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.



“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