The Church of England needs a decision, not more of the same

Fri, 17/02/2017 - 15:50 -- James Oakley

This is the third in a series of blog posts looking at the decision faced by that Church of England General Synod this week: do they, or do they not, take note of the report by the House of Bishops (GS2055) on human sexuality.

Part 1: When it comes to the boundary of tolerance you have to choose. This responded to calls before the debate not to make this an issue we fall out over; we should tolerate different opinions. I showed how the whole debate is about whether we can do that, so that call is actually simply to call for one of the two outcomes. Disagreeing over this is logically impossible.

Part 2: It really is time to choose. This responded to the vote, as Synod voted not to take note. The report attempted to hold together two contradictory positions. Therefore no group found the report to their liking. The bishops' next step needs to be a decision, choosing what kind of church we will be, and which God we will serve. We cannot say "both", for the reasons explained in the first post.

Now we have another development. The two archbishops have written an open letter to all members of General Synod, explaining where we go from here.

That triggers a "part 3" from me. In brief, it does not offer the kind of decisiveness I've been saying we need. It does, however, warrant a closer look and a slightly fuller response.

The top and the tail

Firstly, there are some good bits. Specifically the beginning and the ending.

At the start, the archbishops remind us to be careful with our language. The issues may be causing us problems, but we must never speak of there being problem people. That's a necessary reminder given the caustic tone of much of this debate. It's good, as long as we remember that problematic issues don't come in a disembodied vacuum.

At the end they call us to pray. That is their job, to call us to do that. I hope people of all persuasions have been praying and don't need archepiscopal reminder, but it is a necessary and important call. It belongs with the opening exhortation, making sure we have this debate in the right grid space.

Of course, neither of those points will solve this issue by themselves, so we must turn now to the middle part of the letter.

There is a general section outlining where the archbishops think we should be heading, then three things that will be done in the next few months.

General direction

Here are the two key paragraphs:

To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

Three things need saying about this.

First, the language is vague. What does "without exception, without exclusion" mean? Presumably the reference to belonging to Christ rules out Islam. We may assume this is about inclusion within Christendom. But given that the entire debate is about where the boundaries for tolerance should lie within the Church of England, it is insufficient simply to say "without exception". As I said in an earlier post, the lead we need from our bishops now needs to be free of ambiguity. This is not.

Unless, that is, it really means that all views on sexuality would genuinely be equally welcomed and affirmed. That's the second thing to say here. I said previously that the debate is about what views and practices will be allowed. The phrase "a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church" sounds like the answer to that may be "all views and practices will be allowed", at least as touching human sexuality. If that is what the archbishops mean, they need to say so. If that is not what they mean, they also need to make that far clearer. Otherwise people will assume the best/worst (delete as appropriate) and divisions will become even more entrenched within just the next few days.

Third, the two points of common identity we are to see in others is our common creation in God's image, and our common belonging to Christ.

In both systematic and biblical theology, there are two other key markers between those two: fall and redemption. We could read the archbishops charitably here and assume this is merely ellipsis for the sake of brevity, a kind of merism.

But the two omissions are very important. We're all fallen. That means that when we observe the world, we are not necessarily seeing how things ought to be. What we are observing is a fallen distortion of what the creator intended, and our powers of observation are themselves fallen. We observe a broken world through broken spectacles.

Our redemption comes as we respond to Christ's call to "repent and believe the gospel", and to "deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him." The calls to repentance and death to self have not been prominent in these debates.

It's good to remember the foundational unity we are called to maintain within the church (not the Church of England per se, but the one holy catholic and apostolic church). But it needs to be a full articulation of what we share: the church is the bride of Christ that the triune God redeemed out of fallen humanity.

Next step #1

First comes this:

We are therefore asking first for every Diocesan Bishop to meet with their General Synod members for an extended conversation in order to establish clearly the desires of every member of Synod for the way forward.

That is a good thing. Rather than the bishops planning another next step, only to be surprised by Synod's disapproval, why not get the bishops to talk to their Synod representatives to find out what they will approve.

The trouble is, this will not actually take things forward. The problem is not a lack of conversation but trying to hold together two incompatible positions. Each bishop will discover that amongst their Synod reps there are two irreconcilable views. Further, the bishops will vary as to which view they have sympathy with, so that those two irreconcilable views are also found within the house and college of bishops.

What's being proposed is more conversations, but this won't take us closer to a resolution.

Next step #2

Second come two things, but I'll treat them together:

As Archbishops we will be establishing a Pastoral Oversight group led by the Bishop of Newcastle, with the task of supporting and advising Dioceses on pastoral actions with regard to our current pastoral approach to human sexuality. The group will be inclusive, and will seek to discern the development of pastoral practices, within current arrangements.

Secondly, we, with others, will be formulating proposals for the May House of Bishops for a large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality.

I read this as species of two of the things the bishops said they would do in their report, namely to explore how to maximise freedom on the ground within the current polity, and to write a teaching document.

Some may say they can't do this, as Synod rejected their report. However, technically the Synod was never asked to approve the report, so refusing to take note doesn't reject it either. The report still exists, as a report from the House of Bishops, with whatever authority it had before General Synod chose to ignore it.

It's unclear exactly what the remit is for the Pastoral Oversight group; we've only got one paragraph to go on. If it turned out to explore ways that the realities of sexuality could change on the ground without changing the current laws or policies, again such a move would satisfy no-one.

The teaching document will be extremely hard for them to write: What will it say? Here is the opportunity for the kind of lead I asked for in my previous post. Could they serve the church by writing a document devoid of ambiguous language, that sets out a coherent doctrine of marriage, and doesn't attempt to hold together views that cannot be held together?

Next step #3

We will also be suggesting to the Business Committee a debate in general terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm.

The response to this is brief, as it's repeating something that's already been said: What is being proposed is more discussion, this time at a Synodical level. It is hard to see how this will achieve anything beyond what's already been achieved: It will expose the fact that the views held by Synod members are not just diverse but incompatible.


What is being proposed here is more conversations, more discussion, and more documents from the House of Bishops.

I doubt there is one member of General Synod who will welcome the idea of more conversations and more debate time on this issue. The House of Bishops is such a diverse group, so thus far they have not produced any documents with a coherent doctrine of marriage, and proposals for practices on the ground that are consistent with that, all lacking any ambiguity or the proverbial fudge.

The archbishops are proposing that the next thing is to do more of the same thing that's already been done. This will not solve things any more than the previous incarnations of the same strategy.

There is no way around the fact that what we now need is a clear decision. A decision as to what our doctrine of Scripture is to be going forward. A decision as to what our doctrine of marriage is to be. A decision as to which God we will serve - the God of this age, or the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the proposal for a new teaching document, there is scope to have that decisiveness. However, for that to be what happens, the House of Bishops needs to decide on what is to be its coherent view. For that to happen, I suspect it falls to the two archbishops to be decisive, enabling the House of Bishops in their turn to offer a clear and decisive lead. No, it won't please everyone. But it is trying to please everyone that has paralysed us thus far, and led to even greater pain.

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Tim Chapman's picture
Submitted by Tim Chapman on

Thanks James. Helpful summary and assessment. Glad to refer others here. Tim

Kiprotich Chelashaw's picture
Submitted by Kiprotich Chelashaw on

James, this (and the other 2 posts) is so helpful and edifying. Thanks for writing so clearly and winsomely.


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