A Time for Grace
The divisive debate in the Church of England over human sexuality is a complex and multi-faceted set of problems, and although Christian mission needs to be focussed on a wide range of issues - including poverty, health, education, deprivation, loneliness, breakdown of community - beyond the issue of sex, yet nevertheless the divisions over sexuality have the potential to split and divide in ways that could then be damaging to mission in all those other areas.
In seeking best possible resolutions, and taking into account deontological moral demands to uphold morality in all our actions along the way, and consequentialist moral demands to take those steps that lead to the best possible outcomes for most people, even if individuals' interests are compromised along the way, the Church of England and its leaders need to establish the situation as it is, the best outcomes that may be desired, and the practicalities of getting there - of actually arriving at outcomes, and avoiding other outcomes.
To consider the human sexuality debate in context, it is right and fair to recognise first that justice and inclusion and the love of God extend to people who are lesbian, gay, bi- and transgender. Leaders have already recognised that LGBT people suffer social (and some argue institutional) discrimination that leads to diminution of lives, of well-being, of acceptance and involvement, whether in society or in the Church. It is also appropriate to recognise at the outset that heterosexual people also have needs and vulnerabilities, and that sexuality can be problematic for them too. The Church needs to be concerned for all people's sexual well-being, and not just one special interest group's.
Secondly, in this process of establishing the situation as it is, within the Church of England, it is necessary to acknowledge and be honest about the reality that this Church is divided down the middle on the issue of human sexuality. Furthermore, that after 40 years of exploring and trying to resolve the divide, people at both ends of the debate hold views in sincere conscience (which should be respected) which they are unwilling to change. Therefore, persuading one 'side' to change its values by reason and argument is unlikely to achieve resolution of the divide. The recognition of the divide, and the stand-off and fixed nature of that divide, is a necessary starting point, before exploring how the problem of this divide might be resolved.
Thirdly, as Christians, the members of the Church of England need to root their prayer and reflection in Jesus Christ, and who Jesus Christ is, the values he championed and demonstrated; in God who created all people, in all our diversity and individual and communal calling; in the Spirit of God, who speaks through the testimonies of Bible authors, through the people we know, through our relationships, and the way we grow through unity and community. In short, the 'situation as it is' is underwritten by the Providence and Grace of God, who calls us all as Christians into communion with the eternal household of the Holy Trinity. This, we do well to be reminded, is our essential unity - whatever our differences and diverse views and consciences: as Christians we are One in Christ. And unity between one another, and grace, and love, express that eternal truth. Unity, rather than puritanical schism for either end of a sexuality argument, is something hugely to be held on to. So at the heart of our 'situation as it is' we need prayer, we need quiet spirit, we need grace and we need love - for one another, especially those we may disagree with.
Fourthly, in reflecting on our situation now, we need to recognise and acknowledge that this issue has interfaces not only within the Church of England, but with the wider Anglican Communion, and the Catholic and Orthodox traditions among others. Therefore, in seeking to find best outcomes within the Church of England, we cannot ignore the fact that our decisions may well impact on our relationships with other Christians in England and the UK, and with Christians in the world beyond. There is therefore something like a three dimensional game of chess to consider, if we are to take responsibility for consequences of our actions, in terms of relationships, service and mission beyond our own Provinces. Or we elect, as some argue, to simply resolve the sexuality issues on the 'flat chess board' of the Church of England itself.
Moving forward to the possible outcomes - the best achievable consequences - that are available for the Church of England to pursue: these tend to crystallize around 4 routes.
A) The traditional view of sexuality as between a man and a woman is upheld, and grace and compassion are sought to try to comfort LGBT people who feel harmed by that continuation of the status quo. This is the route that arguably best protects church unity with the rest of the Anglican Communion, and with Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, it comes with a high risk of schism and divide in England itself, and the possibility of society and Parliament taking the side of so-called 'liberal' opinion, potentially resulting in showdown and crisis, not to mention possible evangelistic harm. Like it or not, this route would involve one conscience dominating the consciences of the other half of the Church of England.
B) Conservatism-lite on sexuality issues. In this approach, marriage in the Church of England would be reserved for only a man and a woman, but LGBT relationships would be affirmed as expressions of love, care and commitment (setting the issue of sex to one side) - and God's blessing allowed to be sought in those churches, through those priests, who conscientiously believe in the integrity of these relationships. In some ways, this appears to be a compromise. However, it may be argued that in reality it is vulnerable from both directions of the divide. For a start, some Christians, priests and local churches with 'conservative' views on sexuality would still find this unacceptable and threaten to secede or seek alternative governance. At Communion-wide level this would be seen as a compromise of their values and beliefs on an issue that they regard as fundamental: the sinfulness of lesbian and gay sexuality. And this fundamental issue of the 'sinfulness' of sex outside of marriage is why such a route would only extend the wound and crisis in the Church of England - because however nice the tone and welcome, if LGBT couples are still having their personal and private expressions of love called 'sin', because the Church can't mandate marriage for them, and outside marriage sex is sin (a classic Catch-22), then there is going to be continual hurt, feeling of stigma, devaluation of what they consider sacred, and in short, it's fairly obvious that such a compromise route would only be seen as a stepping stone on a continuing struggle for recognition and inclusion. Therefore Route B would probably be insufficient to resolve the crisis, and simply perpetuate it.
C) The liberal view of sexuality - that orientation is not the issue, love is, and sex and marriage are for all people - could be imposed, probably with the strong backing of Parliament and the public. However, this option (like Route A) involves one conscience dominating the consciences of the other half of the Church of England. Furthermore, this route comes with a strong likelihood of schism and secession, and in addition with the potential fracture of the entire Anglican Communion (which may occur anyway). Ecumenical relationships with Catholicism and the Orthodox traditions would also be compromised. In reality, this option appears so likely to trigger an exodus of significant numbers of (especially evangelical) churches led by their priests and some bishops, that it could only really be considered if that possible consequence was acknowledged first. Huge amounts of grace would be needed if the sincere consciences of those with 'conservative' views on sexuality were to have their beliefs superceded altogether.
To be honest and realistic, none of Routes A to C seem to resolve the ongoing crisis and painful divide (and distraction from mission) in the Church of England. Indeed there seems to be no single route that can avoid degrees of hurt and potential divides altogether, but in my strong view, one possibly workable route should be very carefully explored. In the absence of any other solution to resolve a crisis in the Church of England that threatens to split it or perpetuate its wound and divides, and because domination of one conscience by another conscience injures half the membership either way, it does seem to me that the leaders of the Church of England, and all members, should confront the crisis and consider the compromise that is:
D) Unity in Diversity - or co-existence of two integrities. In this model, which admittedly would still cause wound and potential rift on the 'three-dimensional chess board' of world Christianity, the Church of England would decide that to protect its own survival, and to respect the sincere consciences of 'conservative' and 'liberal' alike, it would propose a Church of two integrities - a pluralism of values - while strongly seeking unity in mission, service and faith in Christ. Adopting this route, based on conscientious choice, conviction and belief, the Church of England would once again be exploring the 'Broad Church' tradition, that historically evolved from its early quest to moderate between extremes of Puritanism and Roman Catholicism. The Elizabethan Settlement tried to steer a course away from extreme positions and to allow for some degree of co-existence. I believe we achieve more as a team, as a body of many parts, as a community of diverse minds, than if we do what Elizabeth eschewed, and drive our church insistently down the route of uniformity.
Instead of making our divisions a battle of 'Who is Right' which only one side can 'win', our Church would try to rise to a different (and arguably deeper) challenge from God: to find the grace and love to share communion, service, lives with those we disagree with. In this model, individual priests and PCCs would be given the right to 'choose in sincerity of faith and good conscience' whether they elected to bless a gay or lesbian couple in church or not. And those consciences, on either side, would be respected and protected. Although it is argued by some that marriage is a different order to the issues involved in women priests and bishops (where there is precedent for a two-integrities approach), yet for the very reason that marriage is so important for half the Church of England, this conscientious recognition of marriage for everyone, regardless of gender or orientation, should be open to blessing in Church - at first for civil marriage, and (with the co-operation of Parliament that would surely be given) ultimately for church marriage too.
I admit this Unity in Diversity route would have consequences for other provinces in the Anglican Communion. However, it is plain that this is a journey being made in various Provinces and not just England - but in the US, in Canada, in Scotland, and maybe in Wales and Ireland. It is not a sole journey, but it is premissed upon respect for conscience and grace. In the event, I believe media and Parliament would strongly support an initiative of this kind. Bearing in mind that church members are generally less ideological than the loud voices at the poles of the debate, and bearing in mind that parish life binds people to locality and their local churches, I simply don't believe that the majority of people will walk out on long-term community and friendship, if a compromise is imposed on the vociferous wings of the Church of England.
Unity in diversity - and allowing priests and people to follow sincere (and already existing) conscience on the sexuality issue - may result in those with the strongest views actually deciding to schism (I'd anticipate possibly a dozen evangelical churches but maybe as many as 20 or 30), but would most likely leave the bulk of the Church intact in parishes where diverse people already live and serve together, without sex being the only or even the most motivational raison d'etre of most people's Christian commitment. Most church members are not so deeply political as the 'idealogues' on either side. If you look at the lack of traction that GAFCON-UK has managed in England, it does seem to me that the strongest motivation most members of the Church of England have is pastoral and community-framed, not ideological.
There can't be a single, imposed uniformity on a church that is divided down the middle. There *has* to be a compromise and settlement between the factions, because people are embedded in their doctrinal positions, and not willing to move from them, so the crisis can't be resolved by one side 'winning'. And apart from compromise, what better solution can anyone offer?
Unity is not the same as uniformity, which is why I think the Anglican Covenant was opposed. Unity needs to be found in Jesus Christ, in our opening to the love of Christ in many and diverse ways… in fallibility, in our own particular localities, and in who God calls us individually and communally to be. Our dependency becomes Christ and grace when we commit to Unity in Diversity: a diversity of many people, each uniquely loved, known, understood by God. It is a Church in the weakness and the vulnerabilities of difference, but where we are weak, perhaps we may make space for God who is strong.
I very much agree with the Dean of Leicester who recently wrote: "A decision to move forward through a genuine coexistence of different views on sexuality could be possible without anyone actually having to change their view; provisionally agreeing to disagree. Our own version of ecclesial Power Sharing is needed."
Unless anyone can demonstrate a better way the Church can resolve our acute differences on human sexuality, I put it to you that perhaps God is calling us to grow in grace together, and be a diverse Church that draws together, as we identify such needs around us, and respond and love and serve.
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Having set out an outline of the situation and possible options available to the Church of England, in as dispassionate way as I could, I will finish with a perspective from the position of a lesbian, transgender female's point of view. Up to the day that I got my legal Gender Recognition Certificate (guaranteeing my pension rights etc) the Church of England would have been willing for my female partner and myself to get married. 10 seconds after the Certificate was issued, in the eyes of the Church my partner and I were *not* allowed to marry. And yet I was the same person 10 seconds before, and 10 seconds after, the Certificate was issued. I had the same love. We shared the same commitment. Yet suddenly, our marriage and sexuality would become 'sin'. Albeit, there are only about 15000 like me in the UK, but I mention that detail to highlight how love doesn't change because of what gender a person is, and love (including sexual love) deserves the church recognition and inclusion, and the commitment before God, because… frankly, as the general public has found the generosity to recognise, there's not enough love as it is in the world, and people's private love is not sin, it is sacrifice, sharing of hardships and joy, service, support, tenderness, gentleness, kindness, perseverance and fidelity. In short, I strongly argue that my love is as genuine as your love, as worthy of the sacrament of marriage in the Church I've belonged to from infancy. I am a nurse. Neither my gender nor my sexuality makes me a pervert. Both my partner and I lead ordinary lives, and try to help people, and live in our communities.
Yet the position of the Church of England as postulated in the recent Bishop's Report was that because we were excluded from marriage, our tender-love-sex was 'sin' and our only real option in the eyes of the Church was celibacy. Frankly, as ordinary working, loving, caring people I call *that* perversity. I'm sorry, I know a few are specifically called to celibacy, but no, I'm not, and what's more, the beautiful kindness and decent love of my partner is not sinful, but rather, the same loveliness that any of the married Bishops may know and treasure themselves.
Josiah argued last week at Synod that people like my partner should basically 'take the rap' for the sake of the wider Church. "The time might be right to set aside difficult matters… It may mean self-restraint of a sacrificial kind, for now. It may mean patience of a painful kind, for now." Tragically, "for now" is so too late for Lizzie Lowe, the teenage Christian girl who took her life because of the conflict between what the Church taught her and her own orientation. For Lizzie and all other young people, I make a special plea. I'm sorry, but I don't think maintaining the status quo is a neutral action. It means continuing alienation of many people, especially the young, many of whom find the Church's discrimination/differentiation of LGBT people inexplicable and off-putting in the culture and reality they have evolved in (which is so different to, say, living in Uganda).
I mention Uganda consciously, and not lightly, because my own daughter works in Christian mission there, living and serving in the slums, and on the street, and from close communication and shared prayer, I am acutely aware of the raw, terrible impact of poverty and deprivation - and how desperate it is for many people, how tear-inducingly desperate, and so… decisions on sexuality we take here in England may clash with the cultural values there, where sexual orientation is viewed differently. Yet here in England, our Church has to engage with our own culture. Will our decisions cut us off from the Ugandan Church? Will the sharing, in the service of the poor, be diminished or harmed? I'm being honest. These are not easy questions. They are concerning questions.
And yet… this is not simply about dogma. It's about people's lives. Talking about 'tone' and 'radical inclusion' remains bare rhetoric, if it's "time to set aside difficult matters". It's been that time for 40 years. There cannot be radical inclusion, right down to the roots of the matter, unless people's sacred and tender expressions and commitments of love are no longer sin, and we're told by the bishops that sex outside marriage remains sin, so maintaining the status quo means our tender lives and devotions remain sin, remain doctrinally vilified, remain 'outside' the dogma of the Church, remain less acceptable than other people's relationships.
Yes, there is continuing sacrifice. And hurt. And pain. Inflicted by the Church. It appals non-Christians. It diminishes us all.
And we should set that aside?
Here's the radical solution available: you let people follow their consciences. You stop dominating. You let them choose.
This could be done without requiring anyone "to be gay" or "to marry a gay couple". People from both sides of the issue could focus and concentrate on "common mission to the world", and poverty, and sickness, if only, if only, we found the grace to live and let live, to love those we disagree with, to allow diversity, and yet still, still, know our unity and brotherhood and sisterhood in the service of Jesus Christ, and our shared love of Christ. There are so many needs, and so many people hurting, and so much crying out for help, and we really need to resolve the sexuality issue, and move on, and I believe 'unity in diversity' in the Church of England allows for sex to be de-weaponised and put back in perspective, as one issue, but not the aching, hurting issue of a world crying out in its desperate poverty, its loneliness, its struggles in health and old age.
We have an imperative to resolve this issue: I'd argue for evangelistic reasons, because here in England we are causing so much affront, to people who may be truth-seekers, but who are appalled by what the Church says about… their gay brother, their lesbian aunt, their work colleague, their daughter. But it's an imperative also, because it's taking too much time, too much energy, too much focus - when our focus should be on so many other needs as well. We need so much grace. We need grace to love one another. We need grace to set aside difference, and work side by side for other people, for goodness sake. And I believe that is the chrism of our Church, the Church of England: parish by parish by parish, we have elderly people to visit, the sick to support, the bereaved to be accompanied in their grief, we have poverty, unemployment, loneliness, so many things. And I really believe, that if we find the grace to co-exist, then there is so much that draws us together in service, in love, in the name of Christ. I believe the Church of England, if presented with 'Unity in Diversity' will not collapse. It will carry on serving. It will carry on being a presence in the local community.
My pragmatic 'take' is that the Church of England would NOT divide if diversity of practice and freedom of conscience was introduced. In reality, if you look at local parish churches around the country, actually, most people with conflicting and diverse views co-exist, visit hospitals together, care for the elderly in the community, worship together, exist as diverse communities already. And in my opinion, since the local church buildings would continue to exist under the auspices of the Church of England, if bishops introduced Unity in Diversity, in reality most local people would still attend them, still co-exist, still be friends... it would only be a fringe of mostly dogmatic leaders who might talk about withdrawal. Most other people would carry on… in their churches, in their communities. I believe the Church would hold together, because most members of the Church of England are not primarily dogmatic, they are primarily pastoral. Community, as many people have said, is not ALL about sex and sexuality. Community is shared service, kindness in bereavement, shared sorrows, shared joys.
Perhaps creating space for divergent practice is exactly what we need. I see no other way to avoid absolutism, domination, and schism. The test needs to be not "Who's right?" (We know we disagree about that) but "Do we have the grace to love one another and carry on local church life even with different views on the single issue of sex?"
To live in relationship with one another, in a unity in diversity, seeking the grace that God may give us, to open our hearts to love, and pray for each other's flourishing - surely that's better than schism, that can so easily occurs if we insist on our belief dominating someone else's? Of course, people may reply: "You're advocating relativism, but truth isn't relative." I'd say: "No, I'm advocating love, and community, and recognition of difference. And no, truth isn't relative, though it may be relatively understood... but truth - the most profound truth - is LOVE."
There has never been uniformity of dogma in the Churches - that's why we have so many denominations, sects, divisions, and distances between Christians... because uniformity was demanded, and was a justification for breakaway by the 'pure remnants'. But in truth, the Church of England will be weaker if it splinters; diminished and less whole. I'd argue that the sum of different parts of the Church is less than what the Church is when it co-exists together as a whole, in the grace and forgiveness and kindness that co-existence demands and draws us into.
I believe grace and love can win. I believe we are bigger than our differences. I believe the Church of England has a god-given chrism (that's the only way I can explain it), a chrism that distinguishes it from other traditions. In our differences, perhaps, we learn *more* about love and grace. And we become the kind of Church God calls us to become, varied, evangelical, catholic, charismatic, contemplative, social, liberal, traditional, varied. Operating in the weakness of our fallibility, and serving together, bound together more by grace and love, than dogma. Church community and service is about more than sex. The Church as a way of life probably matters more to Anglicans, when it comes to it, than puritanism over sexuality. Opinion polls seem to suggest this. We are called to service of our communities, and our communities are not Kampala, they are not Nigeria, they are the town we live in and the 'patchwork quilt' of people we befriend at church. To be plain, my home church of 35 years, an evangelical Anglican church, has exemplified love and service towards people in our local community, as well as sending people overseas (including my daughter). I have different views to some of my fellow-Christians there about human sexuality, but in all honesty I believe that their reading of the Bible is reasonable and I respect their conscience on what they believe the bible teaches them about sex. I think respect is vital. We are not enemies. We just disagree. Love trumps that disagreement. As someone who favours gay and lesbian marriage, I want to be plain: I believe that those who oppose it need to be respected and protected too. That would be part of the challenge for Bishops reflecting on 'Unity in Diversity'. Allowing and creating spaces for conscience, including those that differ from mine. This whole thing should not be about 'camps' and 'divisions', but about grace, respect, service, and lives given - in conscientious integrity - to Christ.
19th March: Although I told each bishop that 'no reply is expected or assumed', because they have enough work on their plates, so far I have received 29 replies, with diverse views and opinions expressed. I am not going to name any names, or quote verbatim in most cases, because I want to respect and maintain confidentiality in ongoing discourse. However, you can read 14 responses, that typify the responses I've had, here: