Lichfield diocese charts future course on homosexuality
To all clergy and licensed lay ministers in the Diocese of Lichfield
You may have heard about initiatives happening nationally in the area of human sexuality and gender identity. We are writing this letter to update you briefly on that work and then to set out how we see the Diocese of Lichfield exemplifying the “radical Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it” for which our Archbishops have called.
Work is underway at the level of the Church of England nationally on a major new Teaching Document. This is intended to set out a framework for what it means to be human and sexual. It will attend faithfully to holy scripture, acknowledging its authority within the community, tradition and pastoral practice of the Church in the reality of the world. It will also attempt to use God’s gifts of reason and wisdom shaped by the Spirit in order to seek and discern the mind of Christ for the Church and the world.
The Teaching Document will be a substantial piece of work drawing in scholars and interested parties from a wide variety of backgrounds; it is intended that it will report in 2020. Meanwhile, a group has been established by the Archbishops, chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, on pastoral issues relating to sexuality. This group’s remit is to support and advise dioceses on pastoral actions with regard to the Church’s current pastoral approach to human sexuality, and the group has seen and endorses this letter. More information on both the Teaching Document and the Pastoral Advisory Group can be found on the Church of England website.
It is already clear that within the Church of England, as in other churches, there is considerable, sometimes passionate, disagreement about the theological and ethical issues involved in these matters. This disagreement is naturally to be found in our own diocese too, and as bishops we are committed to encouraging people with differing views to meet, pray and talk together.
We as bishops have been considering how in the Diocese of Lichfield we engage with people’s concerns over issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Bishop Michael has convened a listening group of people with particular interest in these matters, and he is very grateful for the openness with which members of that group have shared their views and experiences with him.
The group consists of a range of people, identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, same-sex attracted, and heterosexual; single and partnered; celibate and married. Some have attended meetings in person, and some have been part of a wider corresponding group. Their feedback has helped to shape this document. And all of us as bishops have experience of listening to people from a wide range of backgrounds talk about these issues, and are committed to continue doing so.
We acknowledge that talking about human sexuality and gender identity in the Church is difficult. It means talking about our lives and the deeply personal loves and attachments that shape them, about our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God and others, and about the core convictions of our faith. These are deep issues affecting us all, whatever our gender or sexual identity. They evoke vulnerability, since these are the places where we take the risk of being open and making ourselves known, where we share our thoughts and joys and pains and desires and where we hope to find understanding, connection and nurture. Moreover, in the Church of England conversations about these matters often bear a weight of pain and distrust caused by past experiences of hurt, exclusion and misunderstanding.
In this letter we address some of the pastoral dimensions of these issues. We do not here discuss contested theological or ethical questions.In particular, in this letter we do not address the issue of blessing same-sex relationships, or of same-sex marriage. Rather, we are writing here about issues faced by all of us as we seek to live alongside others in the Church which is the Body of Christ.
Our basic principle is that all people are welcome in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table. There is no theological problem with simply providing welcome, an extension of the welcome that God continually offers to each of us. This, we believe, is the starting point of that radical Christian inclusion for which the Archbishops have called.
Such radical Christian inclusion brings practical consequences for our local churches and for our Diocese as a whole, and we highlight some of these here:
- It is the responsibility of all Christians, but especially those who hold the Bishop’s Licence as clergy or lay ministers, to ensure that all people know that there is a place at the table for them. Those of us with preaching, teaching and pastoral responsibility need continually to be aware of the personal and sensitive nature of these issues. When speaking publicly we are likely to be talking to some who might disagree from a place of deeply held conviction central to their Christian identity. It is not enough simply to preach or teach on such sensitive topics without recognizing that our words may have a deep effect on people’s lives, loves and relationships. It is not right to conceal our ethical and theological views, but we all need to tread gently when we express them and be ready to listen sensitively to those for whom our words might be difficult.
- Intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender, is almost always inappropriate. It is also unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith. In our pastoral ministries we may well need to listen to and talk with people about their sexual practices and desires, or their gender identity, if they bring such issues to us. We may also be asked to pray with people who for any reason are troubled by their sexual desires or practices or their gender identity. We need to be highly attentive to people when they approach us asking for counsel and prayers on these deepest aspects of their life. We must be alert to the power relations involved in such prayers and conversations, and the possibility of spiritual or emotional abuse.
- We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Note that in all cases excommunication is reserved to the diocesan bishop (Canon B16).
- We wish to affirm that LGBT+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service in the local church. We very much hope that they, like everyone else, feel encouraged to serve on PCCs, or as churchwardens and worship leaders, for instance, and are supported in exploring vocations to licensed lay and ordained ministries. Nobody should be told that their sexual or gender identity in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.
- Finally, we wish both to acknowledge the great contribution that LGBT+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese, and to highlight the need for mission within the LGBT+ community more broadly. As Archbishop Justin has made clear, the perception that the Church is homophobic and transphobic is harming our mission, especially to young people. We need to challenge this perception by reaching out to LGBT+ people with the good news of God’s love, modelling God’s welcome and care for all people.
Debates about questions of human sexuality and gender identity in the Church seem likely to continue, and perhaps to grow in intensity, over the coming years. It is important that these debates should be grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition as well as in deep prayer. They must also be conducted with attention to people’s experiences and in a spirit of love, mutual care and respect.
We want Lichfield to be a diocese in which people of any sexual orientation or gender identity feel welcomed and honoured in our churches. We want to engage with the developing national work on the Teaching Document and to be guided by the advisory group on pastoral care. And we are always ready to hear any views and experiences on these matters that you wish to share with us.
The Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave (pictured)
Bishop of Lichfield
The Rt Revd Mark Rylands
Bishop of Shrewsbury
The Rt Revd Geoff Annas
Bishop of Stafford
The Rt Revd Clive Gregory
Bishop of Wolverhampton
9 May 2018