A confession: I wasn’t surprised when the letter from the bishops hit my in box.
But what should we make of the letter? Is it just a straightforward restatement of the church’s current position, or is it something different?
My own view is that the Oxford letter is different and that it does seek to move things on. I also think that it requires careful reading and that it should be read alongside the letter from the eleven evangelical bishops. The Oxford letter is nuanced in three ways:
First, it suggests that bishops should be free to speak their mind whilst also stating that the current default position, adopted by many bishops, of ‘remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.’ My hope, and expectation, is that the Oxford bishops, alongside others, will have more to say, so that they can fulfill their mandate to serve the ‘Church well.’
I applaud the statement that ‘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.’ As a priest in the Oxford diocese, and as the proud dad of a gay daughter (who as the letter stresses really isn’t a problem to be solved) I look forward to hearing more.
Secondly, the letter makes it clear that experience is to be highly valued. Yes the Church of England must ensure that any debates about sexuality ‘are grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition,’ but where ‘attention to people’s experiences’ is a constant theological companion. The letter proposes a highly incarnational, non dogmatic, method of doing theology. In proposing this methodology the Oxford bishops, are in my view, offering an approach which meets the demands, made by the eleven evangelical bishops, for ‘serious intellectual engagement.’
However, they also seem to be suggesting that their method of ‘doing theology’ is unlikely to lead to a‘single universal ethic.’ The statement that all should be able to be ‘authentically themselves,’ is to be applauded.
Thirdly, the letter is thoroughly Anglican, in that it recognizes that a theological motif – such as “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” – can only have any real currency, or content, when it comprises the pastoral (hence the establishment of a dedicated chaplaincy), the sacramental and the liturgical. I found the section on Liturgy (notice the language; Liturgy) one of the most interesting in the letter.
Liturgy and Prayers:
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.
Gone is the pernicious notion of ‘informal prayers’ whilst the expectation that the Pastoral Advisory Group will be considering liturgy is expressly referred to, with the paragraph finishing with a note of contingency, ‘depending on……’
The Oxford bishops are committed to building a Christ-like church and have identified three values as animators of this aspiration: compassion, contemplation and courage. By pledging to listen to the experiences of LGBTIQ+ Christians and allowing such experiences to help shape the future direction of the church, alongside the acknowledgment that ‘as a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ’ the bishops have shown real compassion. Listening, deep listening, is of course also the very heart beat of contemplative practice. In writing this letter, in the sure and certain knowledge that there will be some very real kick-back, and through their insistence, that silence does not serve the Church well, alongside a commitment to express their own views with integrity the Oxford bishops have been courageous, for courage is worked out in the most difficult, most contentious and most potentially divisive issues.
Well done Oxford bishops.