A year ago the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a paper, Next Steps on Human Sexuality, GS Misc 1158. The paper described two new strands of work: the creation of a Pastoral Advisory Group and the development of a substantial Teaching Document. Re-reading the document a year later raises basic questions that it didn’t occur to me to ask in June last year. I want to ask them now.
The introduction identified a critical division between deeply held beliefs and personal experience and identity. The Archbishops said that calling into question people’s deeply held beliefs can be painful. They went on to say “If we would presume to say anything on this subject, we must know that we are talking about and talking to people, with their immense capacities for joy and for pain, created in the divine image and precious in God’s sight in ways we can barely begin to fathom.”
Calling into question a person’s core identity is far more painful than calling into question a person’s deeply held beliefs. The identity of those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex is repeatedly questioned and challenged by conservative Christians. This has a corrosive effect. If questioning a person’s deeply held beliefs causes that person acute pain, then that person’s belief system has become unhealthily addictive.
Question 1. Do the members of the 6 working groups understand that questioning the identity of LGBTI people, suggesting we can be healed as if we have a disease or malfunction, or quoting biblical texts to condemns us, is a fundamental cause of existential pain?
Pastoral Advisory Group
The group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle is intended to make explicit the bishops’ commitment to show the love of Christ to all people, regardless of sexual or gender identity.
Question 2. Is this love of Christ to LGBTI people unconditional or conditional?
Episcopal Teaching Document
The paper says part of the reason human sexuality and gender remains so problematic within the Church of England is because of the deep disagreements regarding the understanding of scripture, Christian doctrine, Christian ethics, and the nature of the church. We are a church that . . .holds together a remarkable range of perspectives and approaches that reflect and express deep agreement on scripture, doctrine, ethics and the nature of the church. This is stating the obvious. Deep disagreement was obvious through the whole process towards the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Deep disagreement has characterised every attempt for six decades to explore and resolve differences over human sexuality.
The relationship between identify and belief systems has been a constant and fundamental element of unresolved difference from the very first work undertaken by the 1967 Working Party on Homosexuality, appointed by the Board for Social Responsibility. The group was split between those who believed a homosexual relationship is always wrong and sinful and those who believed a homosexual relationship to be the right for the parties concerned and not sinful.
Resolving disagreements “will involve bringing together many minds, many voices, many areas of expertise and many different skills.” This has been pursued to a greater or lesser degree in every previous attempt to achieve progress. “It will also touch on, or should, fundamentals of faith and commitments to ideas of God and the authority of scripture and the way we hold to traditions.” Will, or should, touch on the fundamentals? Which is it to be? This statement does touch the fundamentals – the diverse ideas we hold about God and the authority of scripture and tradition.
Question 3. What is different this time - how are the bishops going to resolve this fissure in the church? This is not a difference between a range of perspectives and approaches; it is the difference between fundamental ideas about God, authority, scripture and tradition, ideas to which those opposing LGBTI equality and inclusion are resolutely attached.
The Archbishops promised in February 2017 that this process would reflect “a radical new Christian Inclusion, ... founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.” It will be a “process of exploring together on matters that touch the very nature of our being.” I like the promise of a radical new Christian Inclusion. This is what many of us have been working towards for several decades.
Question 4. Are the groups developing a clear vision of what radical inclusion means and what the implications are?
Expecting radical change?
Those expecting a radical new inclusion in Church of England teaching and practice in the realm of sexuality and gender need to pay attention to what comes next in the paper. The Archbishops “do not expect the teaching document, or the process of writing it, to achieve reconciliation of all views across the Church of England.” I’d be somewhat astonished if it did. What then do they hope it will achieve? “If the teaching document can express clearly the ground on which we are agreed – and be very clear about where we disagree, and why – it will have done its work well.” The expected outcome is good disagreement Mark 2; a second attempt at the Pilling process, once again undertaken in secret.
These areas for action were put forward in GS 2055 Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations Feb 2017. What is different now? The difference, say the Archbishops, is that we “have become clearer about the scale and seriousness of the task and the need to define our terms with greater rigour – not least in pursuing the goal of radical Christian inclusion.”
Question 5. How are they going to achieve this given the dogmatic attachment people have to competing fundamentals?
The aim of the Pastoral Advisory Group is to “support and advise Dioceses on pastoral actions with regard to the current pastoral approach of the Church to human sexuality.” The group can revise, as needed, the advice provided by bishops to same-sex couples. They can respond to bishops requesting advice to ensure “national consistency in approach.” They can hear from others what radical Christian inclusion means, sharing and disseminating good examples to those who identify as LGBTI. And finally, they can bring forward draft advice on pastoral ministry. Note to readers: they are only allowed to bring forward draft advice.
Question 6. How radical is the Pastoral Advice Group allowed to be? How radical will they allow themselves to be?
Question 7. When hearing from others what radical Christian inclusion might mean, why don’t they just listen directly to LGBTI people, we who have been exploring and articulating our expectation of radical inclusion for decades?
Episcopal Teaching Document Group
The Aim is to produce a major teaching document on marriage and sexuality which will be endorsed by the whole House of Bishops for commendation to the Church of England. Note - it has to be endorsed by the whole House of Bishops. Can you imagine how that requirement limits the possibilities of what will be acceptable? The teaching document should include a summary of the church’s tradition regarding marriage and sexual relationships, including its scriptural and theological foundations. There have been at least six previous reports that have attempted elements being repeated by the current working parties: Working Party on Homosexuality 1968, Gloucester 1979, Osborne 1987, Issues 1991, Some Issues 2003, Pilling 2013.
Structure, process and membership
The overall task is being overseen by a Coordinating Group whose episcopal members will be responsible for bringing a final text to the House for approval. Bishops chair and control the whole process. When the ordination of women to the episcopate was being addressed, the House of Bishops recognised that they could not continue to discuss this and make recommendations in the absence of women. Senior women in the church elected eight of their number to join the House of Bishops.
Question 8. Are the House of Bishops going to organise the election of eight LGBTI representatives to join the House when the final text of the Teaching Document is being discussed prior to approval? Or is it yet again going to be “talking about us without us”? (I know there are members of the LGBTI community in the House of Bishops. None of them are open about their sexuality.)
Communication and Dissemination
The Teaching Document will be backed up with discussion materials, study guides etc. This might be handled by the creation of a seventh, Communications and Dissemination group to manage the adaptation of the material for wide use.
Question 9. This is a question addressed to LGBTI+ members of the Church of England. Do you realise that GS Misc 1158 is proposing a further process, following publication of the report in early 2020? This means either, that the teaching will have been determined and we will be given the teaching and expected to conform; or, a process of education will take place, at the end of which a motion might be put to General Synod for approval (this could take another two years).
LGBTI people already reject Episcopal authority
As the work continues now to research and write the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document, the bishops need to know that they and the church they lead have already lost their authority as far as LGBTI people are concerned. I am a member of British and global networks that number in total over 10,000 LGBTI+ people. The church is held in disdain and the bishops in critical despair by many of these people, African and Caribbean as well as British, European and North American. Many are no longer committed to the church but lead a Christian life, exploring their spirituality along other paths. By the time the bishops publish their report, a depleted remnant will remain active in ministry. They conform on the surface to the teaching of the church while, in their personal lives, ignoring the teaching. The bishops are already too late to influence the moral and ethical choices LGBTI people are making. This brings me to my final question:
Question 10. Who are the bishops writing this Teaching document for?