Posts

Following the publication of Together in Love and Faith, Bishop Steven offers a commentary and reflections on the next stage of the Living in Love and Faith process. This includes the way in which we might approach that process together, both as a diocese, and more widely as the Church of England. This is a recorded version of the presidential address given to Diocesan Synod on 12 November 2022.

 

Transcript

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”
– James 3.17-18

I want to offer some commentary and reflections on the next stage of the Living in Love and Faith process and in particular of the way in which we might approach that process together as a diocese and more widely as the Church of England.

Living in Love and Faith is the third of three processes stretching over the last decade to help the Church of England engage with questions around human sexuality. The first was the process led by Sir Jo Pilling, a member of our own diocese at the time, which produced a report in 2012. The second was the Shared Conversations which ran from 2013 to 2016. The third and most extensive has been LLF from 2017 to the present.

Extensive study resources were published in November 2020. There has been a very significant process of church wide engagement over the last two years. Many across our own diocese have taken part in small group conversations enabled by our excellent team of LLF advocates. All the feedback nationally has been collated and was published in September as Listening in Love and Faith.

LLF covers a wide range of questions from a number of perspectives but it was clear from the feedback that the most pressing and urgent is the question of how we respond as a church to same sex partnerships and same sex marriage. This autumn, LLF entered a new phase of discernment. The bishops together have been asked to discern carefully what proposals to bring to the General Synod in February, 2023. We are meeting together for two three day residentials in November and December and a one day meeting in January. One of the strong themes in the feedback was a request to the bishops to make their own views known.

As many will know, I recently published my own contribution to that debate, Together in Love and Faith. It’s not my purpose this morning to rehearse the arguments in the booklet. Together in Love and Faith is a personal reflection not a diocesan position. But I do want to offer some guidance to all of us on the way in which this next part of the debate is conducted as we seek to discern the right way forward and witness to God’s love in the world. As the four bishops we are offering three seminars over the next few days to talk together about the substance of the debate and to listen to different views across the diocese.

Holding a discussion on this most personal of issues in the public gaze is a challenge for the Church. As I’ve pondered that challenge, I’ve found myself drawn back again and again to the wisdom tradition within the scriptures: that strand of biblical teaching which is focussed on how to live well in community, how to make good decisions, how to balance different points of view and to live with paradox and tension.

King Solomon is the fountain head of that tradition in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 3 we read of Solomon’s prayer which has been my own prayer especially in the past few weeks:

give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil, for who can govern this your great people.

Solomon’s new wisdom is tested by his being asked to judge between two women claiming to be the mother of the same child. The wisdom tradition is concerned with good governance and the provision of a civil service for Solomon’s kingdom. It is concerned with marshalling knowledge of the natural world and the accumulation of proverbs which support how to live. In time the wisdom tradition will wrestle above all with the challenges of suffering in the Book of Job and also of cynicism in Ecclesiastes. The wisdom tradition continues through the intertestamental period the apocryphal writings and informs and shapes rabbinic discussion.

Wisdom informs the teaching of Jesus in many different ways. Jesus stands in the wisdom tradition as he draws attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; as he crafts riddles and parables and pithy sayings which stay in the mind and help us explore paradox and which surprise us continually. Jesus, like Solomon, is asked to give wise judgements on practical dilemmas where there are traps and pitfalls on every side: is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? How often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? What good deeds must I do to inherit eternal life? Which man sinned: this man or his parents? This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?

To answer to each of these questions, Jesus draws on the wisdom tradition and the gift of wisdom. It is this wisdom which the whole Church needs in the present moment. It will be given to the whole Church as we study and pray and talk together and discern. As the New Testament unfolds, the early Church is continually discovering dilemmas. The large central portion of the Book of Acts is given over to the debate about how Gentiles are to be included within the kingdom of God and God’s grace. Romans and Galatians grapple with the same question only with rhetoric which is sharp and raw. Again Paul reaches for the language of wisdom.

As the Church finds its way, discernment is key and part of the way of navigating that complex discernment is love. The way we talk together and treat each another is as important as the arguments we use and the conclusions we reach. It is indeed possible to hold different convictions deeply within the Body of Christ, to disagree well. I’ve been reflecting afresh in recent weeks on a particular verse in Philippians 1, a letter written to a church where there is deep division, though we never quite discover why.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless”
– Philippians 1.9-10

Paul is saying here that love, agape, is our primary tool of discernment. To be sure it needs to be linked with knowledge and insight but love remains primary. To cross reference 1 Corinthians 13, now we see in a mirror dimly; now I know only in part (13.12, 13). This is what it means to exercise wisdom as a Christian, in a way which is summed up in the profound words of James, the New Testament epistle which stands most clearly in the wisdom traditions:

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”
– James 3.17-18

This deep wisdom needs to inform and guide us in our process of discernment through the Spirit’s grace. There is I think consensus among those who hold very different views on same sex relationships that it is now time for this debate to reach conclusions. There is a recognition of a risk that we may end up again in some kind of deadlock. There is an awareness that our wider society is watching our debate carefully and also cares deeply about the conclusions we reach. All parties in the debate acknowledge how difficult it is for LGBTQ+ people to be spoken about not as people but as an issue. There is also I think a sense that we will only reach good conclusions as we are each able to speak honestly and openly about our own individual discernment.

For all those reasons it seemed right to me at this point to be transparent about my views and the ways they have changed over time and the reasons for that. I am glad that others have felt able to do the same, including other bishops who take a similar view. That includes, of course, Bishops Alan, Olivia and Gavin. I need to say that there is no single diocesan view and no single view across the whole of the senior team within the diocese.

In particular I want to express my appreciation to Canon Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes for his careful response to my own essay and in particular for the tone and spirit in which Vaughan writes. At the beginning of his essay Vaughan quotes Bishop Richard Harries’ encouragement in all debates on these and other matters to engage with those with whom we disagree at their best. It seems to me that Vaughan has done that and I have no hesitation in commending his response and also thanking Vaughan for his willingness to enter into this conversation over several years.

How are we to find a way forward? It seems to me, and again I think there is consensus here, that there are now two deeply held convictions around same sex relationships in the Church of England (and more widely). Many hold still to the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Others allow that in addition, it is appropriate to bless or solemnise the marriage of two men or two women. The last ten years teach me that the whole church is unlikely to change its mind all at once whatever the bishops say or one bishop says.

In such a circumstance, it seems to me, a wise outcome to this process of discernment will be one which allows for diversity of practice within a single church; in which some are able to opt in to new arrangements permitting marriage and blessings; and in which clergy as well as lay people are free to order their closest relationships according to their consciences. Other clergy and local churches will need to be free not to opt in. Some for whom this seems to them to be a first order issue may need, in my view, some clear differentiation of oversight within one Church of England. As far as possible, both positions will need to be held in mutual respect across the church.

I don’t know whether we will together be able to see this outcome in the near future but I remain hopeful. The response to Together in Love and Faith has been very moving. I’ve received a very large number of personal testimonies in appreciation of what I’ve written. I’ve been unusually conscious of the interest of our wider society in the debate. I’ve received also courteous responses expressing disagreement, which I know are always harder to write as well as to receive.

At this point I don’t know the outcome of the bishops conversations or what will be brought to Synod or what the process will be from here. But I commend this debate to the prayers of the diocese. I hope we can model engaging with one another at our best, with honesty and love. I pray that we will find ways to discover and rediscover that wisdom from above which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.

Thanks be to God.

+Steven Oxford
12th November, 2022

 

In the midst of continuing debate within the Church of England about human sexuality +Steven, +Andrew, +Alan and +Colin have written a joint letter to all clergy and licensed lay ministers in the diocese setting out their expectations of inclusion and respect towards LGBTI+ people. The four bishops are encouraging parishioners across the diocese to read the letter too. Is there anything else you could be doing in your own setting? 

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.14)

As a Bishop’s staff we spent some time recently reflecting on the Letter to the Colossians and our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world.

In the light of our time together, we want to offer some reflections on current debates and developments in the Church of England in the area of human sexuality. We do so with humility and some hesitation. It is not easy to make a meaningful contribution to the present debate for a number of reasons. But we have received many requests for guidance and we are convinced that remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.

What is the national process?

You will remember that the Pilling Report in 2013 was followed by a listening process with a series of regional conversations. The House of Bishops then brought to the General Synod in February 2017, a report with proposals on how to move forward from the Shared Conversations. Very unusually, the General Synod voted not to take note of the document.

In a pastoral letter issued after this debate, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced the formation of a Pastoral Advisory Group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle and the development of a comprehensive document on human sexuality to be led by the Bishop of Coventry.

The Archbishops also called in their letter for “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it”. They emphasise the love of God for all people:

“We want to make clear some underlying principles. In these discussions, no person is a problem or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’. There are simply people called to redeemed humanity in Christ”.

The College of Bishops met in early September this year and engaged with the work of the Pastoral Advisory Group and the emerging project to develop learning and teaching resources, now called Living in Love and Faith.

The Pastoral Advisory Group is seeking to issue new pastoral guidance within the Church of England’s current legal, doctrinal and liturgical frameworks accompanied by some new resources. The groups working on Living in Love and Faith are hoping to publish their work in a variety of resources in early 2020.

The wider debate

Whilst this work is going on, attitudes to LGBTI+ people in Church and society continue to change and evolve and other churches in the United Kingdom and the Anglican Communion engage in similar conversations.

LGBTI+ Christians have always been, and remain, actively involved as clergy and laity in all areas of church life, and at all levels. How open and authentically themselves they may be in this is the issue at stake. We are conscious as bishops of the pain felt by many LGBTI+ people and their families in the midst of these continuing debates. As a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ.

We are also aware of the strongly held views of many in these debates, grounded in deep convictions. We are aware that the exchanges themselves can be hurtful and damaging especially when conducted through social media or rapid email exchanges, and particularly for those whose very identity is problematised. Bullying and harassment are damaging and not acceptable as part of the reasoned and loving debate the Church needs to have.

We are mindful of the fact that a number of individuals within this Diocese holding different views are currently playing a role in national and international debates. We hope that each will be supported and respected by their home diocese in the ministry to which they have been called.

Inclusion and respect

It is clear that it will be some time before the process of discernment in the Church of England reaches a conclusion. During that period we want to encourage, above all, an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people across the Diocese of Oxford.

Talking about sexuality and gender identity in the Church may be, and often is, difficult. It involves our deeply personal loves and the attachments that shape them; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God and others, and our approach to Scripture and the core convictions of our faith. To talk about these things is to make ourselves vulnerable. Moreover, in the Church of England conversations about these matters often bear a weight of pain and distrust caused by the past and present experiences of hurt, exclusion and misunderstanding. However, many speak of such conversations as being ultimately liberating and positive.

Debates about human sexuality and gender identity in the Church seem likely to continue, and perhaps to grow in intensity, over the coming years. It is important that these debates should be grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition as well as in deep prayer and our common life of worship. They must also be conducted with attention to people’s experiences and in a spirit of love, mutual care and respect.

We want to commend to the Diocese of Oxford the five principles recently commended to the Diocese of Lichfield by Bishop Michael Ipgrave and his colleagues. These are founded on the basic principle that all people are welcomed in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table. Such radical Christian inclusion brings practical consequences for our local churches and for our Diocese as a whole:

  1. It is the responsibility of all Christians, but especially those who hold the Bishop’s Licence as clergy or lay ministers, to ensure that all people know that there is a place at the table for them. Preaching, teaching and pastoral responsibilities need to be exercised sensitively, and with this core principle in mind.
  2. Intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender, is inappropriate. It is also unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith.
  3. We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  4. We wish to affirm that LGBTI+ people are called to roles of leadership and service in the local church. Nobody should be told that their sexual orientation or gender identity in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.
  5. Finally, we wish both to acknowledge the great contribution that LGBTI+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese, and to highlight the need for mission within the LGBTI+ community more broadly.

Liturgy and prayers

The House of Bishops Guidelines on Same Sex Marriage acknowledge that “same sex couples will continue to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship” (19).

As Bishops we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries seeking guidance in this area. There is no authorised public liturgy for such prayers. The Guidelines are clear that “Services of blessing should not be provided” (21). However, there is positive encouragement for clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively.

We warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance. This is, of course, one of the key areas under review in the Pastoral Advisory Group. Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short term for the benefit of this Diocese.

A new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families

We are also actively exploring setting up a new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families and loved ones, across the Diocese. Over the summer we have been seeking to learn from other dioceses in this area, including in the Church in Wales. The team will probably take the form of a volunteer chaplain or chaplains in each episcopal area giving time to this ministry alongside their other work. The role of the chaplains will be to listen, to offer support and to advise local clergy and congregations and ourselves in our welcome and support of LGBTI+ people and their families, and to learn from the insights of LGBTI+ people about being church together.

In all of this we ourselves and the chaplaincy team will continue to work within existing Bishop’s Guidelines on human sexuality in this next stage of the national process.

Continued listening

As bishops we will continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.

We will be setting aside additional time in the coming year to listen in particular to the experiences of LGBTI+ people. Bishop Steven has drawn together a small informal group of LGBTI+ people as advisors in this process.

We are concerned to listen well to LGBTI+ people from a variety of perspectives including both those seeking change in the Church of England’s policy and those seeking to to live faithfully within it.

Compassion, gentleness and respect

Finally we return to our beginning. All things and all people hold together in Christ. The way we engage in debate in areas of difference is part of our witness to the world. We are to clothe ourselves in this as in everything else with love.

Therefore “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”. These are the qualities we need as the church as we continue to build a common life together.

We commend these qualities and our ongoing process to the prayers of the Diocese.

+Steven Oxford

+Colin Dorchester

+Alan Buckingham

+Andrew Reading