A Moment in the Tangle

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool


“God made the angels to show Him splendour, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But [human beings] He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of [their] mind.[1]

In this Holy Week it’s good to remember that the Church is “the mystical body of [God’s] Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people[2]” as well as a limping, fractious, all-too-human institution. We live always in the “as well as”, between grace and freedom, between reality believed and reality seen, in the light of the resurrection and in the shadow of the cross.

We receive our salvation freely as God works by grace within us, and we work it out with fear and trembling[3], “in the tangle of the mind” as Thomas More puts it in Robert Bolt’s play, quoted at the beginning of this piece. And this short piece is about a moment, an unfinished moment, in the tangle of this bishop’s mind.

In February the General Synod chose not to take note of a report from the House of Bishops that called for maximum freedom under current law and guidance for those in same-sex relationships[4]. After that debate our Archbishops called for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church[5].

In my own speech in that debate I said this:

“When I go home from here, no matter what the result of this debate, I will seek in Liverpool to ensure maximum freedom under the law for LGBTI people, so that their love as it really exists can be recognised and honoured within the church as it really exists. I have sought to do this since I arrived in Liverpool… And I commit myself to continue to work… to offer maximum freedom within this Church. We will do this in liaison with others. We will not wilfully break the law or flout properly agreed guidance. But our exploration of maximum freedom may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone. And all this will happen anyway.”

So after Synod I went home to keep that commitment, and a couple of weeks later I had a conversation at the back of church after a service, the sort of conversation we have more and more often in this changing England.

It’s all very cheerful and happy, as people gather at the back of church, and I’m shaking hands with people and we’re all laughing and talking, and a woman comes up and shakes my hand and says “My daughter is getting married and you won’t marry her in church will you, because her fiancée is a woman”. She’s stating a fact and she’s clearly exasperated because of this fact. And I agree that it’s a fact. So I say “No, I’m afraid we won’t, we can’t under our laws at the moment”, and then I say this: “But we can give her and her partner such a lovely service of welcome and recognition and affirmation”, and the woman smiles and says “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and I say, “Send me an email and we’ll do what we can”.

In the tangle of the Church’s mind, we are debating what “maximum freedom” might mean, and still more what “radical new Christian inclusion” might mean, and how these meanings might be expressed. Opinions differ on this, to put it mildly.

But I am clear myself that “maximum freedom” does not mean “minimum freedom”, and that “radical new Christian inclusion” does not mean “shallow old unchristian exclusion”.

All the same there’s a tangle. In 2005, speaking only of civil partnerships, eight years before civil same-sex marriage, the House of Bishops had this to say:

”…the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.[6]

And so here I am, at a moment in the tangle, an unfinished moment, working away as a bishop, remembering what this woman said, “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and looking at this word, “blessing”, and at this phrase, “should not provide”, and at this phrase, “radical Christian inclusion”. Here I am, working away, to offer maximum freedom within the current law.

And as I do so I wonder about blessing. And I reach for a recent book, the book called “Blessing” by Andrew Davison[7]. And I note there the deep richness of meaning in the word, and the freedom from fear as the richness of the word is unpacked. I note the unfolding from scripture, and from the traditions of the Church, of blessing “as thankful recognition” for something received[8], of blessing as expressing a calling, a vocation, a commitment, something offered[9].

And I note the distinction (not Andrew Davison’s distinction, but the Church’s distinction) between blessing as constitutive (consecrating or dedicating a thing or a relationship, spoken to confer a status, solemn, you might say formal) and blessing as invocative (asking for God’s favour in relation to a thing, expressing warmth and approval and affirmation and the belief that this thing should flourish under God, solemn, you might say informal). As Davison says: “Most blessings are likely to be invocative” [10].

Among other resources, this book is helping me to scope the wide and diverse understanding that we have of blessing, the wide and diverse response that the Church makes to the wide and diverse world God made. And for me the heart of this response is to identify the good in the world and to speak well of the world, to speak well to the world, to speak God’s “yes”[11] in the moment now, and in the moments to come. As Andrew Davison says:

When we bless something, someone or somewhere, we are in some way pointing to what it can most truly be; we are directing it to its fulfilment in God[12].

As a bishop I find these distinctions and these expressions of richness most helpful. Because they point to the many ways the Church has of “speaking well[13]”. These many ways illuminate the love of God and offer thankful recognition for things, and for places, and for people who love each other. Many ways of speaking well, that might meet the requirements of love, even within the law we have.

And as I read and think I remember the words of the bishops, and of the Archbishops. And I remember that I want to offer radical new Christian inclusion to those who seek the ministry of this Church. I want to offer maximum freedom to this woman and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, who come to the Church despite all they know of us. They come, because they want to discern and acknowledge the presence and the love of God in this relationship. They come, to receive the prayers of the Church on the love that has entered their family.

And I am determined that we will find a way to meet them there, a way that will speak well of love and of the presence of God. To find a way that will point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to the love which never fails, in the mystical body, the blessed company of all faithful people. To point to that love within this limping, fractious, all-too-human institution.

And in the tangle of my mind I remember my Synod speech again, and I stand by it. Because our unity matters deeply to me I remain determined that we shall not flout the law, but keep it, until we change it. But I am determined too, as I said in my speech, that our exploration of radical Christian inclusion “may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone”.

The Church’s missional life takes form in pastoral moments, and this is one of mine. And these moments, these unfinished moments, my moment, this family’s moment – these moments will be added to all the other pastoral moments of today’s Church as we seek to reflect properly the love of Christ crucified and risen.

And in all these moments, and out of all these moments, the future will unfold; the future which is unknown, but which is shaped by these moments of love requested and love shared, of blessing requested and blessing shared.

And what will that future look like? Well, we’ll discover as we go forward, together.

In his fine book “Crazy Christians”, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quotes a spiritual, and I end with it here as we enter the season of the Resurrection, and as we serve God in the tangle of our minds, and as we go forward as a Church. It is a song for me, and for the woman I met, and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, and for all of us who are on the journey, in the tangle:

Got my hands on the gospel plow,

Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now,

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on,

Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on[14].


[1] Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons”, 1960

[2] Book of Common Prayer, Holy Communion service

[3] Philippians 2:12-13

[4] GS2055, para 22

[5] https://staging.churchofengland.org/media/3878263/abc-and-aby-joint-letter.pdf

[6] “Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England” 2005 (https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx)

[7] Andrew Davison, “Blessing”, Canterbury Press 2014. I’m grateful to Dr. Davison for this book, and also for his helpful advice on the writing of this present piece.

[8] “Blessing”, p.8f

[9] “Blessing”, p12ff

[10] “Blessing”, pp125ff

[11] 2 Cor 1:20

[12] “Blessing”, p47

[13] “Speaking well”, Latin “bene dicere”, you might almost say “benediction”, you might almost say “blessing” (see “Blessing”, p)

[14] Michael Curry, “Crazy Christians”, Morehouse Publishing 2013, p84

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 9 Comments

Mutual Flourishing & Freight Trains

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

 Hayley Matthews

The announcement didn’t register on my own personal richter scale. I’d heard only good things about the Rt Rev’d Philip North, and had been particularly pleased to see somebody shining a spotlight on the plight of the marginalised working classes.  Well done that man.  Consequently, the storm that followed the announcement of his appointment to become a Diocesan Bishop took me by surprise.  As a woman who has felt rejection almost constantly through near on fifty odd years in the church (so much so that it is still a small delight to be warmly welcomed wholesale anywhere), I was suddenly faced squarely with an image of what it is to be me, or any other woman, or BAME or differently abled or identifying as LGBT within the church played out within the incarnation of ‘the norm’ or ‘the privileged’ .

It was interesting to see the way that different parties handled it; the press, the clergy, the public, the laity, various interest groups. For this was a new thing.  Let’s face it we’re rather used to Jeffrey John being hung out to dry again, and we recount the passive aggressive, duplicitous and disingenuous forms of bullying that take place towards LGBT and female clergy almost as a given, sharing our sorrows with one another as if it were just another part of the cross that we bear.

It was also interesting to note Philip’s (if I may) reactions:

  • He felt personally wounded and was surprised at how hard this hit him.
  • He withdrew from public life, albeit time limited.
  • He questioned his vocation
  • He questioned his place in the church

These are everyday ‘norms’ for those clergy carrying a minority status. The continual cost of being publicly scorned, written viciously to, put down and theologically battered with another’s opinion nearly always plays out in both the physical and mental health of a person, however resilient they are. Needing to find a safe space to get back to oneself and find God amidst the pain of denigration and rejection; hating being a focal point for such anger and hatred that one is taken aback by the force of it.  Wondering if the God who calls us means for us to be on this road, or whether we have run ahead or gone off piste. Wondering how we move ahead and find our place in an organisation that invests heavily in us on the one hand, and then threatens to chew us up and spit us out on the other.

I’ll be honest, my heart went out to him because he was clearly hit like a freight train by the reaction to his appointment, and only those of us who are relentlessly subjected to that can understand just how much it shakes the very foundation of all that one is called to be and to do as a priest in the Church of England, and of how much courage and strength it takes to dust oneself off, gird up one’s loins, lift one’s chin and head back into the fray.  It is costly.

Equally, I’m very glad that the Bishop had this experience. It is one thing to theologically dispute an integrity, but it is quite another to live out the consequences of our theology.  Ironically, through his own theological convictions, the Bishop experienced first-hand the consequences for others of those very same convictions.

For some people those convictions are multi-layered and some clergy face exclusion on more than one identity issue. Women particularly tend to find that there is a cumulative impact of owning more than one ‘label’ (intersectionality). For example, a woman is discriminated against for being female owing to theological or even socio-political economic biases.  Add to that that she is bisexual, for example, which immediately ‘doubles’ her minority status adding to the exclusion she is experiencing.  This can take the form of a wider cohort of people agin her, or those that already are finding more grist for their mill.  Add to that her motherhood, for example, a well-documented form of discrimination faced by professional women the world over, and however gifted, hardworking or however ‘good a fit’ the person might be for her role, she is likely to face unprecedented levels of discrimination, both overt and insidious.

Men, on the other hand, according to research participants[1], tend to find that their ‘maleness’ ameliorated any other minority status’. For example, in contrast to women clergy, male clergy who had children were “cooed over” as being twice as worthy of admiration.  Gay male clergy tend to find that there are cohorts of like-minded clergy that they can affiliate to as men,  which is not afforded to women. And of course, there is the obvious point that you can always hide being gay, but you can’t hide being female.

What is it going to take to enable us all to mutually flourish? For Jeffrey John finally to be consecrated bishop?  For The Rt Rev’d Philip North to set out how he intends to lead a diocese of female and male priests whilst holding to his integrity?  For women and BAME and LGBT and differently-abled priests to be able to be themselves without fearing reprisals or relentless vexatious complainants?  For all to continually grow into the vocation that God called their unique personhood into?

Perhaps we have been missing the point by trying to squeeze the ordained (or the laity for that matter) into restrictive identities that are at times nothing more than antiquated follies that look rather wonderful but are really without substance.  There’s no point having pomegranates embroidered around the hem of your garment[2] if you’re only wearing it to hide who you really are.  Perhaps the point is, that God deliberately calls individuals from many and varied identities and people groups in order that we might learn that God is only and ever consumed with where a person’s heart is, before God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[1] The Revd Dr Hayley Matthews has conducted in-depth research into this matter, which is currently being written up for publishing

[2] Moses is given meticulous detail over the priestly garments to be worn as Aaron and his brothers are prepared to become the first priests for Israel. See Exodus 28:33-35 ref the pomegranates. The whole chapter is dedicated to ‘The Priestly Garments’ and makes for interesting reading.

Posted in Church of England, Hayley Mattews, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 4 Comments

The Power of Feeling over Thinking

by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s

David ison 2

I write this on the day that the British Government is triggering Article 50 to take Britain out of the European Union: a day regarded as totemic by many, but for diametrically opposite reasons. There will be many articles, blogs and posts, and will continue to be over the next few years, as we enter the uncharted waters of Brexit: but how many intellectual exchanges will engage with the deeper feelings at work?

The Leave/Remain divide operates at different levels. During the campaign there were many arguments and claims made on both sides (‘the facts that you should know’), the truth of which were disputed; and that argument continues to play out. But underlying such argument, such reasoning and the quest for truth, are the feelings that drove much of the debate and which were very powerful in deciding what people thought.

What many of us will remember about the result of the referendum on 23rd June 2016 is not what we thought about it, but how we felt about it: our emotional response to leaving, and our feelings about the people who responded with a different view. And that conflict of emotion continues, in the way in which ‘Remoaners’ and ‘Brexiteers’ are stereotyped and written off by those on the other side, instead of coming together with those with whom we disagree in order to find the best way forward for our country.

The reality is that we’re not rational people, though we may try hard to be. We are whole people, and until we acknowledge and work with our feelings as well as our thoughts we won’t be able to address the underlying issues. Until Remainers respond to the desire for change by those voting Leave, especially those who feel excluded by globalisation and social and economic change, and until Leavers recognise the feelings of loss and fear that Remainers have with regard to an unknown future for their children and wider society, the greater national unity which the Prime Minister aspires to will be unattainable.

And this applies as well to the issues around ordained women and LGBTI people in the Church. We can’t treat these as simply rational matters, problems to be intellectually solved, issues of proclaiming biblical truth or avoiding it. As the practice of Shared Conversations acknowledges, until those on either side (or none) can recognise the power of feelings over what all of us think – and not just over what those on the other side think – we’ll be unable to engage honestly to find an understanding of how to move forward together.

A recent blog on the Via Media site by Martin Seeley highlighted the issue of the interpretation of scripture. But this isn’t simply choosing to negotiate on the principles by which we interpret scripture in order to decide what is true. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community who see scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment which is quite independent of intellectual inquiry. We have an emotional investment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good. As human beings we are social; like a wolf pack we follow the lead of others, and we fear stepping out of line. We won’t be able to really talk about the ways we interpret scripture until we’re honest about the feelings that underly our commitments to them.

After the 1992 vote to allow women to be ordained priest went through, I encountered a number of male clergy who were intellectually accepting of women’s ordination, but joined Forward in Faith because they didn’t want to lose their friends and community – and I also met clergy who had been ostracised by their ‘friends’ because they agreed with the change, and so had in the view of others been disloyal to their community.

And I, along with many others, have discovered that changing my mind in response to arguments both intellectual and emotional about how as an evangelical I should interpret scripture on these issues – and thus how I believe the wider Church should interpret scripture – brings with it the struggle to integrate what I feel emotionally with what I believe intellectually, as well as facing the cost of exclusion by those who are emotionally as well as intellectually wedded to a different view.

At a deanery synod in a village in North Devon twenty years ago which was debating Issues in Human Sexuality, I overheard one lady saying to another: ‘I was just brought up to believe it was disgusting’. And it’s that which we need to get out into the open: the feelings that underly and affect our thinking and our ability to empathise with others, coming out of our own experiences of sex and gender, the need to identify with a group, and the fear of those different from us.

What it feels like to face the prospect of being expelled from your group for having a different view; what it feels like as a woman priest or bishop to have people reject your ministry and be allowed to discriminate against you; how it feels to be gay or transgender and be told there is something deeply wrong with and about you; how it feels to be regarded by many in society as unacceptable in your views; what it feels like to believe you’re being faithful to biblical truth when those outside your constituency (whatever it is) tell you you’re wrong…

As with Brexit, so with the Church: until we listen to one another’s feelings and acknowledge the power of our own, we have little prospect of coming together for the future.






Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 6 Comments

Are We an Institutionally Homophobic Church?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Jayne Ozanne (3)

In my experience people rarely set out to offend.  However, it is often sadly what people leave unsaid or undone (what I call “Sins of Omission”) which unwittingly cause the greatest offense.  If we’re honest, this is normally due to a deep ingrained prejudice that goes unchecked and un-noticed.

I believe that this is precisely why, during the enquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence , Lord Macpherson chose to define institutional racism as:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.”

Unwitting prejudice, ignorance and thoughtlessness.

Institutional homophobia can and should be defined exactly the same way:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their sexuality.  It can be detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping”.

This is why during “Questions” at General Synod last February I asked the Chair of the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Human Sexuality, the Rt Revd Graham James: “Was it unwitting prejudice, ignorance or thoughtlessness that led to no co-opted LGBT member on the bishops’ working party?”

Indeed, I believe one could also now ask the Welsh Bench of Bishops: “Was it unwitting prejudice, ignorance or thoughtlessness that left unchecked the reported homophobic comments of the perceived negative impact of appointing Jeffrey John as the next Bishop of Llandaff?”

Bishops and archbishops alike have been quick to publicly state that the Church of England has a “zero tolerance” towards homophobia in all its forms.  Similarly, the Presiding Bishop of the Church in Wales has also been keen to point out that he made it clear that “neither homosexuality nor participation in a civil partnership were a bar to any candidate either nominated or elected”.  But verbal assurances are one thing, and actively ensuring their implementation is another.

I wonder, do those in positions of power within the Church truly understand what “institutional homophobia” really is?  Are they aware of their own “Sins of Omission” when it comes to being “thoughtless” or “ignorant” of how they are treating LGBTI people?  Put another way, are they able to be aware when they “have done those things that they ought not to have been done”, and more importantly “left undone those things that ought to have been done” – such as reprimanding people for inappropriate comments, or brushing off concerns by LGBTI people that their voice is not being adequately heard or represented?

My fear is that we are so utterly submerged in the impenetrable “bubble”called “Church” that we fail to see what is so plain to those who live outside it – that our practices, our thinking, our ways of working are absolutely riddled with institutional homophobia.

You see, institutional homophobia is not just about an “irrational fear, dislike or prejudice against LGBT people” as some would like to think.  It is far more serious than that.  It is the naïve and unintentional thoughtlessness in the way that we are talked about.  For instance, using pronouns “them” instead of “us”.  It is an ignorance of the offense that is so often and needlessly caused by stereotyping “what ‘they’ believe”.  Typical examples are “they just want to pander to the culture” or “they don’t take the bible seriously”.

So let me be crystal clear – any teaching that undermines the intrinsic equal worth of LGBTI people is homophobic.  Any theology that teaches that LGBTI couples in committed same-sex relationships are immoral is homophobic.  Any practice that bars LGBTI Christians from serving in their church is homophobic.

The Bishop of Chelmsford has been both bold and brave in recently asserting in his Presidential Address to his Diocesan Synod:

“As I have said before, I am not sure the church has ever before had to face the challenge of being seen as immoral by the culture in which it is set.”

We have indeed been judged and found wanting by a nation who do not understand or believe our nuanced differentials between having a conservative view on theology and asserting this is different to homophobia.   They – the people we seek to serve and witness to – just see a Church that is homophobic, which fails to treat LGBTI Christians as equals.  No amount of window dressing will get them to perceive this differently.

Notably, Bishop Stephen Cottrell then immediately went on to say:

“And though I am proud to confirm that all of us, whatever our views on this matter, are united in our condemnation of homophobia, we must also acknowledge that it is of little comfort to young gay or lesbian members of our Church to know that while prejudice against them is abhorred, any committed faithful sexual expression of their love for another is forbidden. In fact it is worse than this, our ambivalence and opposition to faithful and permanent same sex relationships can legitimise homophobia in others. None of us are content with this situation.”

It is true – we may be “united in our condemnation of homophobia” but at the same time I would assert we mete it out with alarming ease.  Our processes, our thinking, our decision making are all so steeped in prejudice that we are completely blind to it.

Until the Church starts to openly recognise and formally repent of its institutional homophobia, then no amount of “assurances” or public condemnations will carry any truck with those who have been so maligned, or with their family and friends who smart on their behalf.

Our nation has been shouting to us that “the emperor has no clothes” for years.  They can see the truth plain as day – we are homophobic, and have been for centuries.  We on the other hand continue to pretend that the emperor is wearing beautifully fine clothes with our constant statements that hope to assure people we are not homophobic.

It is time to speak out and tell the truth – and repent.  We need to put in safeguards so that our “Sins of Omission” no longer go unnoticed and our untruthful stereotyping no longer go unchecked.  To do otherwise would be to continue as a national laughing stock where we have little credibility as we are seen as lacking any truth or honesty on this matter.


Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 31 Comments

Learning From our Disagreements

by the Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Charlotte BP

I would like to thank Bishop Stephen Cottrell  for his Presidential Address to the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod on 11th March 2017.

It was beautifully written, considered and a very clear working out of his current position in regards to LGBTI inclusion within the Church of England.  Its timing couldn’t have been better as we look to move forward from General Synod’s reflection of the House of Bishop’s report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships following the Shared Conversations (GS 2055).

What I found interesting in this address was that he also referred to the situation surrounding the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt. Rev. Philip North’s appointment to the See of Sheffield.

They are of course very different theological and pastoral topics but they do share two common factors. First, the need to learn how to carry out “good disagreement”, which in the case of Philip North means how we regard and uphold the “5 Guiding Principles”.   Second, that further work needs to be done by the Bishops to explain the impact of these issues on the life of the Church of England and its ministry.   For instance how, in practical terms, would those who hold very different understandings of Anglicanism truly be able to “mutually flourish” under such principles? What would that actually look like when played out, on the ground, in our churches and ministry.

So, on the one hand the Church is trying to work out how it can treasure and preserve the traditionally catholic position on the historic apostolic succession so that those who value it can have confidence of sacramental assurance. And on the other we have the difficult and potentially deeply divisive issue of LGBTI inclusion, where one is looking at how the Church of England might take (as Bishop Stephen Cottrell recently declared) “small steps forward”.

In these two different issues there are two different aims: one is the preservation of the old, the other is the forging of the new.

With regards to LGBTI inclusion many have embarked on enormous amounts of research, theological reflection, reading and prayer to understand why, like the Bishop of Chelmsford, we believe it is time now for the Church of England to consider the creation of (at minimum) a service of Prayers of Thanksgiving for same sex partners.  Whilst we understand that a change to the Canons on marriage  is not possible at this stage,  many of us would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. Through careful deliberation of scripture, tradition and reason on issues of human sexuality we might then begin to truly honour Archbishop Justin Welby’s call for a theology of “radical new Christian inclusion”.

However, in relation to the second issue I must admit that as a woman priest the appointment of Bishop North came as somewhat of a surprise. The key issue for me was his transition from a Suffragan to a Diocesan Bishop, and what that then meant for my understanding of the legitimacy of the priesthood of women in Sheffield.

Let us be clear that all personal negative comments about him as a priest must be condemned.  Whilst I have not met Bishop North, it is obvious from all the letters of support –  as well as from the testimony of his colleagues from Sunderland, Hartlepool, London and Burnley – that he is a remarkable minster and Bishop, with dynamic leadership qualities and a great advocacy for the poor and marginalised.

The reason for my concern comes from the fact that my understanding of the role of a Diocesan Bishop is that they represent a “focus of unity” and act as a “Father of God” to all clergy who take a vow of canonical obedience to them. The Bishop is therefore surely the person through whom the sharing in the apostolic ministry of Christ is continued and the guarantee that the Church in this time and place is in continuity and communion with the Church in every time and place.

I deeply admire Bishop Cottrell and I was delighted to hear that he was on the Crown Nominating Committee for Bishop North, and have no doubt what so ever that hours of prayer, consideration and reflection on exactly this issue went into that nomination consideration. But when one reads the “Statement of Policy and Pastoral Guidance” by the Council of The Bishop of The Society, of which Bishop North is a member, it does become somewhat confusing. I quote:

As bishops of The Society, it is our duty to offer those committed to our charge such sacramental assurance and, where the sacraments are concerned, always to follow the safest course. We can therefore only commend the sacramental ministry of male priests who have been ordained by a male bishop who stands in the historic apostolic succession of bishops at whose episcopal ordination a male bishop presided”.

While I am delighted to read that in (2.6) the bishops of the Society “reject any so-called ‘theology of taint’ whereby a bishop who ordains women to the episcopate or the priesthood thereby invalidates his own orders and renders invalid the orders of those whom he subsequently ordains”, I did find this following statement difficult to understand in light of Bishop North’s appointment. The bishops of The Society say that “to be unable to affirm the sacramental validity of the orders of some who are ordained in the Church of England is not necessarily to deny the efficacy of their ministry”.

So, if Bishop Cottrell supported the nomination of Bishop North to the See of Sheffield he must have a much greater understanding than I of how Bishop North can on the one hand not affirm the sacramental validity of women priests while on the other not deny the efficacy of their ministry either.

Jeremy Pemberton in his recent blog “On infidelity, broken promises and hounding: why Elaine Storkey is wrong” puts this very well:

“They (members of the Society) do not have confidence that a woman’s blessing is a blessing, or that a woman’s absolution is an absolution, that a Eucharist presided over by a woman is a Eucharist, and that a person ordained by a woman is truly ordained to the order of priest or bishop….. How can he (then) sponsor people for ordination training to a ministry which, however much he might like and affirm the individuals, he does not actually think is ordination to a ministry of sacrament?”

Given this clear dichotomy I believe that the impact of North’s theological position – its actual working-out in churches – should have been clearly addressed ahead of the announcement of his nomination,  so that all  women priests who were at risk of feeling that their ministry was going be regarded as redundant could instead have understood how they might also flourish and be fully acknowledged. Maybe then we could have avoided the outcome of this terrible episode which has been deeply unfortunate and very sad for all. Then and only then can we understand the true concept of ‘mutual flourishing’ and move forward on these issues – finding ways of living together with our “good disagreements” and not letting them drive us apart.

The recent moving letter from the retiring Bishop of Bradwell regarding LGBTI inclusion challenges us directly on this:

There are very differing views on this within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion, but there is much more we hold in common. Unity in Christ is a fact, a command, a promise; not simply something we can opt in and out of as we pick and choose. We need to live with our differences, not simply listening to those who see differently but offering true attentiveness. That was the value of the Shared Conversations, but not clearly reflected in the Report from the House of Bishops as reflected in the Synod Vote.”

The issues of sacramental assurance and the provision for those priests who in good conscience wish to acknowledge same-sex partnerships are two totally different doctrinal and theological concerns. However, how the Church should move forward on them is the same.  We must use the language of clarity, honesty, graciousness and consideration that reflects our priestly roles as Christ’s advocates on earth. Furthermore, we cannot move forward as a Church without considering how we deal with these internal debates that impact directly on our image, voice and mission potential in the wider world.




Posted in Charlotte Bannister-Parker, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment

A Tale of Two Shared Conversations

by the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

Martin Seeley

I am very glad I participated as a diocesan representative in our regional Shared Conversations. I came away inspired by the honesty and trust we were able to share. I was also left discouraged by the gulf between the positions some people hold.

St Edmundsbury and Ipswich were teamed up with Norwich and Ely, and the representatives met together for Shared Conversations just over a year ago.

Along with all the other diocesan groups, ours was a mixture of lay and ordained, men and women, homosexual and heterosexual.

We made sure the group had a good range of theological perspectives too, from the “liberal” to the “conservative,” tempered just a little by Suffolk modesty.

The experience was immensely rich for each one of us, while it was also challenging.  The sessions where participants shared their own stories, of how we came to think and believe the way we did, were particularly valuable.  It is unusual to be able to say what you think and believe, and why, without being interrupted or argued with.

Our group has met three times since then, over dinner, the last time being a week after the recent General Synod.  The last two occasions the diocese’s General Synod members have joined the group.

It seems for us the General Synod members’ and the Shared Conversation members’ respective experiences of the process have been qualitatively different. The General Synod experience seems to have been less effective compared with the regional Shared Conversation experience.

Trust and honesty has quickly developed across the combined group of fourteen, enabling some tough conversations to take place.  We slip up from time to time, but we have been able to start to say things to each other about what we think and believe without fear that it will lead to irreparable damage.

These meetings have given us a profound experience of the grace and mercy of Christ among us, and has encouraged us to want to share this experience more widely in the Diocese.

But as we have reflected on this process we have come to believe that the Shared Conversations did not help us in one particular area. The outstanding issue that we believe it is vital we listen to each other about is our different positions on the handling of Scripture.   We want now to work at this ourselves, and at the same time learn sufficient facilitation skills to assist others around the Diocese to have shared conversations about Scripture too.

I remain puzzled that we seem so unable to have this conversation as a Church, and I have been trying to understand why that may be so.

In part, I think, it is that the more conservative perspective has become more clearly and strongly articulated, while those of a more liberal perspective have not found a way of expressing their understanding of the authority of scripture accessibly and concisely.

And part of the difficulty is that we use words like “conservative” and “liberal” in ways that are freighted with political and theological presumptions and perhaps without being clear what we mean by them.

We often use them to describe the position different from our own, and do so not necessarily with love and regard. We tend to speak in parody of views or understandings we do not hold ourselves.

I wonder how helpful labels like conservative, liberal, contextual, and literal are in fact, whether we use them of others or of ourselves.

And part of the difficulty is that I am not sure any of us is hermeneutically consistent.

We may say we hold to a literal interpretation of Scripture, but do we interpret all Scripture literally?  If we hold a literal interpretation of the first creation account, for example, do we also believe in the real presence?

Or we may espouse a contextual interpretation but actually handle a great deal of Scripture literally.  Otherwise how might some people who approach Scripture with a contextual perspective also believe in the real presence?

Can we listen to those of different viewpoints and understand how it is that each is working with a version of the authority of Scripture, and can we accept the validity of each other’s versions?

We each approach Scripture with beliefs about God that are in an interrogative relationship with our reading of Scripture.  Are we sufficiently aware of those beliefs?

And are we able to be clear and honest about our interpretative positions?  All of us come to Scripture with a mixture of experience and rationality that shapes how we engage with Scripture.  The roots of our approach may go a long way back in our own history.  Can we unravel that and work out what the influences are on our understanding?

Do we have insight into currents of thought, much stemming from the Enlightenment, that shape our approach, and the extent to which whatever interpretative position we hold, we have been shaped to some extent by the culture and philosophical environment we have inherited?

There is a good deal to share in these shared conversations. The challenge seems to me to develop self-awareness, honesty and trust so that can we listen to one another about how we engage with Scripture, and listen respectfully and without judgement.

Our diocesan group has experienced Christ’s grace and blessing in our time together so far.  We pray for this gift now, the gift of the Spirit moving among us, leading us together into truth.

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Martin Seeley | 3 Comments

Reflecting on “That” Report and Debate

by Anthony Archer, a Member of General Synod for the Diocese of St Albans


Anthony Archer has written the following as part of his “report back” to his diocese on the recent General Synod Group of Sessions.  He inevitably focused on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops (GS 2055). 

Following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations in the summer, which General Synod engaged with in a broadly similar way to those in the dioceses who participated in the Regional Shared Conversations, the focus turned to the House of Bishops and how they proposed to take matters forward.  They had heard all the views, in particular those of LGBT Christians, many of whom had made themselves very vulnerable in sharing their story about their experience of the Church.  GS 2055 was published on 27 January and was a shock to many.

I recall occasions at school when teachers tried to offer some praise for a piece of work, but had to point out that I had answered the wrong question.  However you looked at it, few marks, if any, could be given.  It is instructive to explain what a ‘take note debate’ is.  It is a common procedure on Synod whereby a body, in this case the House of Bishops, brings a report for debate.  Usually it is part of a process.  It is, in effect, seeking approval to the general direction of travel of a proposed legislative or policy change, or updating Synod on any matter.  It is a neutral motion which allows Synod to discuss the content and recommendations contained in a report without committing the Synod to the formal acceptance of any matter.  Normally Synod votes to take note of reports of this kind, but on an issue as contested as same sex relationships it was always likely that some Synod members would want to vote not to take note, as being the only way to register their dissent at this stage.

What does GS 2055 say?  In its comparatively short 15 pages, it acknowledged that the bishops’ views covered a very wide spectrum.  No position or approach commanded complete unanimity.  First there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage as expressed by Canon B30.  Second there was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.  No proposals were made to make available a form of pastoral service in the context of same sex relationships, even though a commended form of service could be offered without Synodical approval.

There were in effect four recommendations, although these were not put to Synod in a separate following motion.  These are: (i) establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people; (ii) the issuance of a substantial new teaching document on marriage and relationships; (iii) guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and (iv) new guidance about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

In essence, this timid package of measures amounts to a restatement of the status quo and continues to regard lesbian and gay people as a ‘problem.’  One slightly extraordinary concept introduced into the report was that of ‘maximum freedom’, defined as ‘interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.’  The conservative evangelicals seized on this.

At one and the same time, the House of Bishops affirm that same sex relationships can ‘embody crucial social virtues’ of fidelity and mutuality (in a previous episcopal comment, ‘relationships of stunning quality’) while also stating that moral questions remain.  The House of Bishops seem naively to believe that they can continue to navigate this conundrum, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England.

How was GS 2055 developed?  Of course we don’t know, although it seems clear there was an earlier draft that was rejected.  The House of Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality would have had some key input.  What seems to have happened (having spoken to a good number of bishops from across the dioceses) is that the House of Bishops (and the wider College of Bishops) were so surprised perhaps that they could unite around a single document (or at least exercise collective responsibility for it) that no-one asked how it might be received.

I need to remind readers of this report that I am a LGBT ally and have been actively campaigning for change on this issue.  However, there is no pressure that I am aware of to change Canon B30, hence my pejorative comment that the bishops answered the wrong exam question.  I attended a private meeting on 30 January and a group of us set about deciding how best to confront the bishops for what we believed to be a seriously defective report.

While I expressed the personal view that I thought Synod might ‘take note’, it was clear from an early stage that it would be close and that if anything it would be better for Synod not to ‘take note’ rather than vote narrowly in favour.  As Synod approached the views of members and the wider press and social media comment led us to believe that, on a vote by houses, the clergy were likely to vote the report down.  We proceeded on that basis and actively campaigned for both clergy and laity seriously to consider voting not to take note.

As to the tactics for the debate itself, I agreed to put down what is termed a ‘following motion’.  This would appear on the agenda, but would only get debated if Synod voted to take note and if time allowed.  In case Synod did not take note, I also put down for possible debate at a later Group of Sessions a Private Member’s Motion (PMM) in almost identical terms.  The motion was:

‘That this Synod,

request the House of Bishops to bring for debate by July 2018 a set of forward looking proposals on same-sex relationships (such proposals to be developed by a broadly-based group representing the diversity of views on Synod and in the wider Church) that will command confidence by, 

  1. affirming the positive contribution that LGBTI Christians make in the life of the Church; and
  2. reflecting the differing interpretations of scripture, as demonstrated by the Shared Conversations.’

The PMM quickly attracted support and had received 111 signatures by the close of Synod.  It was a useful device to persuade the Synod business managers to agree that the following motion could be debated on the final morning, but as we now know all following motions (there was another one expressing the traditional view) lapsed.

And so to the debate itself.  Firstly more time was allocated to it.  It had been scheduled to be a 90 minute debate; wholly inadequate.  It was subsequently given 2¼ hours.  160 Synod members put in requests to speak.  In the event 33 spoke.  The debate was of the highest quality.  Members were persuasive and spoke with passion, pastoral sensitivity and, in the most part, with concern for LGBT Christians, both those who are Synod members and those in the wider Church.

One of the most moving speeches was the first one, by Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, and it is reproduced here:

I am grateful to the bishops for this report, which though flawed, captures the complexity of the journey we are still on. And I will take note.  I was, however, surprised it stopped short of recommending we consider a commended form of pastoral service for blessing gay and lesbian couples in committed partnerships.  And I was disappointed.  Not with the bishops.  With myself.  For I fear my silence may have contributed to their reticence to test the voice of synod on this aspect of our emerging understanding.

I am an evangelical, spiritually formed in a tradition which takes the Bible seriously, and nurtured in churches which had clear views about the only context for sexual intimacy being in a hetero-sexual marriage.  More recently, in my last parish in Islington, and in my current role, I have had the privilege of ministering alongside men and women, lay and ordained, in long term, committed gay relationships.  Gay Christians serving God faithfully and being used by Him powerfully.  This challenged me to wrestle with Scripture and understand certain passages differently in the light of the whole.  My understanding has changed.  The Shared Conversations in July crystallized for me that whilst I cannot at this stage support a change to the canons on marriage, I would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. But I have said nothing. And I am sorry.  It felt difficult.  I serve people of all traditions in my role as archdeacon, and life is simpler when you remain vague on controversial issues.  So I stayed in the silent middle.

I am now beginning to understand how much more difficult this issue is for those we spend so much time talking about as ‘a problem to be solved’.  By our actions, or inaction, we are continually undermining their identity, questioning their character and godliness, condemning them as somehow more sinful, limiting and restricting their flourishing, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Pastorally and missionally we are doing untold damage to individuals, and to the church. We are all responsible.

Amidst the many, many words on social media since the report was published, one comment by a gay member of synod particularly struck me. She wrote:

“I’m happy to ‘walk together’ to coin the phrase, but at the moment the way it’s swinging it’s the LGBT members that feel unwelcome.  A lot of us are happy to meet in the middle, and we’re stood here waiting, but many of the ‘other side’ won’t even start walking towards us.”

 I have walked towards those who I used to classify as ‘the other side’, and as I stand in the silent middle, I see many of my open evangelical friends similarly inhabiting this central space.  The problem is, that it has remained the silent middle.  Whilst privately I have assured my gay friends and colleagues that I have listened, will continue to listen, and have let this listening inform and change my theology, publically I have been silent, and that was wrong.  I lacked the courage of my convictions, and I apologise.

At this stage of the process, it is time for the silent middle to become vocal, and to be clear where we stand.  It is time to be clear that many of us who are still evangelicals, still seeking to be biblically orthodox, are now humbly acknowledging our previous reading of scripture was flawed.  Those of us in the silent middle must dare to vocalise our changed understanding, must take the risk of speaking out in support of blessing, and must work with those tasked with taking this process forward, ensuring all voices are heard, and we make changes so that all people are valued, welcomed, affirmed and freed to minister effectively in God’s church.[1]

It was a hugely important speech.  How many other ‘Groarkes’ are there out there, especially those who identify as evangelical?  Some bishops were of course called to speak, with starkly different perspectives.  The Bishop of Blackburn defended the criticism that the bishops had not listened.  The purpose of the report was not to please everyone.  Listening should not be conflated with agreement.  The Bishop of Liverpool honoured the anger and frustration of the LGBT community.  He focused on the concept of ‘maximum freedom’ for his diocese, saying ‘it will happen anyway.’  The Bishop of Gloucester took her share of responsibility for the report. It was not an end of the process.  She would have wanted to have gone further.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in making the final speech (which clearly he had prepared for the eventuality that the report would have a rough ride through Synod) said ‘we will have to try to do better whether we take note or not.  This needs to be about love, joy, celebration of belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s a good basis – it’s a road map.  We will move on.  We need to find a radical new inclusion, not careless of theology, not ignorant of the world around us.  Humans are made in the image of God.’  It set the themes for the statement that the two Archbishops made shortly after the end of the debate.

As to the voting, the House of Bishops voted 44 in favour and none against (one bishop accidentally voted against so the official record is different) and one, the Bishop of Southwark, abstained, but did not register his abstention formally.  The clergy voted 93 in favour, 100 against, with two abstentions (hence the vote being lost in the House of Clergy); and the laity voted 106 in favour, 83 against, with four abstentions.  The St Albans’ representatives (five clergy and five laity) voted collectively three in favour, six against and with one abstention.

So what happens next and what does all this imply for an issue that has been around Synod for more than 30 years, and on which the Church has made almost no discernible progress, unlike the secular State?  Something happened on 15 February, 2017.  It may have been a kairos moment.  The tone suddenly changed.  Synod members, for the first time, ‘got it.’  They more than glimpsed the pain and frustration of LGBT Christians being fed up with being ‘talked about.’  Comments have raged across social media.  ‘The toothpaste will not be going back in the tube!’  ‘Some of the fear which is in all of us will start to lift.’  The Daily Telegraph rather got ahead of itself in a headline, which it later retracted, ‘Synod takes first step towards gay marriage.’  But there is a direction of travel, and it is not backwards.  Those like me who have been arguing for a while now that the ‘status quo is not an option’ have a sense that these are no longer mere words.  ‘Good Disagreement’ that was buried by GS 2055 is back on the table.

[1] © Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley (Diocese of Worcester website)

Posted in Anthony Archer, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 1 Comment