The Church of England is in crisis. In an article for the Observer yesterday Robert McCrum argued that its position on women bishops and gay marriage has alienated much of society.
The failure to secure a two thirds majority in the House of Laity for women in the episcopate last November heightened the crisis which has been deepening around both the place of women and LGB&T in the church. Behind the debate on women bishops, said McCrum, there are unresolved questions about the ministry of gay priests and the infinitely more difficult issue of same-sex marriage. The irony of the present crisis is that the two groups – gays and women – that seem particularly alert to the needs of the church and extremely well suited to promote such a mission are currently excluded from the hierarchy.
The time frame available to the church to make fundamental changes in its attitude to women and LGB&T people shortens as each month passes. The majority in our society already views the church with indifference and incomprehension. Things will only be worse in a year’s time if nothing has changed by then.
It’s clear what the church needs to do if it is to recover from the crisis. It needs to make swift progress towards ordaining women to the episcopate. It needs to open church doors to same-sex blessings, and it needs to ensure that LGB&T people in ministry are given equal, secure status in the church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury knows he has a crisis on his hands and was honest when he delivered his presidential address at Synod. Individual bishops know the church is in crisis. But corporately, whether in the House of Bishops or in General Synod, the church is in thrall to the minority of reactionary conservatives (and I know they will object to such a description). Their tyrannical hold on the church and the threats they issue intimidate those who should hold to their faith in the infinite love and creative energy of God. Instead, we have parishes like St Mark’s Battersea Rise withholding parish share from the Diocese of Southwark. Such action is utterly selfish and unchristian and will destroy what they claim to uphold.
The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, was interviewed on the BBC Sunday programme yesterday morning.
The interview is worth listening to in full. It begins 32 minutes in. Below I will post a transcript of his replies to questions about gays and women in the church.
Like the Archbishop, James Jones gets how serious the crisis is. He said the House of Bishops has failed. They weren’t courageous enough about women bishops. In the end, he said, you have to grasp the nettle and make the decision. The church has tried to accommodate everybody but in the end, the law cannot enshrine two polar opposite views.
Earlier in the interview, he asks how it is possible for the church to withhold God’s blessing from that which we believe to be just – loving, faithful, committed same-sex relationships – and says it is a profound question the church now needs to address. As far as society is concerned, on both women and gays, the argument is settled and the church now has to take it on board. We have, he says, shot ourselves in the foot.
If, following the reception of the Pilling report, the House of Bishops doesn’t make speedy progress towards approving a service of thanksgiving or blessing (the title doesn’t matter) for same-sex relationships and a revision of practice which grants equal status for single and partnered LGB&T people in lay and ordained ministry, then the crisis will reach epidemic proportions. There is now huge pressure on the leaders of the church in Synod and the House of Bishops. Tragedy will follow if those without faith, courage or vision are allowed to get away with their resistance to God’s unfolding, creative action in human lives and communities. Death lies that way.
BBC R4 Sunday programme interview between Edward Stourton and Bishop James Jones
ES The other thing that’s put you in the headlines recently was the speech you gave back in the spring about gay marriage. You didn’t say you approved of gay marriage but you did raise the possibility of some kind of blessing for gay couples in church and the reason it attracted attention is because you had been quite hard line on that subject in the past. Can you just explain what drove you on your intellectual journey on that subject.
JJ First of all, it’s important to remember that disciple means learner and even as a bishop you continue to learn, to understand, and at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 all the bishops agreed that we need to carry on learning about the subject, and that meant listening, listening to people, to gay people, and especially to gay people who are committed Christians, who find it consistent with their Christian faith to be in a stable committed relationship, and so I went off to America, to a partner Diocese of Virginia and observed a group that Bishop Peter Lee had set up there where people across the spectrum of the debate were listening to each other, and I came back and set up in Liverpool a theology of friendship group within the diocese and we had again the complete spectrum of opinions. And that set a new tone for the diocese in that people were prepared to listen, but as well as listening to people I carried on studying the Bible, and I know this will surprise many people but it was in reading scripture that I began to see things I’d never seen before. Just one example: in John 13 we’re told about the beloved disciple. Jesus loved all his disciples, he loves the world, but he had this beloved disciple who was leaning against him at the meal and it says that this disciple leant against his bosom/chest/breast (it’s differently translated). In the Gospel of John that word is used on only one other occasion and it is used to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son: “nobody has seen the Father except the Son who is in the bosom of the Father.” Now John is perhaps one of the most literary of the Gospels and there he was using a word to describe the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son for the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple. And I think what it did for me, that discovery, was make me think more about the nature of same gender intimacy.
ES Am I to take it from what you said about listening that you believe there are some in the church who aren’t doing enough on this subject and others?
JJ I think that that’s always a problem throughout the church and society and we have to put ourselves in the shoes of other people to understand how they see things and in fact the church has been doing that over the gay marriage debate, and you know, we’ve talked about civil partnerships and, interestingly, Ed, the way the church talks about civil partnerships to differentiate that from marriage, you’d have thought we’d invented them but in fact, we came to civil partnerships kicking and screaming under threat of legislation from Europe. And I think the question the church now has to address is, if we now believe that it is just to have civil partnerships, that that is the just response to the needs of the gay community, then how can we withhold the blessing of God from that which we believe to be just, that’s a profound question the church now needs to address.
ES My next question in a way follows from that, that is obviously one of the issues that during your time at the top of the church has been extremely divisive but is only one of the issues. To what extent do you think that the wounds, if you like, that the church has suffered during your time in Liverpool, have been self-inflicted?
JJ Partly self-inflicted, partly it’s to do with the leadership of the church, over the ordination of women to the episcopate, over gay relationships, we have found the church to be out of touch with the world, with our society, and as far as society is concerned, those two subjects, the argument, is settled and the church now has to address that and partly it’s the media’s responsibility because the media love to focus on those things with the church but we’ve allowed ourselves … we’ve played into that, and not for example having a decisive vote in favour of the ordination of women, I think we have shot ourselves in the foot.
ES And when you say the leadership is partly to blame, who do you mean?
JJ Well, we ourselves must take responsibility for where we have got to. I mean, we trued, with the best will in the world, we tried to accommodate everybody, but in the end, the law cannot enshrine two polar opposite views. And my own theological position is this, that if you look at what a priest or a bishop is called to do, it is to feed the body of Christ. Well, who first fed the body of Christ? It was a woman. Well, if a woman can feed the body of Christ in the flesh, surely a woman can feed the body of Christ in the spirit, the spiritual body. And that’s what led me and many other bishops to see that it was right to proceed. Thirty years ago we said it was right and I think we’ve failed in that we weren’t courageous enough in the end, to see what is inevitable, that in the end you have to grasp the nettle and make that decision.