Let’s start by letting the numbers sink in. Eleven bishops, including four diocesan bishops, have signed a letter to the Bishop of Coventry which seeks to reassert the church’s historic teaching on sexuality (whilst seeking to be nice and kind to the LGBTIQ+ community).
Now what we don’t know is whether they are supported by a whole cadre of other traditionalist bishops of various hues who feel that at present they cannot, or dare not, put pen to paper. But, as it stands the basic fact is that only eleven bishops, including four diocesan bishops, have actually put pen to paper.
My suspicion is that we haven’t heard the last episcopal words on the vexed issue of sexuality and that there is more to come from protagonists on both sides of the debate. Time will tell. I think, however, what we can safely surmise is that the bishops are not united on this issue. Disunity clearly exists in the episcopacy.
We can probably also surmise that the signatories of the letter believe that some form of change in doctrine and liturgy are at least possible, otherwise why bother with their salvo? So, paradoxically, this letter might just be a source of hope for those seeking to see greater levels of inclusion and equity.
But what of the letter itself?
Well, it’s a pity that the signatories couldn’t work out whether ‘non heterosexual’ people should be referred to as LGBT+ or LBGT+. Such editorial sloppiness can only seek to reinforce the view that some bishops are happier talking about, rather than directly with, a particular and distinct community of interest.
The signatories were keen to stress that issues of human sexuality (code for non heterosexuality) can only be resolved through a process of ‘serious intellectual engagement…. deep learning and again ,serious intellectual persuasion.’
So, where is the serious intellectual engagement in the content of the letter? It seems to me that the letter is written from the basis that a binary and complementary understanding of creation is a given, even as it is keen to stress ‘that we are made in God’s image,’ albeit that we have all ‘fallen captive to sin.’ The line of argument is incredibly confused: we have all been made / created in God’s image whether straight of LGBTIQ+, yet the LGBTIQ+ community in particular, despite being made in the very image of God, can be assessed and categorized as having ‘fallen captive to sin.’
How can this be?
Well the signatories, thankfully, provide the answer through their assertion that our ‘fundamental identity is not something we define for ourselves.’ I agree with this statement. We don’t get to choose! I didn’t choose my sexuality (or at least I can’t remember the moment of conscious choice) and I don’t suppose that the vast majority of my LGBTIQ+ family and friends got to choose either. When the choice line of argument is made I am always left wanting to ask: ‘when did you choose and on what basis?’ Choice is normally regarded as involving two or more possible outcomes and is based largely on experience.
Having sat with, talked with, and prayed with, many LGBTIQ+ friends I know that if many of them could have chosen to be heterosexual they would have done. It would have saved them from a whole load of bullying, ridicule and deep hurt. It would have preserved some of them in family relationships. It would have meant being able to live with an absence of fear. For some it would have meant an end to self-loathing and self-harm. So, please, when we say that our ‘fundamental identity is not something we define for ourselves’ can we, as the church, at least do so with consistency and from the true recognition that ‘that we are (all) made in God’s image,’ and that there is no hierarchy within the Iamgo Dei. We are either all made in the image of God, or none of us are.
The letter also suggests that those who argue for change do so lightly, in the absence of serious ‘intellectual engagement’ with both the Bible and the tradition. The capitulation to culture line of argument is, uncritically, employed: ‘We also believe that LLF must recognise and address the wider challenges in church and society to traditional Christian teaching.’ I would want to suggest that most of the progressive, or revisionist, Christians I know have spent an awfully long time with their experience and feelings in one hand and the bible and tradition in the other. If anyone doubts this they might want to read Marcus Green’s recently published ‘The Possibility of Difference.’
And, what of pastoral care? The bishops are keen to stress that pastoral care for the LGBTIQ+ community must be a priority whilst also stating that it is important ‘to consider the limits of legitimate pastoral practice.’ The bishop’s concern here is the use of liturgy to affirm, bless or even marry same-sex couples. What the bishops rightfully recognise is that the Church of England, as a liturgical church, expresses both doctrine alongside ‘tone and culture,’ through liturgy. I also suspect that they rightfully recognize that the notion of ‘informal prayers,’ (be nice to the gays but don’t do it ritefully) is antithetical to Anglicanism. But, what they don’t seem to understand is that members of the LGBTIQ+ community are highly unlikely to seek pastoral care, support and affirmation from those who believe that their very identity is a matter of choice, worse still a choice that is an anathema to the creator God. The reflection that during and through various conversations and presentations ‘we heard and felt afresh the depth and breadth of so many people’s pains, fears and hopes’ and yet, we would still want to hold the view that somehow the Church of England must cling unflinchingly to the preservation of the status quo, comes across as harsh, judgmental, patronizing, and theologically hierarchical.
The signatories to the letter offer a broad historical survey to support their case ‘that reaffirming this (historic) teaching offers us the best way of maintaining our unity-in-truth.’ Unity-in-truth, or at least their perception of truth is thus perceived to be the highest good, or the noblest of ecclesiological and theological virtues, outranking justice, love, fidelity and covenant (all theological motifs that the letter fails to reference; all issues that need to be addressed if ‘serious intellectual engagement’ is to be satisfied).
The bishops, perhaps forget, despite referencing the recent work of ARCIC III, that the Church of England is a Reformed (and some would argue reforming) Catholic church. For a group of bishops who would consider themselves to be heirs to the reformation to argue that unity (in their perception of truth) is the highest good is an incredibly weak line of argument.
The signatories also reference the messiness that has necessarily followed when other Anglican churches have opened their marriage rites to all. They argue that mess is per se bad thing. Well, I think we need a reality check: the Church of England is both broad and messy. We are good at living with mess and seeming incoherence. This might be a virtue or it might be a vice, but it is, I would suggest, a truth. There is no logical reason why on this issue divergent groups within the Church of England can’t peacefully co-exist.
As a progressive I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, mandate a traditionalist to affirm, bless or marry a same-sex couple, however why should a conservative seek to prevent others from doing so? Sexuality isn’t after all given to be a first order (salvation) issue and marriage isn’t officially considered to be a sacrament. So, why are the conservative-traditionalists so keen to say ‘over my dead body,’ why are they seeking to prevent any change, and why are they prepared to suppress the legitimate claims of one group of people, people who they affirm (either inadvertently or advertently) are ‘made in God’s image,’ ?
What is really going on here? That’s the question I am left with.