By Andrew Goddard
Looking towards the House of Bishops bringing proposals relating to marriage and sexuality to the CofE’s General Synod in February, several bishops have called for change, breaking a polite silence that has prevailed among the church’s senior leaders, and eliciting responses from prominent evangelicals.
The College of Bishops’ gathering on October 31 to November 2 was informed by the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) curriculum published two years ago, and two follow-up texts, Listening with Love and Faith and Friendship and the Body of Christ.
For many years now, throughout the production and engagement phases of LLF, most bishops have said little about its subject matter. Many expected this to continue now that the bishops are focusing so much time and attention on what direction the Church of England should take. This has, however, not proved to be the case.
The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, published a 52-page essay, Together in Love and Faith, two days after the college met. Croft recounted his journey from what he previously described as “orthodox and generous to those who took a different view” (p. 5) to now affirming same-sex marriage. He calls on the Church of England (pp. 23-24) to allow public services that bless same-sex civil partnerships and solemnize same-sex marriage, and to remove current restrictions on clergy and ordinands (whose civil partnerships are expected to be celibate and who cannot enter same-sex marriages).
Croft is also clear that those holding traditional views must have freedom of conscience and “a legitimate and honorable position,” and that this will require “differentiation of provision and oversight,” perhaps in the form of “an alternative province and structure within the Church of England or a system of oversight from a neighboring diocese” (p. 47). He favors this over a new compromise that falls short of same-sex marriage.
All three area bishops in Oxford diocese expressed their support of his proposals on marriage (though not on visible differentiation), as did the bishops in Worcester (John Inge and his suffragan, Martin Gorick, a former archdeacon in the Diocese of Oxford) and the Bishop of Portsmouth.
It is unclear whether there will be more public statements from bishops, particularly evangelicals and others supportive of traditional teaching and discipline, in coming weeks. Those holding such views in the wider church are concerned that episcopal silence will create anxiety and a momentum for change.
Theologian Ian Paul, on his weblog Psephizo, and the Rev. Joshua Penduck, writing for Fulcrum, have offered strong critiques. But no Church of England bishops have publicly taken issue with the Bishop of Oxford’s essay, and it seems likely that most bishops want to avoid bringing episcopal divisions into the public spotlight.
Among the factors driving the Bishop of Oxford appears to be his sense he should have been clearer about his changed position earlier, and his concerns about the gap between the established church and English culture. This is already leading to some calls for Parliament to act if the church will not change. Also important, though, have been his discussions with those who disagree with him, including about their need for structural changes should the church change its position.
The Rev. Vaughan Roberts has issued a response of similar length to Croft’s document. Roberts is a leading evangelical, rector of St. Ebbe’s in Oxford, and a founding member of Living Out, which encourages Christians — “especially those who experience same-sex attraction — to flourish through faithfulness to biblical teaching on sexuality and identity.”
In a promising sign, Roberts and Croft had clearly consulted about their respective contributions. The tone of Roberts’s response is conciliatory and respectful, while robust in its rejection of the arguments Croft advances for change. It is much more supportive of the Church of England’s need to address structural questions to resolve its deep disagreements.
Roberts says he believes that elements of Bishop Croft’s acceptance of differentiation of ministry and oversight offer “a hopeful basis for a potential way forward for the Church of England out of the present unsatisfactory situation” (p. 1-2) and wholeheartedly agrees that any solution “‘must be founded on love and respect’ for all, whatever view they take on these contentious issues” (p. 37).
This tone and desire to find a consensus settlement, rather than a confrontational debate in which winner takes all, is the fruit of both LLF and a sustained period of private conversations. It is a hopeful sign that, as recently advocated in a video by the Church of England Evangelical Council, a better way may be found through “learning from elsewhere.” But the chances of reaching an agreed teaching and discipline on marriage and sexual ethics (I have traced some of the options at Psephizo) still seem slim.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Goddard is tutor in ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. From 2017-2020 he served as a theological consultant to the Living in Love and Faith project.