A high level Church of England source has clearly given Church Times editor Paul Handley an off-the-record, lobby-style briefing about the direction of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process on marriage and sexuality after the College of Bishops’ three-day meeting this week.
It is worth noting the ‘it is understood’ in Handley’s report:
‘Although no decision has been made about what formal proposals will be presented to the General Synod in February 2023 – these will be finalised at the next College of Bishops meeting, 12-14 December – it is understood that the bishops acknowledge that simply to restate the existing ban on same-sex blessings or marriage in church is not an option.’
So, there it is. An insider editor has been categorically told that the bishops are looking for a way to overturn the traditional Christian sexual ethic as upheld for centuries in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.
Also worth noting is the ‘it is said’ in Handley’s report:
‘During the bishops’ discussions at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in Hertfordshire, largely in small groups, it is said to have been clear that many bishops recognise that a change of policy is needed — whether a national shift or some form of pastoral accommodation is not yet clear. Even those who wish to see no change in the C of E’s policy, which also bans clergy from marrying same-sex partners, accept that the case would need to be freshly argued.’
So, Handley has been briefed that traditionalist bishops are on the back-foot. No wonder the revisionists are feeling chipper. But his report also shows that the higher-ups perceive conservative evangelicals as a marginal opposition party:
‘The bishops are aware of a groundswell of opinion in parishes that the Church’s ban on same-sex marriage needs to be lifted (News, 28 October) — as they are aware of a minority of conservative Evangelical churches that consider such a move unacceptable.’
Is this dismissal fair? Conservative evangelical churches may well be in a ‘minority’ in a head-count of CofE churches. But conservative evangelical churches are not the only ones which oppose ditching the traditional teaching. Furthermore, some conservative evangelical churches are among the largest in the CofE and have often been spinning off church plants.
So, if conservative evangelicals really are as weak an opposition as the revisionists perceive them to be, the reason would not seem to be numerical. Might the problem be moral and practical and that for three reasons?
First, abuse scandals have hit the constituency hard since the Channel 4 News report in 2017 on the savage serial abuser, John Smyth. The Daily Telegraph broke the Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal in 2019. These scandals have weakened the moral authority of various conservative evangelical leaders because of the questions raised by victims and their advocates about what these ministers knew and when about the abuses.
Second, Archbishop Justin Welby’s consecration of Rod Thomas as the conservative evangelical flying bishop in 2015 has had the effect of institutionally entrenching that constituency in the CofE. Exactly at a time when conservative evangelical parish churches and their ministers needed to be preparing their exit routes out of the institution, Thomas has been a loyal civil servant for Welby. His retirement notice in the Church Times trumpeted his success as a departmental head:
‘Bishop Thomas has provided episcopal ministry for complementarian Evangelicals since his consecration in 2015. He has served as an assistant bishop in 15 dioceses and ministered in 31 dioceses: a total of 148 parishes.’
Third, the ReNew Conference launched in 2013 for Anglican conservative evangelicals inside the CofE and outside it in the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) has proved to be ill-conceived. Conservative evangelical parish ministers inside the CofE face very different challenges from those facing Anglican ministers outside the CofE in church plants and network churches. Indeed, it is arguable that church planters have a vested interest in Anglican evangelical parish churches hitting the rocks because of the potential transfer growth from sinking ships.
So far, the ReNew leadership straddling both the CofE and AMiE does not seem to have provided the help conservative evangelical parishes have needed to unionise effectively in their dioceses and to pool their resources in regional trust funds.
Paul Handley has been given an authoritative briefing over the future direction of LLF. To resort to an image from the 2000 blockbuster film, Gladiator, the beast is about to come out of the gates, CofE conservatives are sauntering about in the arena with varying degrees of awareness of the gravity of the situation, but Russell Crowe is not coming to the rescue.
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK.