Is the House of Bishops ready to make evolutionary and revolutionary choices about the direction in which the Church of England’s teachings about gender and sexuality will evolve? Jesus was an evolutionary and revolutionary prophet and mystic. How about our bishops?
The key question about the Teaching Document for LGBTI+ members of the Church of England is: will this report achieve the radical change we now urgently need, both we who identify as LGBTI and the majority in the church for whom current teaching and practice is no longer adequate or believable?
The Episcopal Teaching Document due to be published in 2020 will be the seventh substantive report or document on homosexuality written in just over six decades. Not all were published.
I have read through the previous six reports and GS Misc 1168 which outlines the agenda for the new Teaching Document. I wanted to trace the development of thinking to see if the latest attempt gives us grounds for optimism.
With the exception of Issues in Human Sexuality and Pilling there has been a tendency for each successive report to expand in length, from 32 pages in 1967, 94 in 1979, 146 in 1987, 48 in 1991 (Issues bucking the trend), 358 in 2003, and 201 in 2013 (Pilling still the second longest). One look at the specification for the new Teaching Document suggests this will be lengthy. No previous report has attempted to cover so much territory.
The number of people appointed to previous working parties varied from a minimum of 4 to a maximum of 13. The membership of the six groups involved in producing the new Teaching Document is already in excess of 24 and will probably be over 40 if each Thematic Working Group has a minimum of 4 members (plus a bishop).
What the membership numbers don’t reveal is the lay/clergy/Episcopal make-up of each group. 1967, Gloucester, Osborne and Pilling were mixed, lay and ordained, clergy and bishops. Issues and Some Issues were entirely Episcopal. Although the working groups for the Teaching Document are mixed, the document itself will be exclusively the work of bishops (except that Church House staff will almost certainly have a hand in drafting sections of the document).
The Osborne report, due to be published in 1987, was torpedoed by General Synod debate on the amended Higton motion in the same year. The result was the publication in 1991 of a statement by the House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality, an anxiety-ridden, inferior report compared with the unpublished work of the Osborne group.
The work of the four bishops appointed to undertake further work, published as Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003 was torpedoed by the Global South Conference held in Kuala Lumpur 1997 which sabotaged the agenda for the Lambeth Conference in 1998. Some Issues sets out pro- and anti-gay arguments at length without committing the bishops to anything beyond further sensitive discussion couched in the language of pious waffle. The deep conflict requiring resolution in the Anglican Communion has not gone away.
The bishops of the Church of England and leading voices in the Anglican Communion are still engaged in tactical manoeuvres while trying to find a way to resolve the differences between two irreconcilable positions, traditionalist and revisionist. We are witnessing a dramatic conflict about authority, the authority of Scripture, the authority of God and the authority of Primates and bishops.
The new Episcopal Teaching Document
The key aim of the Teaching Document is to provide guidance for members of the Church of England on the spiritual and theological importance of marriage, on options for Christians in their sexual and familial relationships, and on relationships with those who are in other relationship structures.
Below I have listed details of each report: the number of people appointed to each working party; the length of each report; the subject headings, and some quotations from the reports indicating their stance on Biblical teaching about homosexuality.
I leave you to compare and contrast the history and decide whether the Episcopal Teaching document a) is likely to recommend and lead to a transformation of Church of England teaching and practice in relation to LGBTI people, and b) is likely to resolve the conflict between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionists’, a conflict that has dominated every report since Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991.
Report to the Board of the Working Party on Homosexuality 1967
6 members, 32 pages
- The Law
- The People
- Ways the Church could help
- Law and Definitions (8pp)
- An Institute for the Family (5pp)
The Working Party was set up as a result of the passages of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 to review the situation concerning both male and female homosexuality.
Section 5. 3. “We noted that there was a difference of opinion within the Church about whether all homosexual behaviour was essentially sinful whatever the situation or condition of the person concerned, and we found that this difference of opinion was reflected in the different shades of opinion on the subject held by different members of our group. We found it necessary to discuss at length the various shades of opinion centring round the concept of sin in connection with homosexual behaviour.”
Section 5.5. “There was no clear area of agreement with regard to people living a settled life, including a homosexual relationship with a steady partner.”
The report dealt with the lack of agreement by presenting two view, A – a homosexual relationship is always wrong, and B, a homosexual relationship can never be as satisfactory for a human being as a heterosexual one, but may be the best relationship that is possible. Nevertheless, “the obligation is to strive for heterosexuality rather than avoid homosexuality.”
Section 5.17. “The community has an obligation to meet the needs of homosexual men and women in that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. Such help will be at the individual level, given by caring, well informed Christians.”
Homosexual Relationships (The Gloucester Report) 1979
13 members, 94 pages
- Social Settings of Homosexuality
- Sex, Identity and Human Relationships – A Medical View
- Homosexuality: The Biblical Evidence
- Theological and Ethical Considerations
- A Legal Perspective on Homosexuality
- Social Implications and Pastoral Care
I’m going to quote some sections from chapter 3, Homosexuality: The Biblical Evidence, to demonstrate the culture of the church in 1979 and the regressive changes that have taken place in the following years.
92. “The narrative in Gen. 19 is a variant of a widely diffused folk-tale dealing with the inhospitable treatment accorded by the inhabitants of a particular place to divine visitants whose identity was not realised. We are dealing not, it would appear, with history but with legend.”
96. “If, as we have argued, the account is not historical, it cannot be taken, as so commonly in the past, to record an instance of divine action intended expressly to condemn and punish homosexual behaviour. It is a reflection, rather than a cause, of existing attitudes and beliefs, the nature and origin of which must be sought elsewhere.”
107. “This at once raises the very large and disputed problem as to the kind of authority we are to give to Bible statements, particularly in the moral and ethical spheres. The issue is not, primarily, between those who would hold to a literal interpretation and a simple acceptance of every biblical injunction, and those who would not, because the former category does not exist in practice. Even those who would call themselves ‘fundamentalists’ recognise different levels of authority in different biblical statements.” [A report from the diocese of Sydney is cited as evidence in support of this statement.]
108. “Even when we can be confident that our text of the Bible is fixed and constant, the Church’s understanding and use of it is not, and hence the attitudes and actions which derive from this, are not.”
109. “It is important to bear in mind how many moral and ethical precepts which in the Bible are presented as the direct commands of God have been re-interpreted in the course of human history and even in some cases abandoned as guides or standards for the conduct of individual and social life.”
117. “It is at least possible to ask whether, granted our greater knowledge compared with the New Testament, of the homosexual and his condition, homosexual relationships might not in some cases, although by no means all, be as genuine expressions of love as other human relationships.”
Report to the House of Bishops on Homosexuality (The Osborne Report) 1987
7 members, 146 pages
- Christian Loyalties: Scripture and Tradition
- Christian Loyalties: Experience
- Critical Themes: The Gospel of Grace and Homosexuality
- Critical Themes: Human Sexuality
- Critical Themes: Public and Private Issues
- Community Issues: Education
- Community Issues: Adoption and Fostering
- Community Issues: Civil and Legal Rights
- Matters for the Church: Lobbies
- Matters for the Church: The Exercise of Pastoral Responsibility
- Matters for the Church: Dealing with Conflict
- Concluding Comments and Future Tasks
- Strictly Private and Confidential: The Bishops’ responses to the requests of the Working Party
The opening chapter, Scripture and Tradition, looked at the exegetical and hermeneutic task. The group revisited Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18 and 20, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11, 1 Timothy 1.8-11, Romans 1.18-32, and visited David and Jonathan. The group of seven was “frequently in disagreement, much of it complicated because we were in conflict within ourselves, always caught in the painful hope of holding on to the Christian realities of compassion and convictions. No-one was asked to dilute or compromise their respective allegiances. Yet we found that we could still live with each other.” The report was unanimously agreed.
19. “One of the reasons why we believe this is not the moment for the Church of England to appear to have reached a definite conclusion on this matter, is the difference between these two poles [explored in preceding paragraphs] and the history of the Church’s attitude and practice which lies between them.”
Issues in Human Sexuality 1991
13 members, 48 pages
- Scripture and Human Sexuality
- The Christian Vision for Human Sexuality
- The Phenomenon of Homosexual Love
- The Homophile in the Life and Fellowship of the Church
The section on the Biblical evidence barely touches on the proof texts, preferring to dwell on salvation history, our general world view and experience of life, attitudes to women, sin and divine law, and evolving morality. The report mentions Ruth and Naomi in addition to David and Jonathan.
2.29. “There is, therefore, in Scripture and evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable. As we have already noted, this ultimate biblical consensus presents us with certain problems which need to be faced.”
It is a statement by the House of Bishops intended to promote an educational process, not the last word on the subject, but published with the hope that it will do ‘something to help forward a general process, marked by greater trust and openness, of Christian reflection on the subject of human sexuality’.
Some Issues in Human Sexuality 2003
4 members, 358 pages
- The current debate on sexuality
- The use of the Bible in sexual ethics
- The theology of sexuality
- Homosexuality and biblical teaching
- Gender identity, sexual identity and theology
- Homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals in the life of the Church
- Handling some current controversies over sexual morality
Chapter 4, Homosexuality and biblical teaching, is introduced with ‘four voices from the debate’. Only one of the four is the story of a person unconflicted by the relationship between their sexuality and Christian faith. The chapter reviews in detail commentaries on Genesis 19, Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Deuteronomy 23.17-18, Romans 1.24-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, 1 Timothy 1.10, the example of Jesus, Acts 15, and Romans 11.24. Some Issues takes 15 pages to set out five possible responses. The Osborne report listed 4 broadly similar responses, with brevity, in one paragraph. Some Issues concludes that “while there is room for a legitimate debate about the interpretation of the texts concerned . . . nevertheless the hermeneutical principles and the consensus of biblical scholarship still points us in the direction of the Church’s traditional reading of the biblical material.
Some Issues ends on p.319 with the hope that “as each reader comes to the end of this guide, she or he will be able to reflect about which issues in human sexuality need to be thought about again, and how to engage in the continued journey of dialogue and learning with others.”
Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality (The Pilling Report) 2013
8 members, 201 pages
- A rapidly changing context
- Listening to each other – and continuing to do so
- The obligations of belonging to the Anglican Communion
- The current teaching of the Church of England
- Sexuality, culture and Christian ethics
- Sexuality and social trends
- Arguments about science
- Arguments about Scripture
- Perspectives from two theologians [Timothy Radcliffe and Oliver O’Donovan]
- Christian ethics – the Anglican Tradition
- Scripture and theology
- Countering prejudice and homophobia
- Science, society and demographics
- A process for listening to each other
- The Church’s practice
- A Dissenting Statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead
- ‘Scripture and same sex relationships, Keith Sinclair, Bishop of Birkenhead
- Evangelicals, Scripture and same sex relationships – an ‘Including Evangelical’ perspective, David Runcorn
The report recommended that “the subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would be best addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level.” This recommendation was taken up in the Shared Conversations. Other recommendations such as whether guidance should be issued about marking the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service are being taken up in the current preparation of the Teaching Document and the work of the Pastoral Advisory Group.
Episcopal Teaching Document and Pastoral Advisory Group 2020
24 members plus additional members of the four working groups. Target of pages to beat: 358
Pastoral Advisory Group:
- Supporting and advising Dioceses on pastoral actions, i.e. engagement, inclusion, and pastoral care, with regard to the current pastoral approach of the Church to human sexuality, with a particular (but not exclusive) focus on same-sex couples.
- Reviewing, and as needed revising, advice provided by the House of Bishops on pastoral ministry to same-sex couples in Church of England congregations, such ministry being understood to include prayer offered by clergy and licensed lay minsters.
- Offering advice when requested to bishops regarding specific cases they are dealing with in the areas of both pastoral care and discipline involving clergy in same-sex relationships, and clergy responding to lay people in same-sex relationships, to assist the sharing of knowledge and an appropriate level of national consistency in approach.
- Exploring together, and hearing from others, what radical Christian Inclusion, ‘founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.’, means in the life and mission of the Church: sharing and disseminating examples of good practice in terms of pastoral care of and engagement with those who identify as LGBTI.
- To bring draft advice on pastoral ministry to same-sex couples in Church of England congregations for initial consideration by the House of Bishops, having reflected on how pastoral practices might develop within current teaching.
- The episcopal members will be responsible for bringing a final text to the House for approval and who will be advised by a standing group of Core Consultant Members (clergy and laity). The teaching document should include, inter alia:
- a summary of the church’s tradition regarding marriage and sexual relationships, including its scriptural and theological foundations;
- an indication of how this tradition has adapted and been sustained through periods of radical social change;
- an analysis of rapidly changing social and familial structures over recent decades and the role of marriage in securing social goods in times of fluidity;
- reflections on contemporary understandings of human sexuality and the contribution of other disciplines, especially the sciences;
- a summary of the social trends which have led to the desire for faithful, permanent same-sex relationships to be recognised and celebrated publicly, and the church’s theological and practical responses to the advent of Civil Partnerships and Equal Marriage;
- theological and ethical reflections on the pastoral and missional imperatives for the church in the light of these developments;
- guidance for members of the Church of England on the spiritual and theological importance of marriage, on options for Christians in their sexual and familial relationships, and on relationships with those who are in other relationship structures.
- clarity about the extent, and limits, of consensus within the church – mapping the areas where we continue to disagree.
Thematic Working Groups
- Social and Biological Sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology, physiology, biology, genetics and medical issues.
- Biblical: Old Testament studies, New Testament studies, hermeneutics, biblical ethics.
- Theological: dogmatics, ethics.
- Historical: church history, including Early Church, Middle Ages, Reformation, modernity; history and theology of mission.