Andrew Goddard has published a very helpful and typically thorough and analytical article on Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Relationships in the Church of England: What is happening and how should evangelicals respond?
The General Synod 1987 motion was a private member’s motion reflecting the attitudes prevalent at the time held by Tony Higton and General Synod. Tony has moved away from the views he held so strongly nearly 25 years ago. Although often referred to as the ‘Higton motion’ what the Synod passed was in fact a substantially recast motion proposed as an amendment by the then Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Michael Baughen.
Issues in Human Sexuality was published as a discussion document to promote an educational process. Clergy chapters and congregations were encouraged to find time for prayerful study and reflection. Although it has acquired the status of official Church of England teaching it has never been formally adopted as such. Some Issues in Human Sexuality was published in 2003 as a guide to the debate, not as a policy addendum to Issues.
Lambeth 1.10 was a resolution cobbled together in the heat of a plenary session which felt barely Christian. The bishops gathered en masse ignored the report produced by the sub-section addressing human sexuality. They had arrived at a common mind after nearly 3 weeks of very sensitive work together. This was effectively trashed by the febrile atmosphere of the plenary debate.
The Lambeth debate had been kick-started a year previously when 2nd Encounter in the South meeting in Kuala Lumpur published a statement on human sexuality which was entirely about homosexuality. So here’s the first problem for Changing Attitude. None of these resolutions, motions or reports is a healthy or authoritative statement of Anglican teaching about homosexuality. The Higton 1987 motion and Lambeth 1.10 were created in an atmosphere of prejudice, Issues was never intended to be a definitive teaching document.
In the twenty years that have passed, medical, psychological and social attitudes to homosexuality have been transformed. I would argue that the Holy Spirit has been at work in the transformation, revealing deeper truth about the way in which our sexual and relational selves are constructed.
Taken together, these documents present from Changing Attitude’s point of view, a very fragile and deeply unsatisfactory starting point and yet this is where Andrew expects the new initiative to begin. I understand why, but I fear it will begin at such a remove from our own experience that the end result will do little to convince us that the church has even begin to understand us in 2011.
Here’s the second problem. Andrew asks how “evangelicals committed to the biblical and traditional sexual ethic set out in Lambeth I.10 engage constructively with these two new initiatives.” The problem for Fulcrum is that evangelicals are not of one mind. Evangelicals ranged from the Accepting Evangelical position that “loving, faithful same-sex relationships built on mutual commitment and self-giving love are not condemned in the Bible” to the position held by Anglican Mainstream at the other extreme.
There is a broad spectrum of theology and teaching within the evangelical world which is a subset of the Church of England in general. Changing Attitude’s starting point is one of respect for the variety of Anglican teaching and tradition within which very different teachings can be and are held with integrity.
Changing Attitude and the LGBT Anglican Coalition are engaged in conversations about our own response to the new developments. Andrew raises questions which will help us as we contemplate how to respond. The House of Bishops has “decided that more work is now needed on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality more generally” with the intention that it will “produce a further consultation document in 2013” but little detail is available.
The question of the work’s intended focus and goal and hence of what structure and method(s) are best suited to achieving that goal are still largely unaddressed, says Andrew. The announcement places great emphasis on the “listening process” within the Church of England but it is unclear what particular examples it has in mind or what specific insights – in terms of either substance or process – it believes these might yield in terms of “the continuing discussion within the Church of England”. Although much value has come from these two methods it is not clear how helpful they are on their own if the goal of this work by the House of Bishops is – in the Archbishop’s words – “clarifying the focal theological issues” or, in the Bishop of Norwich’s words, to “help shape the continuing debate constructively”.
I want to remind Fulcrum, the House of Bishops and the wider Church that facts on the ground mean that if we start only from the official documents and the listening process we will ignore current reality and experience.
We already have priests, bishops and Primates in the Communion who are variously lesbian, gay, single, married, celibate, partnered. In England we already have bishops licensing priests in civil partnerships. We already have churches and priests blessing lesbian and gay relationships. We already have a breadth of experience, lay and ordained, from LGB&T people living and ministering in the Church of England who reflect on their experience theologically and spiritually. How is this to be included in the House of Bishops process from the start?