Bishop’s address to Bath & Wells Diocesan Synod

Peter Maurice, the Bishop of Taunton, spoke about learning to live with difference and change when he addressed the recent diocesan synod meeting. Here is an excerpt:

And then there are what some might refer to as the more internal debates within the life of the church which highlight a church living with change and transition – namely the legislation before us this morning on the ordination of women to the Episcopate and the ongoing debate about the church’s response to issues in human sexuality highlighted in the Pilling Report which I will come back to. All around us things are changing and each of us will have a different response to it and learning to live together with difference will be the key to us being able to flourish in our life together as the Body of Christ.

A few weeks ago ++ Sentamu offered a ‘pause for thought’ on Radio 2. He began it with a quotation from the Queen and her address to both houses of parliament at the start of her golden jubilee year in 2002. ‘Change’, she said, ‘is a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.’

On the same day on Radio 4 John Bell had offered his ‘thought for the day’. He was reflecting on the President of Uganda’s decision to publicly endorse anti gay laws in a country which already criminalises same sex relations. ‘I wish the President and people like him’, said John, ‘could have stood near Jesus when he identified grace in a foreign untouchable and selfless affection in a suspected whore, for Jesus had a habit of seeing the potential where others saw a problem. Differences in religious outlook, ethnic tradition, race and culture ensure that in matters of sexual identity and behaviour there will never be unanimity and polarised attitudes are not always formed by insight or advice.’

I was taken back to the Gathering in November and in particular the response that John Bell made to his experience of it in an email a few days afterwards. I can honestly say, he said, that I have rarely, if ever, been present at such a well conceived and appropriate event where no one had to compromise their integrity but instead were more intimately linked with each other through discussion and prayer and enabled to laugh and talk together in a way which is good for the soul. I had conversations with people whom I presume to be from different inclinations on the theological spectrum but for whom serving God was more important than the endorsement of their own spiritual perspective.’

To build on that culture and ethos is a huge challenge both for us and for the national church. That inevitably leads to some comment on our debate on the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate and on some reflections on the Pilling Report which was compiled by the House of Bishop’s working group on issues in human sexuality and the subsequent pastoral response from the House of Bishops to same sex marriage.

I was present all day during the General Synod’s discussion and came away with an overwhelming feeling that we are now in a position to resolve this issue. Our women in ministry are looking for a strong signal that what they bring, under God, to our church life is valued and recognised and that they can contribute at EVERY level to the ministry and mission of the church. Those who are opposed on theological grounds are looking for assurances too. I believe we are now in a place to offer both.

As I hinted earlier I believe we are learning how to live with difference. Sometimes it is uncomfortable but it is the challenge that we face as part of the adventure that is our faith. I hope I will hear people talking increasingly about how we make the journey together from our different perspectives, rather than talking about wanting to make different journeys. We will vote in houses this morning and of one thing I am certain the House of Bishops will vote as one!

And so to the Pilling Report. The challenge lies in one key sentence of the statement issued by the College of Bishops following their initial discussion on the report back in January. ‘We recognise that we will not agree and that this process (of facilitated conversation) is in part committed to seeking good disagreement that testifies to our love for one another across the church in obedience to Christ.’

John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, builds on this in a very honest pastoral letter to the clergy of his Diocese which I want to quote from. ‘I appreciate that some are unwilling to participate in this process on the grounds that they believe the scriptural position is perfectly clear and facilitated conversation can only mean an intention to change. Conversely others will be wary believing that participating in such a process that changes nothing might expose them to adverse treatment by bishops and others.

Nevertheless, I dare to ask that we enter the conversation with integrity and trust (as indeed many have already done through the helpful process that our Dean has already initiated in different parts of this Diocese). What I hope, he continues, is that we can get to a point where we can respect the integrity of the biblical interpretation of others.’

I echo all that John Pritchard says but I would add one further element which I know some will find difficult to hear. Our biblical authority has, it seems to me, to take account of our new found knowledge of the science and psychology of human sexuality. Anne Eyre who works with the training programme for Curates in this diocese wrote a very perceptive letter which was published in the Church Times. ‘A proper study, using the resource of science, psychology and theology into the nature of human sexuality is what is really required. How it thrives, how its overwhelming nature can be channelled for the fulfilment of all might arrive at a theology of marriage that makes sense to all loving people.’ I wonder if we have the courage and the grace to embrace that kind of conversation.

What has become clear to me, especially in the light of the gathering, is that we need to do Synod differently and in ways that will allow and encourage the voices of all to be heard. There is much that is scriptural about conversation; there is rather less evidence in scripture for adversarial debate. We need to find more creative and effective ways of engaging with one another over the decisions we have to make.

Change is a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.

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