The House of Bishops’ proposed Teaching Document on Human Sexuality

The Revd Dr Charles Clapham, Vicar of St Peter’s Hammersmith, has written this guest blog for Unadulterated Love. Charles is currently Vicar of St Peter’s Church Hammersmith, in West London. He was born in Scotland, and brought up there and in Southern Africa. He spent twelve years in Manchester, Sheffield, Durham and New York, studying architecture, history, economics, and theology, and wrote a PhD on the relationship between theology and economics. He has taught at university level in the areas of ethics, theology, and mission.

Charles has written a commentary about the Co-ordinating Group set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to produce a new teaching document on human sexuality. The composition of the group, and its stated aim, makes him sceptical.

The usual approach to producing reports

Over the last fifty years or more, the Church of England has followed a well-established procedure for producing reports on social and ethical issues. If you want a report on immigration, for example, you form a committee of (say) a dozen or so members, with administrative support and a couple of consultants. The committee might include a bishop and an archdeacon, as well a couple of clergy, preferably with particular experience of issues relating to immigration, or at least some background in social responsibility. Added to them would be a number of Christian lay people with relevant knowledge or expertise, such as (for argument’s sake) the director of a Catholic agency that helps resettle immigrants in the UK, a university academic who lectures in migration studies, an advisor from a migration think-tank, someone from Christian Aid, a theologian with a particular interest in social or political ethics, etc. This committee then solicits further submissions or reports from other relevant bodies, or make site visits as appropriate.

The final report, which arises out of the conversation in which lay people, theologians, bishops and clergy alike are involved, is (if done well) a knowledgeable and thoughtful report which can be commended to the church for wider study, used to inform discussions at a local level, and shape interventions and responses made by bishops and other church authorities at a national level. But - crucially - such reports are not presented as definitive statements of ‘Church of England teaching’, are not understood to be binding of the consciences of clergy, lay people, or indeed bishops, nor used as documents to which ordinands are required to sign up as condition of being accepted for training or ordination.

This is how the Church of England has consistently thought through complex social and ethical issues over the last fifty years, even ones as serious as war, nuclear weapons, or climate change. But when it comes to issues of sex, sexuality and gender, of who is having sex with whom, or who is allowed to wear a dress, all this changes.

Episcopal domination of the new group

The episcopal domination of this co-ordinating group on human sexuality is staggering and unprecedented. The working party which produced the (suppressed) 1967 report on homosexuality, for example, included only one bishop. Faith in the City, one of most influential of church reports,  was produced by a committee of eighteen, which included only two bishops, neither of whom served as chair. Mission-Shaped Church, another hugely influential report, was produced by a committee of eleven, with only one bishop. But the co-ordinating group for this new document consists of seven bishops (including the chair), and four clergy. This extent to which the group is weighted towards bishops stands in contrast with virtually every other report produced in the Church of England in recent history.

The absence of lay representation or expertise

The lack of lay people is also striking and without precedent. One of the great strengths of the Church of England is the involvement of knowledgeable lay professionals and specialists to help inform our ethical thinking, not simply as advisors, but as full members of working parties responsible for writing the final report. To give another couple of examples, chosen more or less at random from my bookshelf: the 2001 report Development Matters produced for General Synod, which includes contributions from numerous lay people with very substantial professional experience and specialist knowledge on international development issues; or a 2000 report on euthanasia (On Dying Well), for example, produced by working party which included doctors, lawyers, and specialists in medical ethics.

But on this new group, which seeks to produce a report on human sexuality, there is not a single gender theorist, sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, politician, campaigner, voluntary sector worker, or any other lay person bringing relevant specialist knowledge or expertise whatsoever. This absence is astonishing. This is like the church commissioning a report on economics without having an economist on the committee, or writing a report on climate change without the involvement of a scientist. No doubt the committee will 'consult' lay experts and listen to lay voices, but it is clear that they don't trust them enough to help write the report. It’s both bad methodology (in terms of how to do Christian ethics) and bad ecclesiology (in terms of its understanding of lay vocation and respect for lay expertise).

The inclusion of an ‘Anglican Communion’ representative

Also unprecedented is the inclusion of an 'Anglican Communion' representative nominated by the Anglican Consultative Council on the co-ordinating group. The Church of England quite regularly produces reports, position papers, or makes official comments on any number of issues of international significance (refugees, asylum seekers, international debt, the environment, terrorism), but has typically done so without official representation from the Anglican communion when it formulates its position, even where these issues are clearly global in scope. This is true also on substantial matters of church order, such as the ordination of women. The working party which produced the 2004 report on women bishops, for example, included official ecumenical representatives from the Methodist church and the Roman Catholic church, but not from the Anglican Communion.

By contrast, on this new committee dealing with sexuality, there is no official representation from Methodist church, for example (despite the signing of the Anglican-Methodist covenant), nor representation from the Swedish Lutheran church, for example (despite the signing of the Porvoo agreement), whilst there is representation from the Anglican Communion (despite the rejection of the Anglican Covenant). The views of the Anglican Communion are given an official place at the table for deciding Church of England affairs only on the issue of sexuality and on nothing else.

The concept of a ‘teaching document’

The language of a ‘teaching document’ is also highly problematic. The Church of England has not understood itself historically to possess a teaching magisterium. This is in contrast to theRoman Church, where the documents of the Second Vatican Council, papal encyclicals, and other documents like the Catechism can be understood as the official teaching of the church, with varying (albeit disputed) degrees of authority, including infallibility. But the concept of a teaching magisterium in this sense is alien to the Church of England, and inconsistent with its character.

It is therefore usually a mistake to declare on any given moral or social issue: ‘The Church of England teaches…’ There is no Church of England ‘teaching document’ on the economy, Brexit, nuclear weapons, international development, Israel/Palestine, terrorism, global warming, or any number of issues arguably far more important than sexuality. There are of course numerous reports from various Anglican bodies, bishops, theologians, and lay people which help to inform debate and shape opinion. But this does not mean that there is an ‘official’ Church of England line on these matters, to which the rest of us must subscribe.

And whilst it is true that the vocation of bishops in the Church of England has been understood to involve teaching the faith, it does not mean they have an exclusive role in defining it. The Church of England has traditionally operated with the diffused exercise of authority across the church as a whole, rather than one centralised exclusively in the episcopate. This teaching role of bishops is, in any case, increasingly being ignored in (for example) the Green Report, where there is a greater emphasis on managerial competence and missional experience, so that theologically well-qualified clergy holding university chairs who might in previous generations have been appointed as bishops are no longer considered. The result is a House of Bishops singularly lacking in theological depth (not even a Stephen Sykes or a Tom Wright, let alone a Rowan Williams, Richard Harries, David Jenkins, Ian Ramsey, Michael Ramsey, William Temple, etc.). This same House of Bishops, nevertheless, appears to believe that it is an exclusively episcopal task to determine the parameters of acceptable Christian doctrine and ethics. True in Roman Catholicism, perhaps; but not in the Church of England.

What’s really going on?

Let’s be clear. For this document, the usual Anglican assumptions and ways of working have been set aside. This is a process controlled by bishops (who are a majority on the committee), and will result in a report shaped largely by bishops: the same bishops (just to spell it out) who were in favour of the report that was rightly rejected by Synod in February this year. It is, in other words, a further example of the deliberate move toward centralization and episcopal control in the Church of England, in ignorance of Anglican history and theology.

In practice, a document which does not respond to the expectations of the majority of LGBTQI members of the Church of England, their families, friends and congregations, and to the perception of LGBTQI dignity and equality held by the majority of English citizens, will simply be ignored. If it is offered as ‘official teaching’, it will convince nobody, and serve only to undermine the increasingly fragile authority and moral credibility of the bishops. This of course exactly what happens in the Roman Catholic church, where 'official teaching' on contraception (for example) is not merely ignored, but not even regarded as worthy of consideration or debate by the vast majority of practicing Catholics, let alone the rest of the society. Instead, a bad document presented as ‘official teaching’ will function largely as a device for disciplining clergy and other church workers, or preventing their ordination or appointment to office in the first place. It will also exacerbate the gap between bishops on the one hand - to the extent they (mistakenly) feel obliged to uphold the 'official' line - and large numbers of lay people and clergy on the other hand. The rejection by the Synod of the last bishops' document shows this gap already exists in the Church of England. Without movement from the bishops, it will only get bigger.

I can entirely understand why LGBTQI Christians and their supporters (of which I am one) will want to get involved in the production of this document, give evidence, serve as advisors, and do what they can to influence the outcome. All power to them. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.