(as of June 2018, the yet-to-be-written ‘Document’ is now known as ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’. I’m not yet sure what I make of that.)
So, here’s a turn-up for the books; I am now publicly announced as a member of the Historical Thematic Working Group which has been set up to feed material into the Teaching Document on Human Sexuality which the C of E Bishops have said they intend to produce by 2020. The announcement of the membership of the various groups was made on 15 November and, a week on, the few discussions I’ve heard or seen online are overwhelmingly negative.
Sometimes the theme is that this is all taking too long, or even that the production of such a document is simply a typical example of C of E delaying tactics. Well, let’s see. Having lived through the changes which saw first women deacons, then women priests, and now women bishops, I know what long processes look and feel like. When it comes to human sexuality, certainly the C of E has a record of producing documents and then not doing much about them. But does this one have to go the same way? We don’t know yet. The 1988 ‘Osborne Report’ to the House of Bishops on homosexuality was suppressed, but you can now read it here. To quote that report, ‘No-one was asked to dilute or compromise their respective allegiances. Yet we found that we could still live with each other. More than that, because we experienced the strength of what unites us we were committed to finding ways by which we could live with our divisions’. The 1991 statement by the House of Bishops on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ (study guide here) looks very dated indeed now, not least in its use of the word ‘homophile’. The 2013 ‘Pilling Report’ (to give it its full title, Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality) was responsible for setting up the Shared Conversations in which I took part for my diocese. Its main proposals are summarised here.
For others, the issue is not so much the process as the identity of those on the groups; are there enough LGBTQI people on them, because of course ‘there should be no decision about us without us’? For me, that rather misses the point; well, several points. First, it’s human sexuality we are talking about, even though the background is whether the church will do anything in response to the state’s acceptance of equal marriage – and I think everyone on the groups is human; second, does anyone have the right or even the knowledge to label those of us on the groups by our sexuality; and third, how can you achieve a perfect balance of assembling groups of people who have some claim to know about the topic with people of the right range of sexuality and/or gender?
As is appropriate, my membership of this group is governed by some rules, so I suspect that’s all I can say at the moment. I won’t be saying anything about the working of the group. However, I think I’m within the rules to say that I believe that thinking about history is a good move, and one which hasn’t been used that much in previous reports. Why do we make appeals to history? What is good history and what is bad history? How far can history help us to think through contemporary issues? When I was asked to join this group, I accepted, because I think these questions underlie the current debates, just as do questions about how we use the Bible.
It’s not going to be easy, but I hope it will be worthwhile.