The decadence of the Church of England

Book reviews can be a source of education and enlightenment. A recent review opened my mind to the possibility that the current state of the Church of England might viewed as decadent. By decadent, I mean subject to decay, characterised by or reflecting a state of moral or cultural decay or appealing to self-indulgence.

The book under review was The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen. She describes the toxic legacy of the Soviet era in Russia as being responsible for the current virtual ‘dictatorship’ of Vladimir Putin. This ‘decadent’ state has been brought about because the people are held captive by their own past, victims of a traumatised society unable to free itself from the psychological subjugation fostered during the long decades of Soviet rule.

I suggest that the current state of the church, politics, economics, social behaviour, the media, etc, can be considered in some respects decadent. Like Russia, I think they are all held captive in some way by past events or traumas or movements from which they are unable to escape. For example, for the Conservative party, this is clearly the UK’s relationship with Europe, about which the party remains irrevocably split, Brexit being one result, and a total failure to devote policies to economic inequality and injustice being another.

The trauma affecting the Church of England, holding it captive to the past, a trauma continues to have a deep psychological hold over the church, is homosexuality. There other traumas not yet not fully resolved such as the movement to ordain women as priests and bishops. Related to these matters of gender and human sexuality are conflicts about authority, whether it be the authority of Scripture, tradition, Jesus, or of the absolute authority, God. Conflicts about homosexuality have been running in the church for at least fifty years. One result of this seemingly endless conflict has been a slow decay into decadence in the church, a state of moral and cultural decay that is happening even while the show seems to carry on a (virtually) normal. One result of this decay is that I find it increasingly hard to locate robust, authentic, biblical teaching within the church about faith in the basics.

By examining the period of over sixty years from when the Church of England first began to deal with homosexuality, I want to show how the disagreements that were visible from the start are the same as those now being tackled by the House of Bishops’ process to formulate a new teaching document. Note, as you read, which reports were published and which were suppressed and note also the composition of each group so far as membership of bishops and others is concerned.

The Problem of Homosexuality 1954

The post war attention to homosexuality began in 1954, when the Church of England Moral Welfare Council produced a pamphlet, The Problem of Homosexuality, supporting the legalisation of “homosexualism” between adults. The Church of England Archbishops were instrumental in supporting the revision of attitudes to homosexuality which led to the Wolfenden report and partial decriminalisation in 1967 thirteen years later. The bishops didn’t approve of homosexuality or homosexual activity but they did think it was wrong to criminalise homosexuals. As a result, the majority in the Lords supported reform, without resolving the tension inherent in their position Support for decriminalisation led eventually to the creation of the first group assembled to further review Church of England teaching and attitudes to homosexuality.

The Report to the Board of the working Party on Homosexuality 1968

In September 1967 the Board for Social Responsibility set up a Working Party ‘to review the situation concerning both male and female homosexuality’. This followed the debate in the House of Lords on the Sexual Offences Bill earlier that year. The working party was composed of five people, one of whom was a bishop. The Report to the Board of the working Party on Homosexuality was presented privately to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1968. The Archbishop declined to allow the report to be published.

Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion 1979 (Gloucester)

In February 1974 the Board for Social Responsibility set up another Working Party following the request in a letter from the Conference of Principals of Theological Colleges, for a study to be made of the theological, social, pastoral and legal aspects of homosexuality. The Working Party was chaired by the Bishop of Gloucester. It had thirteen members. +Gloucester was the only Episcopal member. The report, Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion was published in 1979, with critical observations from the BSR who were clearly uncomfortable with aspects of the Report. In the Conclusion, the Report said “We need, and may hope for, a period of responsible and increasingly informed study and discussion.” I’d have to undertake further research to determine whether this recommendation was acted on. It was a recommendation repeated in subsequent reports and in three consecutive Lambeth Conference resolutions.

The Report to the House of Bishops 1988 (Osborne)

In the summer of 1986 the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a Working Party to advise the House on ‘questions concerning homosexuality and lesbianism. The Working Party began its work in July 1987. The Working Party had seven members, one of them a bishop. The Report to the House of Bishops (the Osborne Report) is undated but was presumably submitted in 1988. The House refused to publish the report ‘because of the status of this text’.

Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops 1991

In 1988 the Lambeth Conference called on all bishops of the Anglican Communion to undertake in the next decade a ‘deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality (Resolution 64). A small group of bishops chaired by the Bishop of Salisbury helped the Church of England respond to the call. Their report, Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops, was published in December 1991. The Preface says the purpose of the Report was ‘to promote an educational process’.

Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate 2003

Twelve years later, in 2003, the House of Bishops published Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate, The membership of the working party totalled four and all were bishops. The report was intended to help people enter into the debate, especially into issues connected with Scripture and its interpretation.

Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality 2013

On 1 July 2011, fifty-seven years after the first report was produced, the House of Bishops set up another Working Party on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, with four bishops as members supported by three advisers. The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality was published in November 2013. Only one of its recommendations was taken up at that time – the proposal to hold facilitated conversations, which became known as the listening process or shared conversations.

Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations 2017

In January 2017 the House of Bishops released a paper to be discussed in a take note debate at General Synod in February. Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS 2055) was in effect a delayed response to those recommendations in the Pilling Report apart from the shared conversations. It acknowledged that it represented the consensus of opinion among the bishops rather than a unanimous view and set out a process rather than attempting a final resolution. The paper recommended that bishops prepare a substantial new teaching document on marriage and relationships to replace or expand upon documents drawn up in the 1990s.In a foreword to the document, the bishops explained: “We recognise our deficiencies and offer this paper with humility. We know that this report may prove challenging or difficult reading.” The bishops, knowing the intense levels of polarised opinions and feelings in the church, tried to defuse reaction prior to the debate. They didn’t succeed. The Take Note motion was lost by a narrow margin in the House of Clergy.

A substantial teaching document 2020

Following the February 2017 Group of Sessions, the Archbishops committed themselves and the House of Bishops to two new strands of work: the creation of a Pastoral Advisory Group and the development of a substantial Teaching Document on the subject. They presented a paper to the July 2017 Group of Sessions outlining progress toward the realisation of these two goals. The aim is to finalise the Teaching Document by early 2020.

This is the eighth attempt in sixty-three years (sixty-six by the time the teaching document is published) to ‘deal with’ homosexuality, which morphed into human sexuality because it became too difficult for the bishops to name lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex as the  people they were addressing, mostly (but not always) talking about us without us.

The membership of the new Coordinating Group, the four Working Groups and the Pastoral Advisory Group has been selected to represent the many strands of opinion within the Church of England. This was true of most of the previous working parties and especially all the most recent ones with the result that either the working party included members who dissented from the final report, or the report included a critique by the commissioning body, or the Board for Social Responsibility or the House of Bishops or the Archbishop refused to publish the final report.

The Church of England is still trapped in this conflicted dynamic. I predict that the latest attempt to achieve a consensus that will allow the House of Bishops to unite around a new teaching document will fail. It will fail because the teaching will be unacceptable either to LGBTI people who expect to live as equal members of the Christian community or to conservatives who oppose equality. The conflict that was indentified in the unpublished 1968 report will remain unresolved in 2020.

At a deeper level, the attempt at a teaching document will fail because the church has become traumatised by the period of over six decades during which the church has produced eight reports, none of which have succeeded in resolving the conflicts, let alone uniting the church around an agreed theology. This is because the Church of England doesn’t have an agreed, undisputed theology about Scripture, God, the nature of Jesus, sin, human sexuality, gender, clergy clothing, the sacraments, or almost anything else.

The 1968 unpublished report identified two divergent points of view.

View A

“A homosexual relationship is always a wrong relationship and any individual having such a relationship is doing wrong, even though it is the only relationship of which he or she is capable. According to this view persons of an exclusively homosexual disposition should be told by the Church that they should strive to do without any physical sexual relationships and to the extent that they fail to make this effort their conduct is sinful. Homosexual acts must be firmly declared to be wrong. The Church has a responsibility to seek to prevent those liable to temptation being led into homosexual practices.”

View B

“A homosexual relationship . . . may be the best relationship that is possible for a person of an exclusive and fixed homosexual disposition. In such a case a homosexual relationship is not “sinful”: it may be a right relationship for the parties concerned if it is the best they can achieve. There is no evidence that such relationships are socially harmful and only the people concerned can judge whether or not their relationship is the best of which they are capable and therefore right or wrong for them. Those who hold this view hold that View A cannot be reconciled with modern psychiatric insights into human behaviour problems.”

The present

In 2017, nearly fifty years after the then Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to publish the 1968 report, the Church of England remains divided between those conservatives who essentially hold to View A and those advocating radical reform arguing for View B, that equal marriage is the best possible status for those lesbian and gay couples who wish to marry (though using less grudging language). Six working parties have dedicated themselves to the task set them by the Church, one in each decade. They identified the same conflicts each time, made various proposals, and failed in the task of producing a report that satisfied a deeply conflicted church.

The captive past

The views held by various lobby groups is now more deeply entrenched and held with more conviction. The problem isn’t simply a matter of different groups in the Church of England holding different theological positions about the teaching of the Bible and the nature of authority in the Church. That we are embarking on another process after fifty years and six previous attempts tells me that the Church has a deeply entrenched systemic problem, akin to Masha Gessen’s analysis of the current state of Russia as toxic and traumatised, a state I categorise as decadent. We the church are also a people held captive by our past, a traumatised society unable to free ourselves from the psychological subjugation fostered during previous decades, a subjugation that has increased in intensity since the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and the growth of global communications

I fully support those who have committed themselves with great optimism to the new process. I would like the process to work, for goodness sake. I’d like to die knowing the Church of England has finally come to terms with my sexuality sixty years after I came to terms with it myself. But I think that as of today, the Church is unable to free itself from the past, and indeed has been regressing into an ever more polarised defence for two or three decades after a period of two decades when it lived with a palpable energy of prophetic hope and optimism.

On the surface, the Church of England can be seen to be doing much that is good and Christian in local communities, serving those who are increasingly under severe strain in our society. The Church still maintains a presence in most communities, but I witness the incredible pressure this imposes both on clergy and lay people. I see a church that has lost much of the vision and prophetic courage, the spiritual energy that was open to deep truth and a spirit of adventure in earlier decades. I witnessed its presence in the leaders and teachers who inspired me by their soul wisdom and intuition, their presence and depth, their self-reflective attention to life and their unforced confidence in the gospel. Now I witness a church that has lost its way, has become tepid, insecure, anxious, defensive, cautious, increasingly top-heavy and bureaucratic, a church held captive by the weight of its history and its inability to break free from the decades long tribal war about homosexuality. It is traumatised by the international dimension of the sexuality wars, by the Christian nucleus in England that maintains an addiction to homophobia and those churches of the Commonwealth where prejudiced, homophobic forces are gathered, replaying unresolved traumas from the days of Empire.

This is why Masha Gessen’s idea of the current state of Russia resonated for me. I saw the Church of England’s captivity to its past and its inability to free itself from a trauma that continues to have a deep psychological impact in the church. I’m an optimist. I always believe change is possible. But I’m not yet convinced that a ninth attempt to resolve the human sexuality conflict will be successful. The church is but one decadent institution among many in our global societies, living in state of trauma whose roots lie enmeshed in psychological wounds that go much deeper than disagreements about homosexuality.