The Bishops and LGBTI Anglicans – GS 2055 and GS Misc 1158 - time for action

Take Note Debate on GS 2055 February 2017

The vote in the House of Clergy at the February 2017 Synod against taking note of GS 2055 – the House of Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations – focused the anger of LGBTI+ people in the Church of England about the utterly inadequate response to the Pilling Report and the Shared Conversations the report represented. We had been waiting impatiently for six years only to be given “stones instead of bread”, to use the blessed Una Kroll’s accusation flung from the balcony of the General Synod following a vote on the ordination of women.

Hope was expressed that the concerns of LGBTI people had now been heard and that bishops would now look at new ways of working together to produce a fresh approach that would embrace and celebrate our lives and loves. People assumed that the vote had sent the bishops back to the drawing board to think again.

Letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York quickly issued a letter to set out the way forward in the next few months. “To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward”, they said, “we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church.” “This must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual. We need to work together – not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone – to move forward with confidence.”

The LGBTI+ networks reacted positively, believing this to be a genuine change of heart in recognition of the anger expressed. The Archbishops proposed positive action – “asking first for every Diocesan Bishop to meet with their General Synod members for an extended conversation in order to establish clearly the desires of every member of Synod for the way forward.”

The Archbishops also said they would be “suggesting to the Business Committee a debate in general terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm.” What happened to this proposed debate, Archbishops and Business Committee?

In the excitement of having achieved a negative vote in the take note debate and secured a positive response from the Archbishops, we LGBTI+ networks overlooked what came next:

“Secondly, we, with others, will be formulating proposals for the May House of Bishops for a large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality. The teaching document must thus ultimately come from the Bishops. However, all episcopal ministry must be exercised with all the people of God, lay and ordained, and thus our proposals will ensure a wide ranging and fully inclusive approach, both in subject matter and in those who work on it.”

We overlooked the implications of this proposal – that a large scale teaching document was to be prepared and the House of Bishops were going to be exclusively responsible for it. They are resisting at every step of the way to include “others” in the process.. This is the first time the House of Bishops has taken total control of a process relating to LGBTI matters – all previous working parties embraced a diverse membership.

When GS Misc 1158 Next Steps on Human Sexuality was published, proposing the establishment of a Pastoral Advisory Group and outlining in detail the creation of an Episcopal Teaching Document Group, we failed to notice that in essence, they were offering a slightly revamped version of GS 2055. We were being conned, and the LGBTI+ networks have now woken up to the fact that we were being and are being conned.

GS 2055 proposed:

(a) establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church;

(b) the preferred option should be backed up by a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships, replacing (or expanding upon) the House’s teaching document of 1999 on marriage and the 1991 document Issues;

(c) there should be guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and

(d) there should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle

The Teaching Document has recently been snappily renamed: Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage. What are we to make of the change implied in the new title? Is it still going to be a major teaching document written exclusively by bishops? You bet it is!

The level of anger has risen in the LGBTI+ networks I am involved with – among the 4,400 members of the Facebook group Christians for LGBTI+ Equality in particular. People had come to expect a number of very specific outcomes following the Pilling Report and the Shared Conversations.

Outcomes LGBTI+ people expected in February 2017:

  • Concrete moves towards creating am authorised liturgy of blessing and thanksgiving for those in Civil Partnerships and same-sex marriage. The creation of such a liturgy is essential if LGBTI+ people are to feel they have a place in the Church of England.
  • An end to intrusive questioning for those in or aspiring to ministry who are in a civil partnership or are married to someone of the same gender.
  • Confirmation that LGBTI+ clergy in a committed relationship are free to express their love intimately and sexually. The current dishonesty about what clergy and laity are or are not permitted to do is a scandalous ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ abuse of our dignity.

Additional outcomes LGBTI+ people expect now:

  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people must be fully represented on the Co-ordinating Group, the four Thematic Working Groups and the Pastoral Advisory Group. At the moment, we are not properly represented on any of the groups.
  • A number of retired bishops wrote an open letter following the February 2017 vote. They noted that “there will be deep disappointment that those who are not officially part of your meetings, who experience at first hand the struggles you only allude to, have once again been spoken about by their bishops instead of being enabled to speak in their own voice about their future and the future of the church they belong to and care about.” LGBTI+ expectation that we will be able to speak with our own voices are even more intense now.
  • We expect our theological voices to be heard properly: passionate, radical, revisionist, Biblical voices speaking from personal, lived Christian experience.
  • We want an end to Episcopal hypocrisy.
  • There are twelve lesbian, gay and bisexual bishops in the College of Bishops. Only one of them is open about his sexuality and relationship. It is time for the others to come out. What example do you think you are giving to LGBTI+ Christians? You cannot contribute openly and honestly to the Living in Love and Faith work unless you are able to be open with yourselves and authentic with other people.

A word to the LGBTI+ groups and networks

After the debate on GS 2055 in February 2017, Modern Church, the LGBTI Mission, OneBodyOneFaith, and the General Synod Human Sexuality Group wrote of looking at new ways of working together to embrace and celebrate the lives and loves of LGBTI people. This aspiration was soon forgotten. A new version of the LGBTI Coalition is urgently needed, to include these groups and the Jayne Ozanne Foundation. The Coalition achieved effective coordination of activities and vision until collapsing following an invitation to become involved with the Shared Conversations. It is time to work together to coordinate our various initiatives and strands of work, share information and develop an effective strategy. We need to express our expectations with clarity and force to the Living in Love and Faith process to ensure that the outcomes we expected in February 2017 will be achieved.

Fault line between the grass roots and the establishment

I’m sure I am not alone in discerning a huge fault line in the Church of England. It’s a fault line that has always been there but it is becoming a gulf. At parish level, congregations and priests ignore the injunctions and expectations of bishops. They welcome LGBTI people unconditionally, celebrate loving relationships, bless or pray with couples, mourn with the bereaved, despair at the detachment and ignorance of bishops, ignore irrelevant biblical teaching and Episcopal expectations. Meanwhile, the establishment, the Archbishops and bishops, Archbishops’ Council, the General Synod, the bureaucrats at Church House, live in their own self-contained world. They are not unaware of what ‘the people in the pews’ think. They do seem to be unaware of how little Episcopal authority and teaching are respected and how clergy respond pastorally and spiritually to local need.

If we allow the present, complex, in-house work by the House of Bishops on the Teaching Document to continue unchallenged, the level of anger when it is published in 2020 will be even more intense than in 2017 and the rejection of Episcopal authority will be more determined. Is that the outcome you want, bishops of the Church of England?