people, a majority would recognise same-sex relationships as a valid and joyous expression of human sexual loving, and would wish the national Church to allow for the liturgical affirmation of such relationships.
To discover what breadth of opinion is actually held within the Church of England would provide much-needed evidence to inform the Bishops’ teaching document and future communications with the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Communion as a whole.
ALAN WILSON, DIANNA GWILLIAMS, DAVID GILLETT, ANDREW LIGHTBOWN,
DAVID MEAKIN, MICHAEL SADGROVE, FRANCES WOOKEY, ROSIE HARPER, DIARMAID MACCULLOCH, MIRANDA THRELFALL-HOLMES, JONATHAN DRAPER, ROBERT THOMPSON, ANDREW TEAL, JANET FIFE, RICHARD COLES, CHARLOTTE BANNISTER-PARKER, HANNAH-LEWIS, KEVIN SCOTT, ANDY MARSHALL, NEAL TERRY, PETER LEONARD, COLIN COWARD, JEREMY DAVIES, WILLIAM LAMB, JEREMY FLETCHER, NADINE DANIEL, WYN BEYNON, PHILIP COCHRANE, ANDREW ALLEN, JONATHAN CLATWORTHY, ANDREW HAMMOND, NICHOLAS ELDER, SARAH BRUSH, BARRY NAYLOR, JULIAN HOLYWELL, DAVID RUSHTON, DAN BARNES-DAVIES, RICHARD WATSON, MIKE TODD, ANDREW DOTCHIN, CHRISTINE ALLSOPP, JAMES ROSENTHAL,SIMON KERSHAW, NIKKI SKIPWORTH, ANDREW FORESHAW-CAIN, MARJORIE BROWN, PRU DULLEY, RICHARD HAGGIS, MICHAEL ROPER, JEREMY PEMBERTON, DAVID AUSTIN, RICHENDA WHEELER, ALICE GOODMAN, SIMON RUNDELL, MARION CLUTTERBUCK, ALLIANDRA ALLISON, MARK PUDGE, DOMINIC HOLROYD-THOMAS, CATH HOLLYWELL, ELAINE DANDO, JONATHAN PAGE, DAVID VYVYAN, RORY REYNOLDS, SHARON ELDERGILL, JANE BRADBURY, JACQUELINE STOBER, TIMOTHY GOODE, ANTONIO GARCIA FUERTE, ROBERT KOZAK, DWAYNE ENGH, MARK LETTERS, BRUTUS GREEN, STUART CRADDOCK, ANDY ATKINS, SIMON ROBINSON, JULIA FRENCH, JANE CHAMBERLAIN, EMMA DUFF, AND BRUCE KINSEY (clergy); SCOTT PETERSON, SIMON SARMIENTO, ERIKA BAKER, TRACEY BYRNE, JAYNE OZANNE, TIM HIND, JENNY HUMPHREYS, MARTIN SKIPWORTH, SIMON CULLEY, RAH FROEMMING-CARTER, JEREMY TIMM, JAY GREENE, ROB EDLIN-WHITE, KATE ALLREAD, RICHARD WELLINGS-THOMAS, RICHARD ASHBY, STEVEN HILTON, JOSHUA CAMPBELL, SUE JONES, ALICE WATSON, RUTH WILDE, SALLY BARNES, HANNAH GRIVELL, PENELOPE COWELL-DOE, JUSTINE RICHARDS, LIZ BADMAN, MARY SUTTON, KISORI MORRIS, LAURA SYKES, FIONA MACMILLAN, NIC TALL, SUSAN STRONG, ANN MEMMOTT, CHRIS RICKARD, JACKIE TWINE, AND NICK BASSON (laity)