Mere Anglicanism

Retired bishops voice concern over same-sex relationships report

Fourteen retired bishops have taken the unprecedented step of intervening in the Church of England’s controversial debate over Same Sex Marriage, warning that the bishops appear to be “managing rather than enabling and leading” the debate.

Fourteen retired bishops have taken the unprecedented step of intervening in the Church of England’s controversial debate over Same Sex Marriage, warning that the bishops appear to be “managing rather than enabling and leading” the debate.

The group, led by the former Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd Peter Selby, has broken with convention to write an open letter to all bishops in the Church of England criticising their recent report on Same Sex Marriage ahead of a debate in General Synod on Wednesday 15th February.

Whilst as retired bishops they “feel some reticence” about entering into the debate, they explain they have done so because of their concern that a report that does not allow the authentic voice of LGBT people to be heard or the real theological argument to be advanced will not enable the church to engage credibly with wider society.

They suggest that the report has taken the shape it has because bishops today have a tendency to “see their task as managing – rather than perhaps enabling or leading” the debate. They admit this task can be “exhausting” and can “blunt the edge of bishops’ own passionate convictions”.

Reflecting on the Shared Conversations, they believe that the report would only have integrity if it honoured “the assurance that the voices of those who participated would not be drowned out by the ‘majority view’ or ‘established position’”. On the contrary, they assert that “our perception is that while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice.”

The authors are concerned that their colleagues decided to focus too much on why it was not possible to change church law regarding same sex marriage, so much so that “that focus seems to have taken far more time than it would have done if the authentic voices of lesbian and gay people had been allowed to express the major focus of their hopes.” As such, they believe that the bishops’ “call for change of tone and culture, while absolutely right, does not carry conviction.”

The most stinging criticism is left till last, where the authors believe that the bishops “have really not allowed the theological voice of some of us to be heard properly.” Quoting from the report which briefly recognises that there are those who hold a different interpretation of scripture to the traditional interpretation, they argue that “this “parallel conviction” …needs to be expressed and not just alluded to”, a view shared by many other vocal critics of the report.

The letter ends by acknowledging that “there will be deep disappointment that those who are not officially part of your meetings, who experience at first hand the struggles you only allude to, have once again been spoken about by their bishops instead of being enabled to speak in their own voice about their future and the future of the church they belong to and care about.”

OPEN LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND
February 11th 2017

Dear Fellow Bishop
The Bishops’ Report to Synod on Sexuality

Most retired bishops would be prepared to admit that participation in the synodical processes of the church are not what they most miss about their role as diocesan or suffragan bishops. They also feel some reticence about entering into the current debates occupying their successors on the basis of information that is partial and becomes more and more dated with the passing of the years. There is a dilemma, though: you don’t work for years as a bishop and then easily and suddenly lose the bond you feel for the bishops, your successors and former colleagues. Nor do you lose your concern that the church of which you continue to be a bishop should be faithful in its commendation of the Gospel to the society at large.

So when a report emerges that is the subject of major controversy within the church and society some retired bishops will wish to do what the signatories of this letter are seeking to do, namely to reflect from their particular perspective on what our successors are seeking to say and do about an issue that has been a longstanding source of concern and contention.

Your statement is the product of enormous time and effort, our memories of such situation suggesting perhaps too much time and too much effort. The ‘too much’ comes from the enormous sense of responsibility your document shows to manage a conflict that you and we know causes huge amounts of grief and argument. The result, dare we say, is that whereas it used to be said that bishops often sounded as though they spoke with a pipe in their mouths, now that pipes are rare they sound more as though they see their task as managing – rather than perhaps enabling or leading – the conflicts that are bound to occur. And we remember how exhausting that is, and how it seems to blunt the edge of bishops’ own passionate convictions, which might divide them but also invigorate the conversation.

You write after the Shared Conversations. We well remember having had lots of those, even if they did not have capital letters. But their integrity rested on the assurance that in reporting them the voices of those who participated would not be drowned out by the ‘majority view’ or ‘established position’. Our perception is that while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice. Our experience would lead us to doubt whether there was an expectation around that canons and doctrinal statements would be changed within any reasonable timescale, and that focus seems to have taken far more time than it would have done if the authentic voices of lesbian and gay people had been allowed to express the major focus of their hopes. Going down the road of seeking a change in the law or doctrinal formulation would indeed not have been realistic – but you might not have had to spend as much time explaining why if those other voices had been allowed to come through more clearly.

The result of that focus on the issue of a change in the law is that your call for change of tone and culture, while absolutely right, does not carry conviction. Indeed, from the perhaps luxurious perspective of retirement the tone and culture of your document are incredibly familiar – we’ve been there and talked in that tone of voice, and it prevents calls for a change of culture, of course offered in complete sincerity by you, from ringing true.

We’ll avoid making too many detailed points just now; but hard as you have tried you have really not allowed the theological voice of some of us to be heard properly. In para 8 you draw a contrast between ‘the many who [hold] a conservative view of scripture [for whom] the underlying issue at stake is faithfulness to God’s word’ and others for whom ‘the imperative to read scripture differently stems from a parallel conviction’. If the second group are to recognise their voice in theological conversations their ‘parallel conviction’ needs to be expressed and not just alluded to.

May we end by assuring you that we continue to sympathise with the challenging nature of the task you have in this and other matters. You will receive much negative comment about your report, and we hope that these brief remarks may illuminate the reason for that: it is not that the Shared Conversations were thought to herald changes of law or doctrine; rather there will be deep disappointment that those who are not officially part of your meetings, who experience at first hand the struggles you only allude to, have once again been spoken about by their bishops instead of being enabled to speak in their own voice about their future and the future of the church they belong to and care about.

Yours sincerely in Christ

The Rt Revd Dr David Atkinson, formerly Bishop of Thetford
The Rt Revd Michael Doe, formerly Bishop of Swindon
The Rt Revd Dr Timothy Ellis, formerly Bishop of Grantham
The Rt Revd David Gillett, formerly Bishop of Bolton
The Rt Revd John Gladwin, formerly Bishop of Guildford and of Chelmsford
The Rt Revd Dr Laurie Green, formerly Bishop of Bradwell
The Rt Revd the Lord Harries of Pentregarth DD, formerly Bishop of Oxford
The Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, formerly Bishop of Hulme
The Rt Revd Dr Stephen Platten, formerly Bishop of Wakefield
The Rt Revd John Pritchard, formerly Bishop of Oxford
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby, formerly Bishop of Worcester
The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, formerly Bishop of Leicester
The Rt Revd Roy Williamson, formerly Bishop of Bradford and of Southwark
The Rt Revd Martin Wharton CBE, formerly Bishop of Newcastle

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