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English bishops call for "fresh tone" to sexuality debate

Posted on: January 27, 2017 11:21 AM
Photo Credit: C of E
Related Categories: England, sexuality

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The bishops of the Church of England have ruled out any change to the Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality; while calling for a “fresh tone” in the way the issue is handled. In a report on behalf of the House of Bishops published today (Friday) ahead of next month’s meeting of the General Synod, the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, said that Anglicanism has always been “a contested tradition” where different views are held together; and he suggests that that this approach should be extended to sexuality. The bishops propose that existing law and guidance should be interpreted with “maximum freedom” without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church. 

The report will be discussed by General Synod members in small groups on Wednesday 15 February; ahead of a plenary “Take Note” debate.

“Our vocation to be the spiritual home for all the people of England has, historically, enabled us to work together despite the distinctives of catholic, evangelical, and liberal traditions,” Bishop Graham said. “We recognise that for many holding a conservative view of scripture the underlying issue at stake is that of faithfulness to God’s word and this raises ‘first order’ questions in relation to the heart of the gospel. For others, the imperative to read scripture differently stems from a parallel conviction.

“It is our present determination to remain together as witnesses to the unity of the Triune God that forces us to try to hear the scriptural, theological and missiological arguments of those with whom we disagree profoundly. We believe that, in some way perhaps hidden from us, they still have something to teach us about the Kingdom of God – already here and still to come.

“It is the responsibility of the bishops to help the Church to identify the next steps – not necessarily toward a ‘solution’ but towards greater clarity about what is at stake and how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively. We are called to live the gospel and share it with those whose lives we find attractive and those whom we find hard to love; with those who hear willingly and those who reject us – because God alone understands the impact the gospel will have. It is in this calling to everyone that all agree that today we fall short as part of the Body of Christ and that we must do better.”

He said that contemporary Western cultures perceive the Church’s current teaching as “undermining, even contradicting, our Lord’s command that we should love one another as ourselves.”

He continued: “Whether that is the fault of our teaching or of the culture around us is not the core missiological issue for the Church today. If we are heard as lacking in love, our ability to proclaim the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ is damaged or negated. No Church that is committed to God’s mission can live comfortably with that situation. But it is in the nature of a Church like the Church of England that the way through this is profoundly contested.

“This is true domestically where, over many years, serious study of scripture and theology has reached conflicting conclusions in the way we handle the faith we have inherited. It is also felt keenly because of the position of the Church of England within the Anglican Communion and the worldwide Church, since the question of proclaiming the gospel within culture must take account of the widely differing cultures around the world, where human sexuality is often a touchstone issue, but in contradictory ways.”

Bishop Graham said that the bishops' proposed approach would mean four practical developments:

  • establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church; 
  • the creation of a substantial new teaching document on marriage and relationships, replacing or expanding upon the House’s teaching document of 1999 on marriage and the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality; 
  • guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and 
  • new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle. 

The bishops do not propose to change the law that prohibits clergy from solemnising same-sex marriages; or to authorise or commend any liturgy of blessing for same-sex partnerships. But they are suggesting that they will provide guidance for clergy who wish to offer prayers for same-sex couples, which would specify “what may not take place and offering advice about what may.”

Bishop Graham said that the issue of church unity was one of the theological themes that emerged as the bishops discussed the issue. “The unity of the Church is much more than resistance to institutional fragmentation, though it is not a bad motivation for it,” he said.

“We want to continue to ‘walk together’, to use the phrase from the Primates’ Meeting a year ago, in a way that is based on a common commitment to biblical truths but recognises our continuing disagreement with one another. We want to maintain and indeed deepen the communion we currently have with one another across our serious disagreements on this issue, a possibility to which some involved in the Shared Conversations would testify.

“We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.

“The unity of a particular Church is not something that can be detached from the unity of the Universal Church. As well as continuing and deepening communion within the Church of England as we begin to deliberate on next steps in this area, we want to listen to and learn with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion, seeking together the mind of Christ. In doing so, account has to be taken of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those Churches subscribe to the traditional teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching.

“Moreover, the Church of England’s own position in the Anglican Communion – membership of which is defined by being in communion with the See of Canterbury – inevitably means that any departure from its doctrine and teaching would have implications for the Communion

 “The unity of the Church cannot be detached from our common faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore from the teaching through which that gospel is faithfully passed on. In following this approach, the Church of England would be continuing to affirm unequivocally the doctrine of marriage set out in [the C of E’s Canons], and to be able to expound it with confidence as the Church’s teaching.

 “Given the distinctive relationship between doctrine and public worship in the Church of England, that also requires that what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching.

“At the same time, the Church of England would also be accepting that it has a pastoral and a missional duty to articulate its doctrine in this area as in others in the light of changing circumstances and in the light of fresh insights about truth, goodness and justice. Faithfulness to the doctrine we have received cannot be a pretext for neglecting that duty.”