Ian Paul

Steven Croft, the bishop of Oxford, yesterday published a booklet Together in Love and Faith, in which he sets out his thinking about same-sex relationships, and proposes that the Church of England should provide public services for the blessing of same-sex civil partnerships and marriages, but allow a conscience clause for those who dissent, and eventually conduct same-sex marriages. This is a view he shares with the three suffragans in the diocese, which is telling; despite most of the large churches being evangelical, Steven did not appoint any bishops who agree with the Church’s current doctrine. Steven realises that this will be divisive, and so proposes a structure of differentiation—something that he says the other three do not agree with.

I have known and worked with Steven on and off over the years, on Synod and Archbishops’ Council, and particularly in relation to ordination training. Up until now, he has only offered hints about his thinking, and his change of direction on this issue, and so it is helpful to now know where his thinking has got to. This short piece cannot offer a full critique of his booklet, but there is a similar length commentary by Vaughan Roberts, who leads St Ebbe’s, one of the largest churches in the diocese, available for free download from the Latimer Trust. I simply offer here some observations about some of the language used here and some of the arguments made.

Before considering the content of the booklet, it is worth asking why Steven has decided to publish this at this moment. The College of Bishops (consisting of all diocesan and suffragan bishops in the C of E) have just met for three days, will be meeting again in December, and there will then be a meeting of the House of Bishops (diocesans plus elected suffragans, who form one of the three houses in General Synod), in order to bring a proposal for a way forward to General Synod in February. John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, has just published a letter supporting Steven, so this has clearly been coordinated. But it seems very odd for two bishops to appear to be driving a coach and horses through an existing process. More than that, I don’t think there is any doubt that Steven’s proposal, were it tabled, would not reach the 2/3 majority required by Synod, so it has no real hope of being delivered. What, then, is Steven hoping to achieve?

We start with the booklet’s title: ‘Together’ in Love and Faith. This is rather odd, since Steven is completely clear that what he proposing will not command consensus, and in fact will bring division into his diocese, to the point at which he notes many bishops will be uncomfortable with his proposals. In fact, it will bring division not just to his diocese, and not just to the C of E, but to the Anglican Communion. I do find it remarkable that he is writing this hot on the heels of the Lambeth Conference, where it was abundantly clear that the move of some Western provinces to do what Steven is proposing has divided the Communion, perhaps terminally. When this was first mooted by The Episcopal Church in the US, it was believed by the majority to be a ‘tear in the fabric of the Communion’. And, as Darrin Snyder Belousek highlights, in his excellent Marriage, Scripture, and the Church:

The creational-covenant pattern of marriage…is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy’ (p 52).

So Steven is proposing division within the Church, division from the Communion, and division from the beliefs of the church catholic. It doesn’t look very ‘together’ to me.

As he begins to explain the background to the booklet, he makes some strange assertions about where we have reached. First, in relation to LLF:

Most of the comments in Listening with love and faith that were on the theme of same-sex relationships and marriage expressed the hope that the LLF course might contribute to the acceptance of same-sex marriage or blessings of same-sex partnerships (page 76). (p 1).

Church Society issued a critique of the ‘Listening’ document for exactly this reason—that it presented views as if they were representative when there had been no proper sampling process. Eeva John, who has been convening the LLF project, replied to say that the book was not intended to be representative, and just offered a sample of views. So Steven is here using this book to draw a conclusion expressly ruled out by those leading the process.

He then suggests that his is something of a lone voice:

There are not many examples of bishops who advocate for change having set up either their proposals or the rationale for them. This can give me an inaccurate impression of a House of Bishops that is uniformly conservative. (p 2)

If that is so, then Steven must be the only person in the C of E who thinks this. Ten years ago, Nick Holtam, then bishop of Salisbury, ‘came out’ in favour of same-sex marriage and ‘split the Church‘. There has been a steady stream of comments on social media, of attendance at Pride events, of rainbow flags flying from cathedrals with episcopal approval. It is true that no-one has set out a rationale—but that is because the House of Bishops were supposed to be thinking about this together, not each one ploughing his or her own furrow!

Steven concludes his introduction by saying that his contribution ‘is offered hesitantly’ and that ‘I may be wrong’. I suppose this could sound like appropriate modesty—yet he knows his clergy, and he knows this is going to split his diocese. At his ordination, he was called to ‘share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation’, and he made vows to ‘teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, … refute error, and … hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you’ as well as ‘promote peace and reconciliation in the Church’. So why create division and disunity on something on which he is not yet confident, but might still be wrong? Would it not be better to keep his own counsel until he is sure?

In Part 1, Steven recounts his own journey. He notes that when he came to Sheffield, he found ‘the diocese has a broad spread of views among its clergy’. This is a situation common across the C of E, but it is worth reflecting on what it means. What he is telling us is that there were many clergy who did not actually believe the doctrine of the Church of England on this matter, their own ordination vows notwithstanding. Has this been created by a failure in ordination training, or a failure in selection and discipline within the Church? It has certainly been exacerbated by a complete vacuum of episcopal teaching over a very long time. It does not appear that Steven’s response to this situation was to help his clergy understand, own, and teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage.

He then comments:

But I was already finding (I would find increasingly) tension between my commitment to this interpretation of scripture [‘orthodox and generous’] and my vocation as a priest and pastor and evangelist. (p 5)

Steven repeatedly calls himself ‘evangelical’, but this is a very long way from an evangelical understanding of Scripture. What he appears to be saying is that, on the question of marriage, sexuality, and sexual ethics, scripture is a hindrance to him and not a help. It is inhibiting his ministry in every area. This isn’t just at variance from an evangelical approach; it appears to be at odds with what the C of E states about scripture. Again, in the ordinal we find:

Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?

All our liturgy and formularies appear to assume that Scripture is an aid, not a hindrance—in fact, the greatest resource we have in shaping us and equipping us for ministry. Steven appears, in this area at least, to think differently.

Now you don’t have to read Scripture for long to realise that it is hardly an off-the-shelf, pastoral handbook. There are some very difficult things to read there, and since the context of Scripture is at some historical and cultural distance from us, it needs careful reading and interpretation—something this blog is dedicated to. Yet, as Queen Elizabeth II was told at her coronation as she was handed a Bible: ‘Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.’ If Scripture is not our foundation, formation, and guide for what it means to minister, then what is?

Steven notes that the 2017 report by the bishops, GS2055, was not ‘taken note of’ by Synod. He wishes now he had spoken out in dissent, though I am not sure what that would have achieved. What he does not comment on is the reason why this report was not received: some thought it too ‘conservative’, and others too ‘progressive’, pointing to the lack of an available ‘middle way’ even then. Neither does he recognise that, were it presented today, it would be received by Synod because of the shifts in Synod’s make up. (This variability in itself raises a question about the theological role of synodical government.)

In Part 2, Steven embarks on making the case for change. He starts by stating that ‘as an evangelical, I retain a high view of the authority of Scripture’—yet he has already made it clear that he is finding that Scripture undermines, rather than resources, his work as a ‘priest, pastor, and evangelist.’

He talks about the question of the pain of those who are LGBTQ+, and Vaughan Roberts engages well with that issue in his response. Steven then goes on to say some striking things about the relation between the Church and culture. There is a ‘divergence’ between the Church and society (p 13); this disjunction has grown sharper in recent years; ‘we seek to serve everyone, whatever their beliefs’ (p 14).

After commenting on ‘faithful, stable’ gay relationships, he returns to this theme in chapter 3 ‘Our culture’s moral view of the Church’s present policy.’ Culture sees same-sex attraction as a given, and therefore any limitation of sexual expression in this context is unjust.

We now have a profound dislocation between the Church of England – the establish church, and to serve the whole of our society – and the society we are called to serve… We are seem to inhabit a different moral universe. (p 20)

I confess I find this such strange language, I hardly know where to begin. What does it mean for the Church to ‘serve’ the society in which it is located? Is it to affirm that culture’s moral outlook, and accommodate itself to it? Such a claim completely ignores the historical reality of the church, not least the way that the the early church grew rapidly throughout the Roman Empire in the first three centuries—precisely by offering a radical, shocking alternative that was certainly viewed as immoral by the culture of the time, not least in the area of marriage and sexuality (Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity is very good on this, as is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider). Surely the way we serve our communities and culture is the same way that Jesus did: by proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, with its radically inverted values, and inviting, challenging even, people to ‘repent’, that is, turn away from their current way of living, assumptions, and beliefs, and believe in this good news. I am puzzled that someone who has been so involved in evangelism could miss this.

Secondly, Steven’s language appears to ignore the basic orientation of Scripture, in particular, the New Testament, with its eschatological outlook. This sinful world is facing the judgement of God, yet the future kingdom has broken into the present, and God’s gracious invitation is that we should die (to sin, to our own selfish preoccupations, and to our previous way of seeing the world) and live a new, resurrection life after the pattern of Jesus. This isn’t a marginal idea; it is central to baptism (see Romans 6), the Christian rite of initiation. If we are not ‘living in a different moral universe’ from our surrounding culture, then we are not even at the starting gate. I wonder what on earth Steven thinks Jesus means when he says ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me first’ (John 15.18). The Johannine motif of ‘the world’ captures just this tension: on the one hand, God ‘loves the world’ (John 3.16), and we are therefore to be engaged in the world in loving service, but this world that God loves often rejects his invitation and in doing so is opposed to him. We should expect exactly the same response—offering loving service, but often finding ourselves at odds—as Christians always have.

Thirdly, Steven appears to have an odd view of what ‘culture’ believes. It is not the case that ‘culture’ merely thinks gay people should be able to marry; this is just the tip of the sexual revolution iceberg. Our culture is far from monochrome, but some of the major themes are expressive individualism, which includes the idea that we are primarily autonomous individuals, and that what we feel tells us what we should do and have the right to do. Sex is seen primarily as a leisure activity, which we can engage in without any restrictions and ties, as long as there is consent—though, paradoxically, which can also do great harm and so is view warily. Our bodies are containers for the real person, which is found by looking in, and so the body can be manipulated and changed to conform with our feelings about ourselves. I don’t think it is really possible to separate attitudes to gay marriage from these wider themes—and if a radical feminist believes it is high time to push back against this, why won’t a bishop? Does Steven think we should accommodated ourselves to these views? If not, why not, and if so, why not on gay marriage?

Read it all in Psephizo