Bishop of Gloucester addresses the Church’s attitude to gay and lesbian people

At the May meeting of Gloucester Diocesan Synod, The Bishop of Gloucester, the Right Revd Michael Perham, addressed the Church of England’s attitude to homosexual people.

In his presidential sermon he reflected on the House of Bishops’ Statement in January on Same-sex Marriage and on the Pilling Report, the report of the Working Party on human sexuality, for which he was a member.

Presidential Address to the Gloucester Diocesan Synod

1 May 2014

I want to speak this evening about a difficult subject, that of the Church of England’s attitude to homosexual people. I want to do that partly to reflect for a few moments on the House of Bishops’ Statement in January on Same-sex Marriage, but, more importantly, to try to bring the focus back to something more important, the report of the Working Party chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, the Pilling Report for short,  on human sexuality. I was a member of that Working Party, in fact the only diocesan bishop among its membership. Since its publication in December I have made no public comment about it, but this seems the right moment to make some observations. My regret is that the path the Pilling Report set before us seems to have been obscured somewhat by the introduction of same-sex marriage and the inevitability of a bishops’ statement in response to that.

In my view parliament has done our society no favours in hurried legislation on what it calls “equal marriage”. I have said publicly before that I believe such a fundamental change in our understanding of marriage would have emerged better from the careful deliberations of something like a Royal Commission that would have produced the philosophical, scientific, legal and moral arguments for change and that would have made it easier for the Church to engage and to bring biblical and theological elements into a proper national debate. However we are where we are. Same-sex marriage is here, here to stay. It will fast become part of the fabric of our society. The weekend of the first such marriages I wanted to rejoice with those who were rejoicing, recognising what a wonderful moment it was for them, and to weep with those who wept, recognising  how for them a deeply held belief about marriage was being undermined.

Christians have held a variety of views about homosexuality and have been able to find arguments in their interpretation of scripture and in the history of the Church to support their view. Same-sex marriage has, of course, introduced a new dimension, for both the teaching of Jesus and the canons of the Church understand marriage to be the union of a man and a woman for life. Given that, any expectation of the Church changing its mind over night, or even within months, was foolish. Yet the House of Bishops had to say something, given that the first same-sex marriages would be taking place within weeks. It was, I believe, bound to affirm that, on this issue, we were into new territory where the Church could not simply follow the state unthinkingly. But what the House of Bishops’ January statement did do was to recognise that there needed to be room for conscience, that some gay or lesbian Christians would enter such a marriage and that the Church would continue to honour and accept them as members of the body of Christ. What it also said was that it could not extend that freedom to its authorised ministers or allow those who had contracted such a marriage to become one of its authorised ministers.

There were those who, taking a more conservative position, felt that the statement went too far in its accommodation to same-sex marriage. But there were rather more who felt the statement struck an unnecessarily harsh and negative tone. The House of Bishops, producing a statement under some pressure, underestimated how uncompromising and hurtful the statement felt to some. The tone was harsh  –  there was not much sense of welcome to all as children of God. I am sorry for that and for the hurt I know it has engendered. I have tried to have pastoral conversations and correspondence with a number of people most affected by the Statement.

I think perhaps the Statement did not signal as fully as it might have done that there is, inevitably, a variety of views in the House of Bishops, just as there is in the Church. As a bishop I have more than once had to abide loyally by a collective decision without necessarily being in entire agreement with it. Of course there are bishops who hope that in time we shall find some kind of pastoral accommodation that will be loyal to the scripture and the tradition yet more affirmative and welcoming of all, irrespective of their sexuality and their marital status. Of course they hope that is what will emerge when the Statement becomes part of the discussion the Pilling Report is launching. But we need to engage with this on a different timescale from the timescale that parliament employed to bring the legislation into effect. And, in any case, there are also bishops who are quite clear that there is no room for further change or development in the Church’s teaching. And I suspect that both views are sincerely and indeed passionately held in this Synod tonight.

My own view is that what is needed in the Church at present is gracious restraint. We need a cool and calm period in which to explore the issues. To those among clergy and ordinands contemplating entering a same-sex marriage I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who might make a complaint against a priest who, despite that, does enter such a marriage I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who contemplate leaving the Church of England because of its perceived position I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church reflects?” Gracious restraint. To those who condemn the Church of England from other parts of the Anglican Communion I would say, “Might you hold back while the Church of England reflects?” Gracious restraint to give us space. For the principal recommendation of the Pilling report was for what it called “facilitated conversations” and they need space.

The Working Party, with its four bishop members (Warwick, Birkenhead, Ebbsfleet and Gloucester), its three consultants and its lay chair, Sir Joseph Pilling, was constituted in 2011 and did its work in two years, meeting frequently, listening to representatives of organisations committed to one side or the other of a divisive issue, and, crucially, giving quality listening time, in a safe environment, to people who experience same-sex attraction and to people who have entered same-sex relationships. Some of those conversations we found painful, some challenging, some moving. Some of those conversations changed some minds. How we proceeded and whom we met is recorded in our report and there is no time to develop that here. In the end we produced a report to which all but one of us could assent. One of our number, the Bishop of Birkenhead, appended a significant minority statement that took a more conservative view than the main report. He was also the author of one of two appendices exploring evangelical understandings of how scripture engages with homosexuality, arguing against any fresh interpretation of the material. A second appendix, by David Runcorn, a priest of this diocese, presented a different, more affirmative, view on how evangelical Christians might interpret the biblical material. Of course the focus of the report was gay and lesbian attraction and relationships, not same-sex marriage, which appeared on the scene as an urgent issue just as the Working Party was nearing the end of its work and the date by which it was required to report.

The recommendations of the report fall into three categories. The first might be labelled “preparatory and fundamental”, the second “the immediate course of action” and the third “other matters for consideration”.

The first category, “preparatory and fundamental”, has two elements to it. One is to “warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both ordained and lay”. The report called that “the foundation of our report”. The House of Bishops has since affirmed that recommendation, but my regret is that that warmth of welcome and affirmation has been lost in the way the statement on same-sex marriage has been received. For me the most important contribution the Pilling Report could make was to give gay and lesbian people a much clearer sense of welcome and affirmation for their presence and ministry in the Church. Whatever the issues and disagreements, gay and lesbian people are as valued as anyone in the Christian community, often witnessing to the joy and blessing of a loving faithful relationship; loved by God, of course, but also affirmed by the Church. That seems to me to be a crucial starting point.

The second element is a strong condemnation of homophobia. The recommendation states, “Homophobia  –  that is, hostility to homosexual people  –  is still as serious a matter as it was and the Church should repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and should stand firmly against it whenever and wherever it is found.” Another recommendation says that “no one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships”. This is, of course, quite a difficult area, for what is spoken can be, and often is, heard as homophobic even when the speaker is confident they are not being homophobic. Perhaps all one can ask for is a very high degree of sensitivity in discussing this issue. This address may even illustrate the point. I would never knowingly utter anything intended to be offensive to a gay or lesbian person, but the chances are that something in what I am saying will be heard in that way, for which I am truly sorry.

With those two twin principles in place  –  welcome to all irrespective of their sexuality and resistance to all forms of homophobia  –  the Pilling Report moves to its principal recommendation for action and it is on this that I want to focus for most of the remainder of this address. Describing them as the next steps for the Church of England, we made a recommendation in three parts:

The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at a national and diocesan level. This should involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture.

Consultation of this report should be conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years.

The Church of England should address the issue of same sex relationships in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches, in parallel with its own facilitated conversations and on a similar timescale.

I don’t want to explore exactly how we are to have these conversations. There are wise heads at work on that and a process will be revealed later in the year, with the prospect, I think, of facilitated conversations at every level, including diocesan level, next year, set up in such a way that those most affected, gay and lesbian people, have the opportunity to participate in an atmosphere in which they, like everybody else, feel safe to speak about their experience of being a Christian gay or lesbian person.

What I do want to explore a little is what the facilitated conversations are intended to achieve. I think that the outcomes that are hoped for, certainly what I will pray for, are of two sorts.

One sort is that we seek to listen together with sufficient commitment that we lift the issue out of its present situation where people of entrenched views fail to hear one another or respect one another’s integrity. We need to listen very carefully to the beliefs and opinions that come out of a profound change of attitudes in our society to gender, sexuality and marriage. We need to listen very carefully to the experience of gay and lesbian people, both those who are celibate and those who are in sexual relationships, including gay and lesbian clergy. We need to listen, in some cases, to their pain, and we need also to listen to their sense of joy, love and blessing in a faithful partnership. We need to listen very carefully to what the world of medicine and science can tell us about homosexuality. We need to listen very carefully to those who believe we are sitting light to the teaching of Jesus and the authority of the scriptures. We need to listen to one another and we need to listen to what the Spirit may be saying to the churches. And each and every one of us needs to participate in that listening with a humility that recognises that we have things to learn and may be some opinions to revise and that the Church’s teaching in this area of life may need to be expressed in a new language. I say “may”, for we must also allow for the possibility that what emerges, at the end of profound reflection, is a clear restatement of a traditional view.

The other sort of outcome is that we learn afresh how to live in a broad church where there is a variety of understanding on matters that people hold to be important. To that extent a facilitated conversation is a version of what we have called the indaba process. We know a lot about that in the Diocese of Gloucester, for we have participated in it with our partners in Western Tanganyika and El Camino Real for the last five years. What I have learned from that indaba process is that its purpose is not so much to change minds (though that can happen) and not even to fully understand one another’s opinion or belief (though that can happen too), but to be able to say, “Though you have not changed my mind and though I still do not understand how you come to the view you hold, still I recognise you as a Christian brother or sister, with whom I want to go on walking and talking, enjoying communion and determined not to break it, even though what divides us is painful to us both.” Of course in that process some people may discover that they cannot say that. They have to walk away and the outcome of the proposed facilitated conversations could be that some recognise the view they hold is simply incompatible with continuing to be in communion. But, for most, I hope that it will be a process that confirms a deep unity that even a highly contentious issue cannot destroy.

So for me facilitated conversations, on the one hand raise the level of understanding and debate and make us all, all of us, not just one set of people, open to see things differently and, on the other, show us how broad a communion we can or cannot be. And that seems to me to be a worthwhile and crucial task, both within the Church of England and also within the Anglican Communion. At both levels we need to plead for gracious restraint that does not rush to conclusions about what people believe and does not use insensitive language that denies the integrity of fellow Christians.

There is a third category of recommendations in the Pilling Report. They ought to contribute to the facilitated conversations. They are not so much policies as matters for exploration. I am not going to amplify any of them this evening. Sufficient to say they concern listening to the continuing, and as yet inconclusive, scientific work on same-sex attraction, the need for those with a teaching role in the Church to be free to participate openly and honestly in the debate, the desirability of honouring and affirming both those who have embraced a single and chaste lifestyle and those who in good conscience have entered partnerships with a firm intention of life-long fidelity, the necessity of exploring whether long term it is right to have differing disciplines for clergy and laity in relation to lifestyle, the possibility of a pastoral accommodation that would allow the Church to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service, the need to avoid over-intrusive questioning of ordinands about their sexuality.

But fundamentally what we recommended was, and is, welcome for all irrespective of sexuality, resistance to all forms of homophobia and willing serious participation in facilitated conversations across the Church. Although being a member of the Working Party was testing, I am sorry I won’t be leading the Diocese of Gloucester in its conversations on this issue. I commend the Pilling Report to you and ask you to pray that the process it has initiated will bear good fruit. My hope and prayer is that the conversations, when they come, will be theological, respectful and compassionate, always remembering that every man and woman, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is made in the image of a God who loves all he has made and knows it to be good.

+Michael Gloucestr:

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