Last week the House of Bishops published GS2055 Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. I immediately read it through twice, once to see what they were proposing to change – answer, nothing – and again to see how they managed to come up with that conclusion. I’ve just read it all again.
My initial reaction is to ask why we had the diocesan Shared Conversations. I found my experience of these, as a straight, married, ally, draining but also inspiring. I met some wonderful people and heard their stories. I was shocked to find that there are members of my wider church who not only don’t believe a woman can preach or lead (I knew about that already) but also don’t believe that anyone should be married if they are divorced with a partner still living. As someone in those categories, I found it more painful than anticipated, but of course my pain is nothing compared to that of LGBT+ people whose whole identity was denied by some present, and seen as a sin in need of repentance. I also realized, from the deeper conversations in groups of three, that our stories are rarely simple – if we are honest about them. Having been there, I do understand why GS2055 uses the wording ‘lesbian and gay people and those who experience same sex attraction’, which many LGBT+ people, especially if they’ve been through the abuse of ‘deliverance ministry’, find deeply offensive; what the bishops are trying to do here is to include in the same sentence both those who are sure that they have been created by God as lesbian or gay, and those who think this is impossible/wrong and who therefore try to be ‘delivered’ or who enter into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. If it’s so difficult to include both groups in one sentence, you can see why it’s difficult to include them both in a bishops’ report.
But I don’t see any sign in GS2055 that the experiences of the diocesan Shared Conversations have been taken on board. They are mentioned in the preamble as ‘help[ing] prepare us all … to address together the challenges we face’. Sorry, but that’s waffle. There were no reports from the diocesan events; in my diocese, there has been no further sharing. Perhaps, since they ended, people who have the ear of their bishop have been meeting to chat about it all over coffee? But I’m not clergy, I don’t work for the church, and I’m not on General or Diocesan Synod, so I don’t have coffee with any bishops.
The report is big on the bishops’ claims that they ‘recognize [their] deficiencies’ and that they have spent a lot of time in prayer. They don’t have a monopoly on that. The report starts with a nod to the Bible, but it’s an odd one: Galatians 2.19 ff on Paul being ‘crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’. I felt that a reference to us as crucified didn’t bode well for what the report was about to do to LGBT+ Christians… Then there’s the standard Anglican mention of scripture, tradition and reason, the last of the three developed here as ‘the ways that changing approaches to human knowledge and reason inform or challenge the Christian faith as we have received it’. I feel that this is an area which the bishops have avoided addressing properly.
The rest of the document reads like a balancing act or, perhaps, a juggling performance. The bishops talk about the difficulty of ‘holding together’ (para 5) and Anglicanism as a ‘contested tradition’ (para 8). The image I’ve used for this blog post is ‘Juggling with balls and knives’. Will the bishops be able to keep all those balls of canon law in the air? Annex 1 gives the legal advice they received; the handy Canon B5.2 which allows a minister to use ‘forms of service considered suitable by him [sic]’ if there’s nothing in the Book of Common Prayer or approved by General Synod for the occasion. Aha! A loophole! But no: Canon B5.3 says that ‘he’ can only do that if it is not ‘contrary to, or indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’. And there we have it. Canon B30.1 says that marriage is ‘in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman … for the procreation and nurture of children’ (although as far as I know nobody in the church thinks that the absence of children means it’s not a marriage). And the 2005 statement on civil partnerships (quoted in Annex 1, para 9) states that ‘sexual relationships outside marriage’ fall ‘short of God’s purposes for human beings’. Whatever ‘sexual relationships’ means: I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the church’s inability to engage with what ‘sex’ is, and I don’t think I can stand making any more comment about this.
I wonder whether some of the weirdness of GS2055 comes from juxtaposing paragraphs from bishops with different views. But I suspect it’s because they are trying to come up with lots of reasons for doing nothing. They claim that this report moves us towards ‘a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support’ for LGBT+ people; nobody I know who’s lesbian or gay (bi and trans people, as ever in the C of E, don’t feature in the report) finds that at all convincing. The bishops say they ‘seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency’ (para 10). But, as my husband often says, ‘Just remember that the thing you’re trying to do may be impossible’.