How to respond to the House of Bishops initiative on Civil Partnerships and Same-Sex Relationships

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?

Andrew roots his exploration in Church documents: the Higton 1987 General Synod motion, Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) and Lambeth Conference resolution 1.10 (1998) rather than in scripture.

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?


  1. Dave says

    At the risk of adding to your troubles, I would suggest the quasi-official documents which need to be taken into consideration include the At Andrew’s day statement and the Anglican Communion listening process on the website and the SPCK book referred to there.

    As you point out the influence +Michael Baughen on the Higton resolution, I would suggest this approach is based in the evangelicalism represented by John Stott in “Issues Facing Christians Today” This is a well reasoned and careful book which may help you understand why some conclusions have been reached by evangelicals.

    I hope this listening process is a two way thing and involves ideas and debate as much as testimony of experience.

    • Changing Attitude says

      The St Andrews Day Statement and The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (the SPCK book) are both on my bookshelf. You are not adding to my troubles by introducing them – there are many documents which can be taken into consideration and I referred to those which Andrew Goddard and the House of Bishops identify as authoritative.

      The evangelicalism represented by John Stott and Michael Baughen (which is not my tradition) had the potential to lead evangelicals en masse into a much more integrated and focal place in the Church of England. As I understand the history of of the evangelical wing of the church in the past 30 years, and since the reformation, separation into sub-sets is a constant pattern which brought about the failure of John Stotts potentially creative vision.

      The term evangelical covers a wide range of identities and some would refuse to acknowledge others as ‘true’ evangelicals. We could as fruitfully have a listening process to encourage evangelicals to hear and understand and accept each other as have a listening process to hear from the varieties of sexual identity and experience in the church.

      For evangelicals, the testimony of personal experience is fundamental to the tradition, isn’t it? And yet when it comes to LGB&T experience, personal testimony is held under suspicion and has to be subjected to debate and analysis. That’s fair enough, so long as evangelical claims are subjected to debate in the same way.

  2. Laurence C. says

    “if we start only from the official documents and the listening process”

    And that’s not much of a starting point in many areas; anecdotal, but very reliably-sourced, evidence I heard only yesterday, regarding an Area Bishop who was asked how the ‘listening process’ had progressed in his Diocese – he had never heard of it and it had to be explained to him!

  3. Susannah Clark says

    Experience is a vital input in any attempt to explore theologically, and is as valid as ‘theory’. Underlying this is the way revelation occurs, not just at an historic point in time through the inspiration to write scripture, but from the grass roots upwards, in human experience and encounter, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

    Therefore, it is vital that any initiative to explore issues of human sexuality theologically should indeed be a listening exercise and a fact-finding exercise, gathering the data of actual experience from real people, real lives, real ministries… and not just some superimposed, top-down theory of sexuality and gender.

    It needs to be a collaborative exploration, acknowledging integrity in diversity, and the living reality of seeking Christ in diverse lives, finding unity in Him, not in out sameness, or a top-down imposed orthodoxy or covenant.

    So exploring a way forward for the Church of England, to actually handle this diversity on issues of sex and gender, needs to be rooted in experience and grace at work in people’s lives. We need to examine lived experience, and reflect upon that experience, and the gifts discovered in that experience.

    As Sandra Schneiders once wrote: “Instead of testing the validity of experience by its conformity to theory” we should also “test the validity of the theory by its adequacy to people’s experience.”

    Sex and gender are issues which need the whole gospel to be read in totality (not proof texts) and lived out in experience, devotion, service, fruitfulness, commitment.

    People’s lives and mimistries continue to be stifled, not by any different degree of sin to anyone else, but by legislative constraints because of the person they love, or the gender by which they identify.

    While Christians of good faith may hold differing views on these issues with integrity, and love and serve God, the reluctance of the Church to recognise and acknowledge diversity in the lived experience of Christians’ lives, and attempts in some quarters to impose constraints on others, instead of living with differences but living in union in Christ… results in a diminution in lives, a diminution in ministries, and an implicit ‘othering’ of churched and unchurched alike, because of the marginalisation that occurs institutionally on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

    And yet gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians are part of the Church, and rightly part of the Church, and may well (and do) bring gifts to the Church – and besides, are ‘people’ in Christ, equally able to love, to commit, to be faithful, to serve.

    This is actual experience.

    Furthermore, at pew level, more and more people have a brother or aunt or relative or friend who happens to be gay or lesbian or (in emerging experience) transsexual. And they are welcoming. In line with psychologists of integrity, and health professionals, and legislators, at pew level people are reflecting the maturing view of society that you accept a person as a person, and their orientation or gender identity is not a measure of their morality, their work or their loving.

    Beyond church walls, honest seekers of intelligence and good intent look aghast at what they can see as institutional discrimination on grounds of orientation or gender identity… because of dogmatism and theory that seems divorced from actual experience and normality in actual lives.

    The Church is always engaged in mission, and if we want to truly engage – and not alienate people by discriminations that society has moved way past (as it moved on issues like racism) – then it seems vital to me that the exploration of these issues of sexuality and gender should focus on actual experience, the evidence of Christians who are (or know othere who are) LGBT and active in the life of the Church… the Church we each belong to, different as we are, and in which no person should be marginalised or alienated (‘othered’) because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, their gender, the partner they faithfully love, their class, their queerness, their transsexual psychology, their age, their different kind of brain… or whatever difference most of us have in one form or another.

    Are we prepared to love? To serve?

    Mission is far more likely to flourish in a context of true diversity, full and true acknowledgement of our differences, but also our striking likeness… in each needing the grace and love and welcome of Christ. How much more attractive is a Church like that, a welcoming Church, a Church that finally comes to terms with the experience of people’s lives in a world not blighted by ‘the gay agenda’ but by greed, selfishness, violence, poverty, disease and loneliness.

    The threat to marriage is not ‘the gays’ but ordinary heterosexual infidelity, human selfishness, media sexualisation of human love, lust, indifference, disappointment. LGBT Christians share this capacity for sin, but they do not constitute the reason marriages fail, or hearts get broken. Heterosexual relations are at least as much a threat to Christian life, and yet, in all cases of human lives, their is also prospect and promise, and the God of all grace who knows us, loves us, invites us each to live our lives with Her.

    Susannah Clark

  4. Una Kroll says

    Surely it is time to reconsider attitudes of heterosexuals and homosexuals towards responsible sex TOGETHER instead of dividing them into ‘acceptable’ and unacceptable’. As a medical doctor, Anglican priest and ‘listener’ to a host of stories from clients over a period of some 50 years, I am staggered by the thought that the ‘irresponsibilities’ ( historical or not) of one group are treated as unimportant and not an impediment to ordination or episcopal consecration, and the very nature and histories of another group, or groups ( women, transexuals or divorcees on occasion) are thought to be an impediment – per se- to the service of God. This is neither scriptural, reasonable or compatible with the traditions of Christianity about redemptive forgiveness, (salvation) let alone Anglicanism.

    The House of Bishops in the Church of England is not a competent body of people to make such far reaching decisions as they have done in the past couple of months, and I would suggest that they stop throwing stones at random. Sooner or later those stones may rebound on them. Like the scribes and Pharisees who wanted to stone Mary the sinner in St John’s Gospel , we need to learn that we too are sinners and cannot be judges and executioners of others. Not one Christian is worthy of denoting herself/himself as worthy of his or her vocation – whatever they are. Let us try to step back from what we are doing to one another and get on with God’s work in this world NOW.

  5. Jeremy Timm says

    Una, thanks for that! I was reflecting this morning how in the light of what is happening, both in out society, and globally, how ill focused and almost trivial the suspicion and angst is in the church, over the issue of sexuality…… it makes me want to shout at the HoB, GROW UP !!

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