Recent correspondence and blog posts have revealed the existence of a hitherto-secret meeting between conservative/evangelical groupings and liberal/progressive bishops, seeking to reach structural co-existence within a Church of England that permits same-sex marriages. If this is the case, then it would suggest that the Bishop Steven Croft’s recent statement Together in Faith and Love was not unexpected for some evangelical clergy within the Church of England. Indeed, it raises questions as to what extent the Bishop of Oxford’s proposal to create a separate jurisdiction for conservatives has been secretly agreed with evangelical bodies.
The meeting, called the St Hugh’s Conversations, is now being mentioned in the public domain, with a couple of participants identifying themselves.
According to the blog (shared-conversations.com) of one participant, Helen King, a lay preacher in Oxford Diocese, Bishop Steven Croft was one of those who instigated the St Hugh’s Conversations: “It was set up about three years ago by Bishop Steven with some leaders of large local conservative Evangelical churches, Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) and CEEC, and gradually seems to have expanded to include others from the conservative/traditional and the inclusive/progressive end of the C of E.”
Another member of these Conversations, Simon Butler, has written an Open Letter to Bishop Christopher Chessun of Southwark. This letter (available on ViaMedia.News) thanked the bishop for his recent address to Diocesan Synod, and how he has “quietly and often publicly affirmed the ministry of LGBT+ clergy and lay people in the diocese.”
Mr Butler, a former member of Archbishops’ Council and a member of General Synod 2005-2022, declared, “You have, in many ways, fulfilled the call we gave you in the Diocesan Statement of Needs at your appointment in relation to sexuality.”
He then speaks about his part in the Conversations, “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 … 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.”
Regarding Bishop Steven Croft’s recent booklet Together in Love and Faith, Helen King states, “there can’t have been any surprises there, as he based his booklet on drafts of things he’d written and shared with them during the time that St Hugh’s Conversation has been running. There are hints in his booklet that the group exists – for example, ‘Locally … I met separately with those opposed to any change’ (p.8) and ‘There has been a vigorous and courteous correspondence and dialogue with different groups, almost continually since [October 2017]”. Maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know this group exists! At the meeting we were given permission to mention the group and its work, but not to say who else is on it or to attribute anything that had been said.”
“This response [of Revd Vaughan Roberts, vicar of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, to Together in Love and Faith] came out almost immediately Bishop Steven’s booklet appeared, and both writers had shared drafts before publication.”
The English Churchman asked the Church of England Evangelical Council to comment on these claims, and to clarify the extent of their involvement.
No response had been received at press time.