The hypocrisy of authoritarian bishops

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Like many clergy, over the weekend I read GS2289, the response of Church of England bishops to Living in Love and Faith. Let me confess honestly, that in my personal lived experience I am experiencing this stuff from the bishops as a deeply hypocritical, flawed, insulting, and overtly manipulative attempt at institutional gaslighting.

The whole document feels to me personally like an insincere jargon-filled betrayal of the gospel and an abandonment of all I hold dear and love about Anglicanism. It gives me immense pain and sorrow. I feel profound personal grief. I am hurt, embarrassed, and humiliated that the leaders of my denomination could be so brazen in their rejection of the Bible and in their sneaky attempt to pretend that it is not a rejection of the teaching of Jesus as we have always received it. I am upset that I have been treated with intellectual and spiritual contempt by such a poorly argued, thinly veiled power grab. The emotional impact of GS2289 for me is akin to being mugged.

Hypocrisy

In the Church Times this week it is reported that Bishop Alan Smith of St Albans has attacked the government in the House of Lords. He accuses them of ruling by “executive edict” and abusing their delegated powers. Parliamentary scrutiny is, he says, “one of the core constitutional functions”. He rails: “If this becomes the norm, any government will take it for granted that they can ignore scrutiny by Parliament. As a minimum, we need policies that have the support of both Houses and all parties, and clear principles on what needs primary legislation and what can, in exceptional circumstances, be dealt with by delegated legislation.” And yet, the House of Bishops of the Church of England which he is a part of has decided to bring about the most revolutionary changes in Anglican doctrine since the Reformation by episcopal fiat, treating General Synod with contempt in the most dishonest and discourteous way.

Because it is clear that although there may be a discussion of the ways forward proposed by the bishops in GS2289, at February’s General Synod (on Wednesday 8th February), the bishops will be pressing ahead with their plans regardless of what Synod says. That is what they say in this document. Synod will not be voting on these changes. It will not be allowed to. It has come down on high from the bishops that the lower orders do not need to be consulted after all, and they themselves can just decide what is best. Synod don’t get to debate and vote, just to “welcome” the whole thing.

How can the bishops justify such audacious chutzpah on the biggest single issue to divide the Anglican Communion for the last 20 years? Although they have decided that gay sex is no longer a sin (against the consensus of the universal church in every place and every time), this is not actually a change in the Church’s doctrine of sex and marriage. Yes, you read that right: complete capitulation to the secular sexual revolution is such a small thing in their eyes that it does not even merit a vote at General Synod. The bishops can simply declare that it is not a change of doctrine, and apparently it is so. This is like the cabinet just deciding on Brexit without so much as a vote in Parliament (never mind a referendum).

The bishops may criticise Conservative Party politicians for not recognising when a work event with wine was actually a party which departed from coronavirus regulations. But they themselves have now collectively declared that blessing, celebrating, joyfully affirming, approving, praying for and giving thanks for same-sex marriages is not apparently a departure from Anglican doctrine, in any essential matter.

It is breathtaking. This is institutional gaslighting at its most egregious, a Jedi mind trick telling us all to look the other way “this is not the doctrinal change you were looking for”. It would be laughable, if it were not so lamentably serious. Come on bishops: admit your hypocrisy and pay attention to the abusive way you are attempting to use power. Like you tell the rest of us to.

Sophistry

I wonder if the bishops who wrote this report did so with a straight face? They tell us that church blessings are not pronouncements, and approval cannot be inferred from them. They tell us blessings are given to people, not to ways of life. This is sophistry, not “our deeper understanding of the theology of blessing” as the report claims. It is designed so that our bishops can try to claim that all this does not contravene Lambeth Resolution 1.10 from 1998 which said the Communion “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions”. We’re praying for blessing on the people, not blessing their unions. Oh well, that’s alright then (I mordantly imagine the African bishops might say). Seriously?

“May they dwell together in love and peace all the days of their life” — how is this not a signal of approval for a relationship on the part of the minister?

In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell described the way that the ruling elite controlled those under them. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” he said, “It was their final, most essential command.” We are now living in just such a dystopia in the Church of England, where we are expected to swallow the idea that all those difficult “facilitated conversations”, all those reports over the last 40+ years on this subject, all that angst as we searched the scriptures and church history, was utterly pointless — because now we know that blessing same-sex marriages is actually not a departure from Anglican doctrine in any essential matter. If only we had realised this earlier! (satire)

This sheer assertion without obvious grounding in reality is a change of doctrine by executive decree, bypassing synodical scrutiny. It cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. It is too grave a situation. Surely at least a formal statement of grievance or complaint should be made by the House of Clergy or the House of Laity against the House of Bishops for attempting this underhanded manoeuvre in plain sight? Or perhaps there ought to be a judicial review of the proclamation by the bishops that Holy Matrimony is a completely different thing to marriage and we can pray God’s blessing for any state of life now? It would be expensive, but then challenging blatant undemocratic power-grabs by ruling elites usually is.

A couple, whether homosexual or heterosexual, “who have marked a significant stage in the development of their relationship” can, under the bishops’ proposals, now have a special service to mark the occasion in church. What such significant stages might be is not specified. First kiss? Moving in together? They can have rings and candles and hymns and readings and prayers for blessing. As can those who have entered a civil partnership or a same-sex marriage. Some campaigners are cross (or have confected outrage for the sake of a good media story) that this is not officially same-sex marriage itself in church, only blessings after the fact. But it sure does look like a church wedding and sound like a church wedding, and that’s the story which the pictures of groom and groom on social media will tell. Are the bishops telling clergy to  bless people in pseudo-Christian cosplay weddings? And pretending this is kind and pastoral? How dare anyone suggest that this is a departure from Anglican doctrine in an essential matter! (irony)

I wonder how long it will be before the much-vaunted idea of “faithfulness” and “stability” in relationships is also recognised as a social construct which we can do away with at will? The bishops do say that the relationships which the church celebrates have to be between “two people”; but how long before this too is considered outdated and abandoned? After all, the stated basis for these changes is that society around us has changed its view of sex outside of marriage so the church must catch up and do so too. Where will the world go next, and those who have tied the church to it like a tow-truck?

Origins?

Did the prayers that are suggested in GS2289 come from the Liturgical Commission? That is the official body which discusses and drafts our liturgies. Surely they carefully looked at all this, before deciding to use prayers of St Augustine to hallow things which would make Augustine himself blanch with shame? Or was this another rush job to circumvent that due process too? It’s a good thing to be able to occasionally “commend” new prayers, for use on a significant anniversary or special occasion, such as the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Those don’t need full synodical approval, obviously. But is this the right mechanism for resolving decades of theological debate? Just put out some “commended prayers”, and assert that they are entirely in line with our doctrine (because we say so)?

And is it right to do all this without so much as a paragraph of biblical or theological reflection? There are two verses in the report: “God is love” from 1 John 4, and “love one another” from Romans 12 — completely shorn of context of course! We are assured “the bishops have been studying the Scriptures”, but there is almost no evidence of that here, from those entrusted with the spiritual and doctrinal safeguarding of the flock. Instead they simply assert that all this is all based on “a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.” Because Jesus (God the creator incarnate) had a flawed understanding of those things which we need to move away from? Jesus didn’t understand human nature properly? The suggestion — from our bishops! — is bewildering.

Politics

The bishops are playing fast and loose with the doctrine of the church on an essential matter — and all for the sake of a political balancing act. Keeping the church together, so it doesn’t fall apart before the Coronation and Justin Welby can still put the crown on the King’s head. The Archbishop of Canterbury knows that all this departs from the teaching of Jesus on sex and marriage as Anglicans have always received it. That’s why he himself won’t perform the new ceremonies, because he knows the rest of the Anglican Communion can see through the whole manipulative masquerade and he wants to continue being head of the Anglican Communion for a bit longer. He thinks they’ll let him.

But what of the other bishops, many of whom are (we have been assured) orthodox on this topic? I’m very sad to say that GS2289 presents itself as the mind of all the bishops. It expresses their “shared desire to find a way of walking together in Christ”. It says: “Whatever our convictions as bishops, all of us are committed to serving all the churches and clergy in our dioceses, and to respecting and supporting those who want to use these resources in their church community and those who do not.” Apparently, “We are not all agreed on the extent of these prayers, but nevertheless have agreed to offer them to the Church.” So this is being done to us by evangelical bishops just as much as by liberal ones.

Or have I misunderstood? I hope I have. I look forward to some minority reports, such as we had when Bishop Keith Sinclair courageously wrote a dissenting statement  on the last episcopal attempt to foist such things upon us. Will I have to wait long? Is there courage out there?

Be assured, there’s more of this ridiculous politicking to come. New pastoral guidelines will soon be issued to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with its insistence on clerical chastity for unmarried clergy. GS2289 promises us more debates on changing our doctrine as “Bishops have also agreed that the conversations about these, and related matters, need to continue…” This is just a “milestone.” Or a millstone perhaps (Matthew 18:6).

What we need to do, after all, is “create a generous space for the Holy Spirit to fill” the bishops tell us, whatever that means. But this apparently mustn’t include disagreeing with the bishops. No: “We live in a society in which we are often pressured towards adversarial behaviour. As God’s church, we are called to a different way”, they tell us. This is manipulative, telling those who fundamentally disagree with all of this that they are not gracious people and should do better (and shut up). But there is a rich vein of biblical teaching about how we are meant to respond to false teaching, which the bishops seem to have entirely ignored. You can read more about that in Fight Valiantly: Contending for the Faith against False Teaching in the Church. I’m afraid it does involve being a little bit adversarial.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” — Isaiah 5:20.

Pray for the Church of England Evangelical Council meeting this week.

Pray for General Synod meeting 6-9 February.

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

Original Document can be found here.