‘What are you up to at the moment?’ When I’m asked that question by people unconnected to the Church of England, I tend to reply in a very vague way, because surely they don’t really want the details? But some people do, and this blog is supposed to be a reflection on what the church is doing or not doing in the areas of gender and sexuality so, dear reader, I am going to answer your question.
At the beginning of the month, I warned my long-suffering husband that, despite there being no November General Synod (other than some late-announced info Zooms, which will all be posted for later viewing anyway), we were in for a couple of intense weeks of Church Stuff. My church is about to enter an interregnum, as our vicar for the last 22 years is retiring, so there is local activity as well as national; being on General Synod also means being ex officio on PCC, Deanery Synod and Diocesan Synod. I’m still having conversations with people about lay ministry after being at a recent meeting of Ministry Council, plus being vice-chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group is about far, far more than holding a meeting at every Synod session. Just trying to work out what is going on can feel like a full-time role. Last week was pretty bad, but at least all but one of the meetings were on Zoom; the exception came because I am now also a trustee of WATCH, and with a new committee and new president there is a good deal of discussion going on, and that meant attending a full-day Saturday meeting in London.
But the week that is just coming to an end was something else.
On 4 November, my diocesan bishop – Steven Croft – published his response to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process: Together in Love and Faith. I remain delighted by his honesty, as he recounts in this booklet his own gradual shift as an Evangelical towards inclusion of LGB people. He argues for change: for public services of blessing after same-sex civil partnerships and civil marriage; for freedom of conscience for clergy and ordinands “to order their relationships appropriately” and for them to enter same-sex marriages; and to the removal of the various legal impediments to having such marriages in churches. He sees this as happening while still recognising that it is “legitimate and honourable” to believe these relationships are wrong, and envisages individual clergy and parishes being able to refuse to opt in to these new arrangements. Plus, and this is the difficult one for many people, “differentiation of provision and oversight for those clergy and parishes who believe that, in conscience, they need to distance themselves from the parts of the Church that welcome and affirm same-sex relationships” (p.24). And all of this to happen “in the near future”.
The other three bishops in our diocese – Bishops Gavin, Olivia and Alan – moved quickly to support him on the principles, although they seem to differ from him when it comes to what to do next. Last Saturday, at diocesan synod (mercifully, on Zoom), he spoke about this and added in some very useful comments on how we use the Bible in our discernment, focusing not on the ‘clobber texts’ but on the Wisdom tradition, and what it has to say on living with paradox. The video of this talk is here. He mentions the Biblical story of the Judgement of Solomon – short summary, two women each claim a particular child is theirs. Bishop Steven didn’t say what happens next in the story, but his audience will have known it. Solomon offers to split the child in two so they could have half each. The woman who says he should not do so is by this revealed to be the true mother. I’ll come back to that shortly.
So, busy old Saturday. The following day was Remembrance Sunday and my Ukrainian friend had been asked to read a section of the intercessions at the (huge) local service, so I stood with her for moral support and then we went out with her and her family and sponsor for a meal. In the evening, I preached at another Remembrance Sunday service.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Bishop Steven and various combinations of the other bishops for Oxford diocese held seminars for licensed clergy, deanery lay chairs and lay members of diocesan synod, where we could ask questions. I went to one on Monday afternoon. One of the points Bishop Steven makes in his booklet concerns fruits: a good tree brings forth good fruit (Matthew 7: 15-20). Committed same-sex relationships are good because of the fruit they produce. But he also acknowledged that there are two different deeply-held positions in the C of E at the moment, and argued for diversity of practice within the church. People at the seminar spoke from various viewpoints, and overall it felt to me like we were all making an effort to be gracious to each other but that there was something less pleasant simmering under the surface. I’ve since heard that the meeting in the morning had been considerably less calm. As I know very well from doing the Shared Conversations, the range of views in the C of E on pretty well anything is far wider than some people realise. This is no exception.
A lift back from my Area Dean – like Bishop Gavin, an Open Evangelical – meant I was home for supper, then out to the first meeting with the diocesan team who will be helping us put together the parish profile as we start to search for a new vicar…
On Tuesday I did two one-hour sessions with MOSAIC, talking to them about where the LLF process is so far. That was enjoyable, meeting people who represent them in different dioceses and finding out what is happening there.
On Wednesday it was PCC in the evening but before that it was off to London for a meeting of a group which is new to me and which I am now on by virtue of my GSGSG vice-chair role: St Hugh’s Conversation. This is not a group which has sought publicity: I can’t point you to a website because there isn’t one. It was set up about three years ago by Bishop Steven with some leaders of large local conservative Evangelical churches, Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) and CEEC, and gradually seems to have expanded to include others from the conservative/traditional and the inclusive/progressive end of the C of E (labels are hard). Clearly the Evangelical members aren’t happy with Bishop Steven’s statement – the EGGS website alone links to five responses saying what they think is wrong with it – but there can’t have been any surprises there, as he based his booklet on drafts of things he’d written and shared with them during the time that St Hugh’s Conversation has been running. There are hints in his booklet that the group exists – for example, “Locally … I met separately with those opposed to any change” (p.8) and “There has been a vigorous and courteous correspondence and dialogue with different groups, almost continually since [October 2017]”. Maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know this group exists! At the meeting we were given permission to mention the group and its work, but not to say who else is on it or to attribute anything that had been said.
From my first meeting, I’m not sure what to make of St Hugh’s. It’s always difficult to come into a group which has been going on for years without you and, while there are people there I know from other contexts, I haven’t been with most of them long enough to build up any sense of trust. I am sure they have done some internet searches on me – who knows, perhaps they read this blog – but they won’t know who I am in any deep sense. In more practical terms, I am not clear what the Evangelicals think would work as a solution if the C of E moves to accept blessing same-sex marriages and civil partnerships (because from their point of view this is blessing sin) let alone if marriages of couples of the same sex were to happen in any churches. Yet as is very clear from the response of Revd Vaughan Roberts, vicar of St Ebbe’s in Oxford, to Bishop Steven’s booklet, clearly they all agree that a ‘settlement’ is needed, This response came out almost immediately Bishop Steven’s booklet appeared, and both writers had shared drafts before publication.
But what would a settlement look like? I can envisage a motion coming to General Synod in February which just says something on the lines of “we disagree but we think it is acceptable to hold either view”. I am not sure that would get anywhere because it’s clear that conservatives regard this as a ‘first order’ issue or a ‘creation’ issue or a ‘salvation issue’. I’ve read the arguments for this but I don’t agree. There are those on Synod who’d be wanting to stand up and say that ‘blessing sin’ can’t happen. Even if something that initially tried to respect both ends of the spectrum was presented, would it be possible to amend the motion or to propose following motions, so that every possible variation on a settlement – more Provincial Episcopal Visitors (aka Flying Bishops, moving further to a ‘pick your own bishop’ approach which hardly makes sense in an episcopal and geographically-organised Church), a new Province, having at least one conservative and one progressive bishop in each diocese, etc etc – could be put to the vote to see if any commanded a majority? And think of the amendments to the amendments…
While I am glad that we’ve (nearly) moved beyond trying to persuade each other to read the Bible differently and are agreeing to disagree (although again I am not always sure this is for real), and that we have definitely agreed that we are fed up of this conversation and need to move on, I still can’t imagine how the December College of Bishops is going to find a way through this. Let us pray.
And that’s where we return to the Judgement of Solomon. The child is the Church of England. What about if the mothers are the progressive and the conservative wings of that Church? Is the expectation that one mother will step back, refuse to damage her child, and thus show herself to be the true mother? I know both ‘sides’ express the pain they feel. Is it possible for both to be given a safe space in which they can flourish, yet with the Church still being one body with everyone in communion with each other? How can we be a presence in every parish? Watch this space.