Where is the love? Fourteen retired bishops challenge their successors

I woke this morning from a dream, feeling deep grief, my heart heaving with sadness. I had gone to sleep having read the letter from fourteen retired bishops who have broken with convention to write an open letter to all bishops in the Church of England because of their concern that the report to be debated on Wednesday “does not allow the authentic voice of LGBT people to be heard or the real theological argument to be advanced [and] will not enable the church to engage credibly with wider society.”

Before the letter was made public yesterday evening, I had posted a comment on Facebook , saying this is a very emotional time for many of us. I looked back to my time in the diocese of Southwark and the bishops who had pastored me, Peter Selby, Martin Wharton, Keith Sutton, Roy Williamson and Ronnie Bowlby, all of whom were quietly and creatively supportive. I feel intense sadness when I look back to those days and the amazing, appropriate, mutual support there was in Southwark. A friend remembered receiving a letter from a previous bishop of Southwark of appreciation amidst the struggle. He said he had cried when he read it. I am crying now.

The culture of the Church of England has become intolerable for my heart and soul. I was ordained nearly forty years ago into a church culture which, given social attitudes back then, was less open, but within the church, was far more supporting and affirmative than now. Social attitudes have been totally transformed in less than two decades thanks to dramatic legislative changes that have transformed the experience of LGBTI people. The Church of England has gone in the reverse direction. In society, LGBTI people have achieved a great degree of equality. Imagine what is like for LGBTI clergy, living openly and truthfully in society and living in secrecy and under repression in the church. I woke this morning realising just how oppressive the church has become .

The wise and positive support I received three and four decades ago in the diocese of Southwark and more generally the bishops who have signed this letter, all but one of whom I have known as friends, has now all but disappeared from the church. The current College and House of Bishops are responsible for this, under the leadership of Archbishop Justin. They have allowed themselves to be driven to a large extent by the relentless pressure coming from GAFCON, Anglican Mainstream, Christian Concern and other well-funded, conservative Christian pressure groups.

In Archbishop Justin’s time there has been a significant change in the culture and stance of the House of Bishops towards LGBTI Anglicans, clergy in particular. It is deliberate and he must take some responsibility for having engineered it. The conservative pressure groups cannot alone be responsible for such a significant strategic shift, so significant that fourteen retired bishops take the unprecedented step of writing to the current bishops.

Stephen Cotterell, bishop of Chelmsford interviewed on the T4 Sunday programme, defended the report. I’ve had many good, positive conversations with Stephen. His answers this morning saddened me. When asked about the letter from the retired bishops, he said the current bishops had inherited challenges from them – that some of them were in the same room just a year ago. He said they are misreading what is happening, not seeing what is in the report and only seeing what isn’t there. The report argues for maximum provision and opens up space, he said. The bishops are working together to take things forward.

Stephen, that’s one of the key problems – bishops talking amongst themselves all the time.

BBC Wiltshire local radio interviewed Nicholas Holtam, bishop of Salisbury. Nicholas said the bishops had to find the right balance without upsetting the conservatives, and had to achieve change without changing the church’s teaching on marriage. I despair.

Later in the R4 Sunday programme bishop Peter Selby, speaking for the fourteen, was interviewed. Peter said the fourteen wanted to be helpful in response to the screams that have erupted from those hurt by the report. He said:

  • It is the most negative response he can remember to a report from the House of Bishops
  • Reading it, you wouldn’t know the report is talking about some of the most gifted priests
  • LGBTI clergy in the church are being deprived of their jobs by the current administration
  • LGBTI people feel the church has nothing to say to them
  • All the bishops talk about is the impossibility of changing the law

Peter said he has been working on the issue for a long time, which is true – over forty years. Long before the Shared Conversations (with capital letters) he had been sharing in conversations every month, meeting with people distressed about pro-gay change in the church. He said that more is possible now and more is already happening:

  • All the focus is on how difficult it all is
  • People are feeling totally neglected
  • What he would like is for the current House of Bishops to let the fourteen in on their deep disagreement
  • For those in favour of change to come out and say so
  • For those opposed to change also to come out and say so
  • For a committed, compassionate revealing of what is really behind this difficulty

As I made notes for this blog, three questions haunted me. Where is the love? Where is God? Where is Jesus? Archbishop Justin repeatedly speaks about the need to talk to the public about Jesus. Which Jesus, I always want to know? The Jesus that encourages bishops to dissemble, to opt for unity rather than truth and love, the Jesus who prefers bishops to be gatekeepers than windows of light, the Jesus who opts for law rather than grace. I long ago rejected this Jesus and so do many in our congregations and in society.

“State religion has tried to bring Jesus’ open dialogue with humankind to closure, making the definitive statement after which nothing more need or should be said. The result has been a religion in which one need only believe the written formula frozen in print and interpreted by authority – an authority gained not only by killing a lot of heretics, but by killing the gospel as well.”

“Our model is the one who could be falsely accused, tortured, and killed by his culture without losing contact with the heart, without resorting to ancient survival systems, self-justification, or revenge. Breathed by “it”, he allowed it to lead him to the greatest disaster rather than betray that inspiration and not be breathed by it. He did this as long as breath lasted, obedient to his heart.”

The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce