The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stephens, has a letter in last Friday’s Church Times defending the Church of England’s response to the Government’s consultation document on same-sex marriage against the paper’s critical leader the previous week.
There is much of interest in Bishop Tim’s letter, particularly in the final paragraph where he writes:
“[M]any of us would agree with your assertion that if the Church had been more welcoming of civil partnerships, the arguments addressed in the submission would carry more weight. A review of the Church’s approach to this is urgently needed, and is now under way. But the Church’s reluctant and sometimes grudging acceptance of civil partnerships in the past ought not to obscure the weight of the challenge to the Government’s hasty and ill-judged proposals today.”
Bisop Tim indicates that many (bishops/Anglicans?) thinks the Church has failed to welcome civil partnerships and by implication, that the review group needs to strongly recommend movement in this direction. Many bishops already welcome clergy and laity in civil partnerships. There is no reason why services of thanksgiving following a civil partnership should not be welcomed now as a first step. They are not illegal.
Is Bishop Tim writing as a representative of the House of Bishops and expressing a view held by the House, or is he writing in his own capacity and expressing a personal opinion?
Changing Attitude has already raised the question of who speaks for ‘The Church of England’ with William Fittall, the Secretary General of General Synod. It is a question to which we continue to search for an answer.
If Bishop Tim is expressing a personal view, then he is another dissenting voice from what we are told is the mind of the House. He joins Bishop Nicholas of Salisbury who dissents on equal marriage and the amendments to the Women in the Episcopate legislation, and the bishops of Buckingham and Grantham, although they are not members of the House of Bishops. The Rt Revd Alan Wilson the Bishop of Buckingham, in a blog entitled ‘But mummy, he hasn’t got anything on’, said: “The statement is narrow and legalistic … Jesus didn’t say anything about being gay, but he said a certain amount about loving your neighbour as yourself.”
The Rt Rev Tim Ellis, the Bishop of Grantham, in a blog entitled ‘Not in my name’, said the official position did not reflect the true “mind” of the Church. “In truth, the bishops in the media have not spoken for me or the way in which I understand this thorny matter,” he wrote on his blog, “and I suspect they do not speak for a sizeable minority or even majority within the life of the Church.”
The Telegraph identified all three bishops as rebelling against Church marriage policy.
Bishop Tim leaves open the possibility of the Church of England redefining marriage, saying:
“It is hardly likely that a national Church, lest alone the rest of society (with its high rate of marital breakdown), can arrive at a new and universally accepted definition of marriage overnight.”
His defence of the House of Bishops’ submission is that the timescale allowed by the Government was too short. As a result the Church ‘s response inevitably reflects the present teaching of the Prayer Book and Canon Law. This is a weak argument. The issue has been engaged with for over 30 years, several reports have been written or published after extensive research, and it is something that most bishops (and Archbishops) have reflected on at length.
I don’t believe that a submission which was less defensive and legalistic could not have been drafted in the time available.