A Time for Grace:
responses from bishops
It is obvious to any observer that the Church of England is faced with a stand-off on the issue of human sexuality, and is divided down the middle, trending in the direction of acceptance of gay and lesbian sex, but with people of good faith and strong conscience on either side, along with diverse views motivated by complex implications, related to understanding of gender, Communion-wide consequences, and the risk of schism in the English provinces. In these contexts it is disingenuous to suggest that there is a uniform position in the Church, or even among the bishops (as I have discovered for myself this month), whatever the ‘front’ of collegiality that gets projected. Indeed, the rejection of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ in England indicated that most people did not want a uniformity of view imposed on Anglicans, or the domination of one conscience by another one. This stand-off clearly cannot be resolved by political struggle over ‘Who is right?’ which only leads toward schism and, for many, what really matters is finding the grace to love one another, seeking the flourishing of those we disagree with, and finding our unity in Jesus Christ: a Unity in Diversity. The whole of the rest of the Church’s mission is too vital, and too important, for the Church to keep floundering and expending so much energy on sexuality in a perpetual stand-off.
To this end, I set out a case for the accommodation of diverse views, and wrote to 109 bishops, with the proviso that ‘no reply was expected or assumed’. Considering I am simply an obscure nurse it is touching that, in the event, 41 bishops have so far corresponded with me (apart from a few others who acknowledged my letter), expressing a wide range of views and positions, and demonstrating that there is indeed no uniformity of belief on these issues.
While not naming individual bishops out of respect for confidentiality, and mostly not quoting verbatim, I have detailed below the issues raised by 17 of these bishops, whose statements typify the diversity of episcopal opinions and some of the problems and challenges we face. These problems of implementation are very realistically reviewed by Bishop Stephen Cottrell, in his address to the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod. I have not included the views of the Bishops of Buckingham and Bradwell which have already been well-publicised and both of which regret the recent Bishops’ Report of which the General Synod declined to take note — as did 14 retired bishops.
In the end, if we cannot respect and accommodate sincere but diverse views, and allow priests, PCCs and local churches to follow their consciences in the service of their own communities, we run the risk of evangelistic alienation of those communities, and alienation from one another as Christians. There is a strong case, reflected in the Bishops’ responses to me, not for imposed uniformity, but for the grace to disagree well in a broad and diverse Church. As Bishop John Wraw said: “There are very differing views on this [lgbti inclusion] within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion, but there is much more we hold in common. Unity in Christ is a fact, a command, a promise; not simply something we can opt in and out of as we pick and choose. We need to live with our differences.” Indeed, perhaps the real test for us all is not “Who is right?”, but “Can we find abundance of grace and love?”… to co-exist, to serve, to welcome, to live with the diversity to which each one of us is called, uniquely, differently, in good conscience, as we are drawn towards that community of the Trinity, which is the eternal household of God, in whom alone in the end our unity is found — not in imposed uniformity or dogmatic correctness.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to dominate one another, and ‘winning the argument’. Perhaps really the argument is won to the extent we find love and grace for one another: accommodating each other’s consciences and as a Church becoming more than our individual parts, growing through our need for grace and the primary biblical imperative to exercise love, even uncomfortable love where people disagree. In short we arguably need a kind of power-sharing and peace process in the Church of England to end the long decades of stand-off and conflict, and turn to all the other crying needs of our communities: poverty, health and social care, loneliness, lostness, marginal lives, material craving and spiritual wastes; and the breakdown and atomisation of society, that in some ways we sadly mirror when we separate ourselves from each other in the Church, and let dogma polarise us rigidly, when actually it can separate and drive us apart, where grace might reconcile us and love might be calling us daily, with our diverse consciences and diverse expressions of faith, but giving us lives of sharing, and helping us bear in our own wounds and healing the touch of God’s love for hurting, yearning hearts.
To do this credibly, we need to demonstrate real love for each other, so people can see… not ‘how uniform we are’ but ‘how we love one another’. That challenge to love is surely, also, the challenge the bishops must face and are facing. No-one said it would be easy. They have written to me sincerely and with touching honesty. But in the face of decades more stand-off and division perhaps, as one of them says, “the key issue is Unity in Diversity” and as another states, “agreeing to disagree will have to be acknowledged in some way.” The crisis in the Church of England cannot be resolved by one side ‘winning’. Descending into schism and division is not winning. Grace is winning. Love is winning. Mutually recognising divergent consciences is winning. Unity in Diversity may face degrees of opposition, but it does at least reflect the realities of the Church of England — and what better solution exists for preventing wholesale schism and the dismantling of a broad and tolerant Church?
These are typical issues raised by 17 of the bishops who wrote to me, illustrating the tensions and difficulties faced:
> the problem of many conflicting priorities and claims
> the absence of any easy answers
> the difficulty of adopting the same approach as was taken over women bishops because gay marriage is not the same order of issue
> that I've nailed the issue, but would the CofE permit diversity on this question?
> the desire for a church where room is made for all, more wholeheartedly than we are able to do at the moment
> huge disappointment with the bishops' report, pleasure it was not noted, almost exact agreement over Unity in Diversity, but possible under-estimation of the conservative response if this approach was adopted
> if the Church could model a different way of living unity in diversity, it would have much to show a wider society, which seems to be fragmenting at an alarming rate
> my proposal for Unity in Diversity could be supported if it was presented to GS, is not that radical, and if anything is pragmatic, leaving one wishing for a more radical, whole-heartedly inclusive position
> the basic thesis of agreeing to disagree will have to be acknowledged in some way
> unity in diversity may well come into play in the difficult days ahead, love and grace seem in short supply
> agreement that we need to "co-exist in a 'unity in diversity'" - and many would agree; however, the reason this is not straightforward is that for a number in the Church the issue of human sexuality is a first order issue and a matter of salvation, and therefore it does not become possible for them to remain in a Church which accepts other possibilities
> we are living in difficult times… particularly struck by the comment "In other words, rather than trying to "win" ….. love and grace" which is spot on
> in terms of the way forward, your suggestions, a third ethical approach, often categorised as virtue ethics, as well as deontological and utilitarian ethics need to be very robustly tested and set alongside each other in a way akin to Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do. His exploration of marriage in that book exemplifies the sort of discussion we need to engage in and which the generation of a teaching document should involve.
> it is a complex subject… but the key issue is unity in diversity.
> longing for the day when LGTB+ people are fully included in every part of church life, we need to find a way ahead which will enable that to happen while respecting the views of those who would make a biblical case for marriage being between one man and one woman. Part of the problem seems to be that we don’t all have a shared view of what constitutes marriage.
> from a 'conservative' perspective, even the starting point of advocating blessings for gay and lesbian sexual relationships is incompatible with being faithful Anglicans and is sincerely problematic. The model of unity in diversity oversteps the boundaries of acceptability which many conservative Anglicans hold in integrity and good faith, believing that biblical inerrancy prohibits same-sex relationships for all time and in every circumstance. The obstacles to progress are much greater than those experienced over women and the episcopate and it may prove impossible to overcome them. We may not emerge in one piece from this.
> warm very much to the need for grace and kindness in our dealings with one another, both as the key to mutual flourishing, and also as one of the most important ways we can serve the world, by modelling a way of being a community in difference.
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In total, I shared correspondence with 17 diocesan bishops and 24 suffragan bishops. 4 members of the bishops' reflection group on sexuality wrote to me. Of the 17 'representative' samples above, 6 were views expressed by diocesan bishops and 11 by suffragan bishops. 2 of the issues raised were by members of the bishops' reflection group on sexuality.
Susannah Clark : 19th March 2017 (last updated 12th April 2017)