Simon Butler

Dear Bishop Christopher,

First of all, I want to express my gratitude for your remarks at Diocesan Synod. I read them at a distance in New Zealand where I am currently travelling and was grateful for the clarity with which you spoke. It is important now that all bishops join the rest of the Church of England in saying exactly what they think about human sexuality. Otherwise Living in Love and Faith would be a dead letter.

I want to thank you for the way in which you have quietly and often publicly affirmed the ministry of LGBT+ clergy and lay people in the diocese. You have, in many ways, fulfilled the call we gave you in the Diocesan Statement of Needs at your appointment in relation to sexuality. I declare an interest: the drafting was my work! Thank you for your faithfulness here.

Being Bishop of Southwark has always been about herding cats – our clergy are outstanding in their passion and commitment, conservative and progressive alike – and you have gone as far as you possibly can – and as far as your conscience will allow – to appoint and encourage LGBT+ clergy in their ministries. You have been a pastoral bishop to us all, even if that has been frustrating for some colleagues who have wanted you to go further, and faster. After all, this is Southwark!

Your address to the Diocesan Synod was, as ever, the words of a pastoral bishop in the best tradition of Anglican Catholicism. I was not therefore surprised by a phrase I’ve heard you use before: “I do not expect to see the marriage canons changed in my lifetime.” It is something you often say, and it has served you well in Southwark, because it avoids you having to say what you think about same sex marriage. It does have the sense of being a politician’s answer, however, but one that I have often thought was both clever and perceptive. Only recently have I come to disagree with you, and from a surprising direction.

I have been privileged to take part in a series of – until recently – entirely confidential series of discussions called the St Hugh’s Conversations. They began between Conservative Evangelicals and some progressive bishops, but have in the past three years broadened to include some conservative bishops, and those, like me, who want to see change to the current teaching on sexuality changed (it is worth noting that the majority of members are senior members of General Synod, who have an eye to getting things through our decision-making bodies). Despite our profound differences as members, we have agreed we can now identify ourselves individually and share themes. During the Conversations, we have listened to one another with great respect and affection, particularly to the concerns of conservative colleagues who remain deeply concerned about any change to the current position, including the one you advocated in your address.

The uniting spirit of the St Hugh’s Conversations is a desire to bring to a conclusion the battle over sexuality that has beset the Church since 1987. None of us – conservative, progressive, LGBT+ or those who prefer to identify themselves as same-sex attracted – want to see our fragile unity further fractured, or the harm we do to one another as Christians continue its toxic tone. We believe – at least tentatively – that now must be the time to find a settlement which will suit us all. I have come to agree with this position.

To that end, I am very sorry to say that I think your proposals outlined at Diocesan Synod fall short of such a settlement. I think that to preserve the maximum amount of unity by virtue of an incremental settlement through a liturgy of blessing same sex relationships (including marriage, I assume?) is a mistaken, if understandable, episcopal desire to kick the can down the road on same sex marriage. You will expect a progressive like me to say that, but what has been a stunning development in the St Hugh’s discussions is that conservatives can see a church which accommodates such a development. There is a growing unanimity that – noting how painful it would be for conservatives in the Church to agree to such a development – a Church which allows same sex marriages to be solemnised, while at the same time making provision for those who cannot agree to such a development (which in their mind goes some way beyond the sort of conscience clause you propose), is the best way ahead. We need to make fair and just provision for both sides here if we are to reach the possibility of a settlement. Only in the St Hugh’s Conversations have such possibilities been aired and a fragile consensus sensed.

Read it all in ViaMedia News