Then and now – the Osborne Report 1989 and the House of Bishops’ Report 2017

Three weeks ago a minor anniversary passed. On 20 January 2012 the Church Times finally published the Osborne Report on its web site. The report was written in 1989 but suppressed by the House of Bishops. I wrote a blog at the time in anticipation of the publication of the House of Bishops on marriage and same-sex relationships but didn’t post it.

I glanced through the Osborne report, wondering how the new report and proposals would compare with those made twenty-eight years ago. Weekends being a quiet time for blog reading, I wasn’t going to post today, but having looked again at my draft, maybe it’s worth posting after all.

Here are a few excerpts from the Osborne Report which are still apposite, interwoven with some comments on and comparisons with the report from the House of Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. I smiled as I read and compared:

#358. We noted that the bishops did not comment, possibly because of the way we asked our questions, about lay experience on the one hand, or about their attitude to homosexuals in the House of Bishops on the other. The issue seemed to be at a distance from them and mainly about clergy problems.

The Osborne report named something that is unnameable today – that there are homosexuals in the House of Bishops and that the other bishops might have an attitude towards them. There are still gay (and now lesbian) bishops, of course, and many people will know who they are. But they can’t be named for fear of libel action.

The following comment, that the issue seemed to be at some distance from them, begs the question, from who – gay bishops or straight bishops? The issue is clearly felt to me much closer to every bishop today, uncomfortably close to some, but after nearly thirty years, the bishops are still as uncomfortable about the homosexuals in their midst and keeping a distance.

#359. The bishops’ replies suggested that they felt to be under some pressure on the issue. [C]oncern about the conservative attitude of lay people and the effect this would have if they took a different line, concern about scandal and its effects on opinion, the lack of an agreed policy was seen as both a good and a bad thing, and the general climate of the present times- all these were quoted as matters of concern. Some bishops felt themselves to be in the public eye at present.

Well, the pressure hasn’t changed – it’s more intense than ever, and is growing in advance of next Wednesday’s debate. Then as now, the pressure was coming from conservatives. In sharp contrast to 1989, it’s not the attitude of lay people that’s the problem, but that of clergy and bishops. The bishops are not concerned about scandal but they are still concerned about opinion – the strongly expressed opinion of conservatives in the Church of England and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. The content of the report doesn’t reflect a serious concern with general public opinion in England, nor the opinion of the majority of lay people now.

#360. Many bishops commented on the outstanding contribution made by homosexual priests. Some saw this as a result of the struggle such priests had had with their own sexual identity. This was directly related to their growth to maturity and to the developments of skills for the work of a priest.

I almost wept when I read that “Many bishops commented on the outstanding contribution made by homosexual priests.” I remember those times. And it was true – I felt from every bishop I served with a deep sense of appreciation because I am gay and because of their awareness of the way in which this often deepened maturity and skills. Now, the defensive anxiety of the bishops, partly related to their own closet, means the environment has totally changed for me. It’s no surprise to find no such comment in the present report.

#366. Some bishops clearly feel that they are colluding with deception and encouraging dishonesty which are themselves morally corrupting.

I hope to God some, if not all, of the bishops are now even more acutely aware that they “are colluding with deception and encouraging dishonesty which are themselves morally corrupting.” Thanks be to God for those many LGBTI clergy and lay people who have freed themselves from the prison of deception and dishonesty in which the bishops are still trapped. It is indeed a morally corrupting place and that’s a much more serious judgement on the House of Bishops today.

#368. It is important that bishops, if they are to offer pastoral help to individuals and guidance to the Church, should have done their own personal work on the questions. The understanding of ourselves, as far as we may, is crucial to the task. Attitudes to matters of sexuality and specifically to homosexuality may be rooted deep in personal training and development. There may be a considerable contrast between the attitudes which prevailed in the generation in which the present episcopate was brought up and those which prevail for younger clergy. The relationship between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ is crucial to this question. The capacity to reflect on personal development is vital in those who wish to offer help to others in their personal relational growth.

Oh wow, I thought and felt, as I read this paragraph! Wise words, June Osborne and team. And have the bishops yet done their own personal work on the questions? No, have done work on other questions, the ones that concern and worry them, not us. Will they ever do the necessary work on intimacy, sexuality and gender that is essential to their ability to make progress and escape from their prison of fear?

Osborne noted in 1989 the “considerable contrast between the attitudes which prevailed” in their youth sixty years ago compared with younger clergy. That considerable contrast has grown into a chasm, a chasm between generations and between tribes in the Church of England.

Three weeks ago I wrote that “All indications are that the clear and concrete decisions will be to do nothing to respond to the expectations of the majority that the celebration and blessing of relationships will authorised and marriages recognised.” Well, that proved to be true, didn’t it? I continued:

“If this is so, my trust in and respect for the bishops, including my own, will have been broken and I will probably walk away from the church, following many of my friends and colleagues. This will be as much because the spiritual landscape is richer and healthier and more creative and adventurous outside the church. My faith is deeper than ever. The institution fails to respect and enrich me.”

That’s also still true, though at the moment I remain engaged, I’ve written to every member of the General Synod in Salisbury Diocese, including the bishop, and I shall be there on Wednesday, demonstrating and praying outside Synod and observing developments inside from the public gallery. What I do after Wednesday depends on what the bishops do next. I wrote “entirely depends” at first, but that’s not true – I’m following my own, Christian, spiritual path. For me, it’s enriching and creative. I hope the bishops soon find and equally enriching and creative path in their desperate attempts to engage with human sexuality.