The Most Revd and Rt Hon John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has replied to my letter about the Bishop of Maidstone’s response to the Bishop of Lichfield.
“Thank you for your letter to me and the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter to the Bishop of Lichfield, drawing attention to the discrepancies in this letter with the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage.
“Since we have a Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG) established, under the leadership of the Bishop of Newcastle, to look into these matters, I shall be referring this correspondence to this group for their advice.”
Reactions to my blog about the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter showed that, not surprisingly, many people agreed with my reading of the letter as advocating pastoral practice that is homophobic and potentially deeply damaging for LGBTI people.
I’m glad to have received a reply from Archbishop Sentamu and to know that my letter is being referred to the Pastoral Advisory Group for advice. This suggests the Archbishop anticipates receiving advice back from the PAG as to what action he or the Archbishop of Canterbury might take. This may be the most appropriate course of action to take, but people have wondered whether the Archbishop is simply kicking the matter into the long grass.
We need to look at the terms of reference for the Pastoral Advisory Group that might be relevant to the Maidstone letter.
PAG Terms of Reference
The tasks and responsibilities assigned to the PAG are multiple and complex. They include supporting and advising Dioceses on pastoral actions, reviewing advice provided by the House of Bishops on pastoral ministry to same-sex couples, offering advice to bishops regarding specific cases they are dealing with, supporting the Church of England’s communication of its approach to this area, exploring together what radical Christian Inclusion means, and bringing draft advice on pastoral ministry to same-sex couples for initial consideration by the House of Bishops.
The only responsibility the PAG might have been given for dealing with the Maidstone letter is that outlined in section 9:
“Requests from other bishops for advice on named cases with regard to areas of responsibility will need to be dealt with as reserved business by the bishops within the group. The bishops will however report to other group members that such reserved business has been discussed and will review with them any general issues arising from the review of particular cases.”
Has the Archbishop of York referred my letter to the PAG as a named case to be dealt with by the bishops within the group? I will ask this question in a further letter to the Archbishop and in a letter to the Bishop of Newcastle, chair of the PAG.
Analysis of the Bishop of Maidstone’s letter
I want to look again at the letter sent by the Bishop of Maidstone to the Bishop of Lichfield and the Lichfield College of Bishops.
Bishop Rod Thomas writes about repentance, the Church of England’s official position in relation to marriage, ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation in the sacraments, inappropriate ‘exclusion’ or intrusive questioning, and the possible requirement for “very gentle probing.” The letter is very carefully and subtly phrased.
My interpretation of what the Bishop of Maidstone is saying is as follows:
- Marriage between a man and a woman is the only kind of marriage God allows and of which the Church of England approves. This official position was last determined in 1987.
- The official position means there are limits to which people should be allowed to participate in the Sacraments.
- We want to discourage some people from participating in the Sacraments.
- Some lesbian and gay people will be unworthy because they have entered an equal marriage (same sex marriage in C of E speak)
- Unless they divorce this renders them permanently unworthy – thus says Canon B30, the 1987 Synod motion and BCP Article 25.
- The practice advocated in Reform churches is to let married gay couples know this and explain to them why they are unwelcome to receive communion.
- We leave the decision to them but we would prefer them not to receive communion until they have repented of getting married (and have divorced).
- We don’t like to ask or be seen to be asking intrusive questions.
Many people reading this would take as implicit in the last point a continuation of the bishop’s argument in his letter which might say: “but by opening the Bible with them we can manipulate them into seeing that our teaching is right through a process of gentle but determined probing because we are right – the Bible and God are clear about this.”
I believe the Maidstone letter describes and encourages pastoral practice that is homophobic and abusive.
Some people have suggested that action under the Clergy Discipline Measure might be taken against the Bishop of Maidstone. The Measure is tightly drawn and restrictive in who may bring an action and on what grounds; doctrinal and liturgical matters are excluded. I don’t think the CDM is applicable in this case.
I believe we are dealing with a safeguarding matter in which a bishop is the subject of concern. He is not the first bishop to be the subject of concern in the matters of safeguarding and abuse as the recent IICSA hearings into the Diocese of Chichester so chillingly revealed. The views and practices directly advocated by the Bishop of Maidstone to his clergy could, if acted upon, endanger the physical or mental well-being of adults who may well be vulnerable in their faith and sexuality. The bishop of Maidstone is advising his clergy to take action.
Historically, a number of bishops have been identified as perpetrators of abuse. Other bishops have been shown to be collusive in the protection of clergy and bishops who have been found guilty of sexual abuse or were reported as being abusive by their victims.
I believe the Bishop of Maidstone has questions to answer as a result of the pastoral practice advocated in his letter to the Bishop of Lichfield.
I believe the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are the people responsible for taking action in the matter of abuse because this is a safeguarding issue affecting the practice advocated by a bishop and the implication for those clergy who put this teaching into practice in their parish and congregation.
I will be writing to both Archbishops and to the Bishop of Newcastle.