A tale of two bishops

I had contrasting conversations with two bishops at General Synod last week. I’ve known both for over twenty years. Both have been very supportive of LGBTI people in the Church of England.

One defended the House of Bishops Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations report to be debated the following day. Our conversation was friendly but defensive. I felt frustrated as I talked about the strength of anger felt by pro-LGBTI groups and individuals. The other bishop was open, relaxed and warm and understood my anger and frustration. Both bishops voted to take note of the report and both subsequently let it be known that they understood why the motion had been lost in the House of Clergy.

The outcome of the debate was positive from my point of view. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the end of the debate communicated that he knew change had to happen and his awareness was communicated in the statement issued soon after. Subsequently several bishops made statements or issued letters indicating that they also understood the need to think and do things differently. Did the culture and understanding of the bishops and archbishops undergo a sudden conversion? I doubt it.

Bishops and archbishops are aware of what their children and friends think about the church and its attitude to LGBTI people. They are aware of the radical change in secular culture that has taken place in just two decades. They are also aware of conservative voices in the Church of England and Anglican Communion, voices hostile to change and demanding adherence to orthodoxy and tradition and the plain meaning of the Bible.

The bishops are appointed in part to defend and uphold the teachings of the Church of England as set out in the historic formularies and creeds and regulated, among other things, by Canon Law and Faculty legislation. They are gatekeepers, defending the church against heresy and false teaching.

The Church of England, in common with every mainstream denomination, is a closed loop system. It is protective of itself and defends itself, sometimes quite ruthlessly, against anyone who stretches the conventions too far or breaks the rules.

I am witnessing a steady erosion from the church of Anglican friends I have journeyed with for many years, some for several decades. Some clergy have been forcibly evicted, licences removed, either because they were deemed to have blatantly broken the rules (by marrying) or because their pattern of ministry had become too creative and imaginative (and therefore less recognisable as ‘properly’ Anglican. Lay friends aren’t forced to leave in the way bishops can force clergy by removing or withholding a licence or PTO. Lay people leave because they deem the church to be no longer fit for their purpose, and that’s usually no longer fit spiritually.

This erosion has the effect of strengthening the traditional, orthodox church ethos the bishops are appointed to defend. The bishops are conflicted, knowing and valuing and respecting the ministries, lay and ordained, of LGBTI people and those with a radical contemplative vision of faith and life.

The bishops are required to maintain the defensive and protective structure and ethos of the church, even when their heart and soul may not be in sympathy with the system. This must be damaging, spiritually and emotionally. They are likely to be more conflicted than clergy and laity. They are caught in the trap, some willingly because they like exerting control and some unwillingly because their hearts are wounded but they felt obliged to follow ‘the call’.

So we have a church which operates as a closed loop, defensive system and a group of bishops who, whatever their personal desires and convictions, have to operate the system in accordance with the rules. Thus, they vote en-bloc for a report that many of them know to be deeply flawed and with which they are unsympathetic. The two bishops I conversed with, and their very different reactions to me despite being close allied in their support for LGBTI people, are both trapped by their own volition in the system. They have to vote with the group, against their own wisdom and heart knowledge.

Both bishops are very supportive of LGBTI people in the church. Both bishops accept the requirement of their office that they have to maintain the rules of the system and act as gatekeepers.

Bishops’ culture and UK culture

The bishops are operating in a church which has regressed over the past two decades. The culture has narrowed. Less colourful bishops have been appointed with less variety and less freedom to express a diversity of opinion. (They might be colourful in other circumstances but there has been a significant change of ethos requiring suppression of colour.)

In marked contrast, UK culture has moved in the opposite direction. There is far greater freedom, not only for LGBTI people compared with twenty years ago, but in general, for those privileged enough to explore the freedoms granted by status and income. It’s a different world in comparison with the 80s and 90s. There are significant downsides to this as well as significant gains. The results of the European referendum are one demonstration of a society in which half experience loss and deprivation compared with others who experience freedom and progress – if not contentment and absence of stress and anxiety. A very dark mind-set addicted to conflict and control, suppression of freedoms and playing fast and loose with truth, is poisoning culture and the Earth’s ecosystem today.

Where next for the bishops?

The defeat of the bishops in the take note debate, the rejection of their report, and the change of heart that has followed, has changed the trajectory of expectation about what happens next. New ideas have already been outlined. But the same bishops are still in charge of the system in the same church culture. The opposition to change hasn’t gone away and neither has the culture of the House of Bishops changed. They are still gatekeepers, still required to maintain the system of control.

Although many bishops are sympathetic to the need for change and would act differently were they given the freedom, I fear the change of culture needed in the House of Bishops to achieve even modest changes in the status of LGBTI people in the church will prove more difficult to achieve.

The culture of Jesus

Jesus didn’t have a House of Bishops to deal with, nor buildings controlled by faculty law, nor Canon law. He had other legal traditions, other groups exerting power and control. The church inevitably created and goes on creating systems of control. Some accept this and work within the system, immersed in the culture. Others see beyond the present culture and seek to live into visions, metaphorically, of a new heaven and a new earth.

The institutional Church of England is unable to attend to where the Spirit is leading. The bishops, trapped in their authority roles, addicted to unity at all costs, are finding it impossibly difficult to work out what Jesus lived and taught and are therefore unable to apply them to the mission and ministry in the church today. It is slowly dying and will continue to die until they begin to break out of their present inhibitions.