[F]rom 2013 Archbishop Justin Welby and his team developed a new policy of gradually making the church more LGBT friendly while avoiding stirring up opposition
In 2003 Jeffrey John was put forward by the Crown Nominations Commission as Bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. John had for some time been publicly arguing for the church to accept and bless same sex relationships. His good friends the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries were delighted. But opponents in the Diocese formed a coalition of churches from conservative evangelical, charismatic and anglo-catholic traditions; they strongly opposed the move to appoint John as Bishop, and he withdrew.
Having learned their lesson from the Jeffrey John incident in England, and the much more divisive saga of Gene Robinson in the US, from 2013 Archbishop Justin Welby and his team developed a new policy of gradually making the church more LGBT friendly while avoiding stirring up opposition through symbolic ‘red line’ change events such as gay Bishops or official prayers for same sex couples.
Two key phrases that sum up this policy are “good disagreement” and “radical inclusion”. The first saw the debate on homosexuality in the church as like a nation having two opposing groups with strong political and religious allegiances. No-one can adjudicate who is right or wrong, but we can get people with different views to live together in peace. The problem with using this analogy is that the church does officially have a view on what is right and wrong! It should be teaching what the bible and its own Prayer Books say, and refute ideas which do not align with this. But the “good disagreement’ and ‘Shared Conversations’ process was specifically designed to undermine the “this is true, this is false” nature of the church’s official teaching, not contradicting or changing it, but saying that people were free to agree or disagree with it as long as they stayed together in the same church.
In February 2017 General Synod debated a report which had taken up hundreds of hours of work by Bishops, concluding that while bible interpretation is disputed, and the church needs to be more welcoming to LGBT people, it cannot approve blessing of same sex relationships or gay marriage. This was voted down. The Archbishop of Canterbury, chastened by this liberal revolt, promised a policy of ‘radical inclusion’ which was warmly welcomed by LGBT campaigners.
Afterwards a number of Bishops openly declared their support for this progressive agenda, appointing its advocates to senior Diocesan posts, turning a blind eye to gay wedding lookalikes in churches, Cathedrals flying the rainbow pride flag, and then, most recently, ‘rainbow eucharists’ where the communion table is draped with the rainbow flag and the message of love and inclusion for all is preached.
Recently the Bishops of Oxford Diocese sent out a pastoral letter to all clergy and lay ministers, interpreting how radical inclusion would work. (See here for the letter, and responses, including my own from last week).
Discussion is still going on about future policy of the church regarding blessing of same sex relationships and gay marriage in church, the Bishops say, but in the meantime “LGBTI+ people” must feel welcome in any church. Clergy should certainly not question gay people about their lifestyles, the letter continues, nor suggest that sexual orientation/behaviour might change through prayer and counselling, link receiving the sacraments to the necessity of repentance from what the bible calls sin, or deny LGBT people wanting to take leadership positions in the church from doing so.
So the official position of the church remains the same: doctrine and liturgy about sex and marriage have not been changed. But on the ground things have changed – so much so that in carefully constructed language, this Bishops’ letter in promoting ‘inclusion’ effectively warns clergy against ways of teaching and offering welcome, pastoral care and the opportunity of discipleship guided by the church’s official doctrinal position.
When the Diocese of Lichfield sent out a similar letter in May this year, one of its partner Dioceses in South East Asia immediately terminated its link. The fact that Lichfield’s main points were copied by the Oxford Bishops and leadership really raises questions about their interest in any relationship with the majority Anglican world in the global South, apart from those areas which have imbibed a Western world view.
Why have Oxford done this? The Bishop of Oxford is in the House of Lords, and of course Oxford University is a prominent seat of learning – there would be constant strong influences in a liberal direction from these bastions of the establishment. But also there are some key players in the leadership of the Diocese. Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, is a leading LGBT advocate who has written a book arguing for same sex marriage in church. Jayne Ozanne is a prominent member of Oxford’s Diocesan Synod as well as General Synod; Colin Fletcher Bishop of Dorchester wrote the forward to the book she edited in 2016. Martyn Percy, veteran revisionist campaigner, is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s Cathedral.
Where is the opposition? The appointment of Justin Welby, a charismatic evangelical, as Archbishop, has effectively divided conservatives, bringing ‘moderates’ on board with the establishment (in return for continued mission opportunities), and marginalizing those who are prepared to publicly oppose the LGBT agenda as ‘extremists’.
True, a small number of Bishops, including some Diocesans, were recently prepared to go on public record as indicating their continued belief in the historic, bible-based Christian teaching on sexual ethics and marriage. They did this by way of urging the Chairman of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ project to include this teaching in the proposed Teaching Document due to be released in 2020, and warning the C of E against changing its teaching in this area. But as we’ve seen, its possible to create a culture of full acceptance of LGBT ideology in the church without the need to cross “red lines” of official liturgies and canons; and “good disagreement” means that anyone can state their own position as long as they see it as provisional and second-order, for the sake of unity.
In Oxford Diocese, the original conservative coalition which successfully stopped the appointment of a gay Bishop and the acceptance of the LGBT agenda in 2003 had fractured ten years later. A number of the churches which opposed Jeffrey John’s appointment in 2003 would not do so today; some perhaps would even welcome the Bishops’ letter. Many conservative evangelical churches have been persuaded over the past five years to view the sexuality issue as a pastoral concern for individuals in the church, and not to see or understand the global ideological revolution of which it is a part. During the past 15 years society has seen the normalization and celebration of gay identities and relationships, and now transgenderism; opposing this trend is too difficult for churches to contemplate when there would be opposition in their own congregations, and bills to pay.
So while some churches in Oxford Diocese are concerned about this latest letter from the Bishops, it is unlikely that any public action will be taken. Some who recognize the true nature of the letter from the Bishops and its infringement on freedom to minister according to the bible’s teaching, can at least follow the example of the Bishop of Albany in TEC, who recently said publicly that he would not accept the directive of General Convention allowing for same sex marriage, if it meant going against his vows to uphold truth and oppose error. Might some churches in Oxford be prepared to send at least a private letter to their Bishop, thanking him for his directive but politely declining to implement its contents?
Such an approach would require courage but would not alter the overall trajectory. In my view what has happened in Oxford serves as a case study for how the Church of England as an institution has now been taken over completely by the specific mutation of the combination of consumerist individualism and cultural Marxism (political correctness) peculiar to our nation. It will be possible for a few years to retain orthodox faithful Christian witness in some of the more secure evangelical churches in the C of E, but this will become more difficult when the politicians have Brexit behind them and start to put more pressure on the established church to ‘get with the programme’.
Another hope for the future is to establish small independent Anglican congregations, not under the authority of the Church of England but linked to the global movement of biblically orthodox Anglicanism known as Gafcon. This does not mean immediately ‘abandoning ship’; it can be done in parallel to pursuing a rearguard ministry in the C of E. Then, increasingly, Anglicans will find themselves with a choice, having to decide which is the priority: aesthetics, the beauty of the parish church or Cathedral, with a ‘progressive’ message; or truth, the beauty of the biblical gospel, still authentically Anglican, in a front room or school hall.
 An openly gay man, John has always maintained that his own domestic arrangements conform to the Church of England’s teaching.
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