The closed world of the House of Bishops

I want to begin with a caveat. I think the House of Bishops as a body within the structures of the Church of England shows itself to be a closed system, defending the status quo. It is a body unwilling or unable to be open to an awareness of God, the infinite, loving, energised, indwelling, evolutionary presence of God, that inspires the confidence and freedom to follow the dynamic process that leads to change in church and society and individual lives.

The behaviour and stance of the House of Bishops is to be distinguished from the faith and vision of individual bishops. The House prioritises the maintenance of tradition, traditional, orthodox (in their terms) Biblical understanding, the status quo of a God who is unchanging and cautious in responding to social change. Individual bishops can be far more open to radical change (at least, prior to their becoming bishops).

On Monday the bishops in the House of Lords led by the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, will not support the Equal Marriage Bill “because it is contrary to the Church’s historic teaching on the nature of marriage.” Having made that statement on behalf of the House however, Bishop Tim said that if it does come to a division, individual bishops would have to decide how to vote.

I’m reading an author new to me this week – Ilia Delio – beginning with The Emergent Christ: Exploring the meaning of catholic in an Evolutionary Universe. Ilia Delio OSF is senior fellow in science and religion at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.

The God-world relationship whereby we see creation not as a static world but as a relationship between the dynamic being of God and a world in process of coming to be. The openness of the cosmos to what is new, its capacity to leap forward, the emergence of intelligent beings, all direct the believer to the nature of the divine presence empowering the whole creative process. The whole creation, with humanity as its growing tip, emerges from an evolutionary process, exists in evolution, and develops through convergence and complexity.

The key to evolution is openness to environment. Open systems can be influenced by the environment and change in relation to the environment. Closed systems cannot evolve, because they cannot be influenced by the environment; thus they seek to preserve their resources within.

“To live in an evolutionary spirit means to engage with full ambition and without any reserve in the structure of the present, and yet to let go and flow into a new structure when the right time has come” writes Erich Jantsch. Do we as Christians live with an evolutionary spirit? No, says Ilia Delio. In our Church world, the House of Bishop’s world, in our theology and ecclesiology, we live in the closed system of the pre-scientific, medieval church, the world of Plato, Aristotle, Dionusius and Thomas.

Christianity makes its followers inhuman, said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It becomes a series of rote doctrines devoid of life, pointing believers to a starry heaven away from the world. Christians see life as a series of observances and obligations, not the realisation of the soul’s immense power.

Ilia Delio says this leads to a static Christianity, a mechanisation of Christian life whereby the language, symbols and metaphors of theology and ecclesial life resist growth and change.

Chardin says evolution is what Christianity is about; the whole development of life to mind, matter to spirit, is the genesis of Christ, but Christians lose consciousness of their divine responsibility which is, in his view, to evolve.

In France, mass demonstrations have been held against equal marriage. In England, small demonstrations by conservative, orthodox, traditional Christians have taken place outside the Houses of Parliament when the Bill has been debated.

Being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Christian in these circumstances can be incredibly frustrating and depressing and can provoke huge anger and profound despair. These are emotions which are provoked by the Church of England’s unimaginative, defensive response to equal marriage for same sex couples – and to God. Freed from the shackles of the Church’s ‘historic teaching’, many have been living into the energy and vision of the infinitely creative God of energy and love explored by Teilhard de Chardin and experienced with profound faith and trust by many in the international Changing Attitude networks.

We are not going to change the mentality of the House of Bishops before Monday’s debate (but we are praying hard for it to come about). The Lords Spiritual put the Church at odds with the Government and with majority opinion in Church and society. Much, much more seriously, they put themselves at odds with immense, holy power and energy of the Holy Spirit that bursts with potential in every human soul.


  1. says

    Thanks for an eloquent exposition of this situation. I suspect that evolutionary is a word lost on the collective HoB. I note that the Bishop of Salisbury has written a letter to Lord Ali pointing out that SSM is in fact an natural, evolutionary development of marriage and a matter of justice. I’m not sure if he is in the Lord’s yet, because it’s obvious that if he was, he’d vote for the bill.

    The HoB refuses to listen to the majority of it’s clergy and laity, and impose an orthodoxy upon the whole church, that isn’t observed or followed in most parishes. At Bishop Holtom points out in his letter, the Church has changed it’s position on many things, including slavery, contraception, divorce and re-marriage in the church. It’s prepared to refuse to blame in those situations, but on sexuality it seems to be stuck in a timewarp.

    I’m not confident that it will change in our lifetime 🙁 But, if the mission of the Church is to grow through spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, re-interpreted through reason (as Bishop Tim says) than we should be leading the change, not chasing it.

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