Over to the bishops? Finding ways to respect differences

The focus of LLF has now shifted away from the laity and clergy to the bishops. On 30 September, as vice-chair of the General Synod Gender and Sexuality Group, I took part in one of a series of meetings between Dr Eeva John, the bishops in the Next Steps Group, and representatives of different groups working for inclusion. The meeting was billed as an opportunity to listen to us, but specifically to hear our responses to two new LLF documents issued in early September: the analysis of the questionnaires and other responses sent in by those who took the LLF course, and a reflection on friendship. Both can be read online here.

As it turned out, we didn’t go into detail on those documents, other than to note that the first of them shows a strong appetite for change. From the analysis of the questionnaires:

‘Most people in the focus groups suggested that the decisions made by the House of Bishops needed to be bold, courageous, clear and honest. While some advocated strongly for change and some to maintain the Church’s position on questions of sexuality, all agreed that coming to a clear decision soon is vital.’

But the meeting was a useful opportunity to clarify some facts. The first planned meeting of the College of Bishops (meaning suffragan and area bishops, in addition to diocesans) didn’t take place in September, so the bishops are instead being given some ‘homework’ to read, to prepare them for what will now be their first residential meeting in October. It isn’t the first time they’ve encountered LLF, of course; I remember talking to them in 2018, and I posted my notes here. They meet again in mid-December, and then more briefly on 17 January to agree on what to bring to the February General Synod.

LLF was originally called ‘the Episcopal Teaching Document’, because the bishops set up the process after the 2017 refusal of Synod to ‘take note’ of the report GS2055, the snappily titled Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. A Report from the House of Bishops. Although I wasn’t on Synod at the time, I was sufficiently horrified by that report – as I wrote at the time, it seemed to be “trying to come up with lots of reasons for doing nothing” – that I turned up at Church House to watch the debate.

GS2055 included the statement that “It is the responsibility of the bishops to help the Church to identify the next steps” – hence, I take it, the naming of the group of nine bishops currently in charge of the process as the Next Steps Group. Now, as the baton returns to the bishops, it’s useful to recall what they wrote in GS2055. For example,

‘We all seek to retain personal integrity whilst seeking the best for our brothers and sisters in the Church and the many more to whom we are called to witness. That witness will be immeasurably damaged by allowing our differences to break us into fragments.’

The main approach of that failed report was that to suggest it was possible to “interpret the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.” Such interpretation would not affect the doctrine of marriage as “between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life”, yet it would somehow change the “tone” within the church.

What has changed? Well, on the doctrine of marriage, the new Friendship book includes this:

‘The LLF Book presents the church’s longstanding understanding of marriage between one man and one woman as a gift of God in creation … while recognising that for some this received doctrine is open for a development that affirms committed, same-sex relationships, including, among some, the development of the doctrine of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage.’

We noted at the 30 September meetings that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on the Lambeth Conference’s Call on Human Dignity also offered acceptance of these different perspectives. There, he said that those of us who long for equal marriage

‘… have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature.’

Re-reading GS2055 also reminds us that, in 1985, before discussions on whether a divorced person with a former spouse still living could be married in church had concluded, the House of Bishops had already issued and ‘commended’ a ‘Service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage’. I wonder: is something like this the way forward for February 2023? Continue to think about equal marriage, but produce the liturgy for services of blessing?

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth speech included a reminder of the reality of the current situation, and the need to care for each other:

‘So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.’

Our differences do not need to break us into fragments. It is definitely not too late to write to your bishop, or to meet them to talk. Truth requires transparency and honesty, openness and vulnerability. Tell your bishop about how your own prayer, study and reflection have led to your position today!

Prof Helen King is Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at the Open University. She is a member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the General Synod Gender and Sexuality Group (GSGSG).