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LLF Lead Bishop Resigns Over Conservative Appointment

Update: Second Adviser Appointed

In the wake of Hartley’s resignation, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have appointed a second theological adviser to serve alongside the conservative whose appointment sparked the resignation.

The archbishops announced February 6 that the Rev. Canon Dr. Jessica Martin, canon for education and outreach at Ely Cathedral, will serve with Woolford as a second interim theology adviser to the House of Bishops, and as co-secretary of the Faith and Order Commission.

Martin, who describes herself as a questioner of both conservative and progressive views on human sexuality, wrote Holiness and Desire, a study of Christian spirituality and sexuality, in 2020.

Less than three months after becoming a co-chair of the Living in Love and Faith process, the Rt. Rev. Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Newcastle, announced that she was resigning over the appointment of a conservative evangelical as interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops.

The decision throws yet another twist into the Church of England’s contentious move toward blessing same-sex relationships, three weeks before General Synod is scheduled to convene and work on the next stages of LLF.

In an online statement released February 1, Hartley said the appointment of the Rev. Thomas Woolford, tutor at Emmanuel Theological College, “has had a critically negative impact on the work Bishop Martyn [Snow] and I were seeking, in good faith, to do.”

She said the two co-chairs were not consulted on the decision, which was made by the chairman of the Faith and Order Commission, the Rt. Rev. Robert Innes, Bishop in Europe, who (unlike Hartley) opposes same-sex blessings.

The other co-chair, Bishop Martyn Snow of Leicester, a conservative, said he would remain in his role if a replacement co-chair and an additional theological adviser were appointed. The second  theological adviser, he said, should be of a different perspective from Woolford’s, “so there is a similar model of working together across difference.”  He also said he was “deeply saddened” by Hartley’s decision.

Woolford replaces the Rev. Prebendary Isabella Hamley, who stepped down to serve as principal of Ridley Hall, the evangelical Anglican theological college in Cambridge. A permanent theological adviser to the House of Bishops is due to be in the post by September.

Woolford’s new role includes serving as interim secretary for the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission, in the midst of its evaluation of the prayers for same-sex blessings in Prayers of Love and Faith, which was commended for use in the context of regular worship services by the House of Bishops in December after being narrowly approved by General Synod in November.

Many conservatives objected to the bishops’ decision to proceed with commending the prayers before the theological evaluation was complete, because Canon B5.3, under whose terms they are being used, only permits using liturgical texts that are “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”

If the Faith and Order Commission were to find that Prayers of Love and Faith fell short of this bar, the prayers would be usable only after an official change in the Church of England’s teaching about sex and marriage. Last month, several evangelical bishops urged their parishes not to use the prayers because they believe the prayers do not meet the canonical standard.

One bishop, Paul Williams of Southwell and Nottingham, referencing legal guidance received by the bishops (but not released to the public), said then: “The bishops have been advised that it is likely that such use is indicative of a change of doctrine. As your bishop I simply cannot advise you to use prayers that indicate a departure from the clear teaching of the Church of England.”

After the announcement of Woolford’s new role, a 2019 article he had written about how evangelicals in the Church of England should respond to changes in teaching and practice about marriage began circulating on social media.

In “No Red Lines,” Woolford, who described himself as “an unapologetic orthodox evangelical,” wrote: “I think it would be disastrous and desperately wicked if the Church were to prepare blessings for things we must not bless, alter the canons to accommodate worldly thinking, give up the standard of chastity for ordained office-holders, or sanction false teaching.”

Still, Woolford strongly discourages fellow evangelicals from leaving “an apparently apostatizing Church of England,” urging them instead to follow Christ in being willing to “stay and die,” accepting losses like “lack of preferment, our postulants not being recommended for ordination training, being discriminated against when curates and cash are distributed.”

After Bishop Hartley’s announcement, Woolford distanced himself from the tone of the 2019 article, which he had written for an exclusively conservative evangelical audience and before the Living in Love and Faith process was complete.

“I’m still a conservative on blessings and on sexuality; so that part hasn’t changed,” he told The Church Times. “But I’d put a lot of things differently in light of the journey that we’ve been on in Synod and in the wider Church.”

Bishop Innes also defended Woolford as “a very able theologian,” and said Woolford understood that in leading the Faith and Order Commission, he would need to “behave in a neutral way.”

“It was a good few years ago, and if he was in role now he would express himself very differently,” Innes said.

Hartley and Snow released their first joint statement on the next stage of LLF less than a week before Hartley’s resignation, on January 26. In it, they promised a “reset” of LLF, and said they would “bring a set of ‘commitments’ to February’s meeting of the Synod, which, we hope, will form the basis for a settlement that allows as many people as possible to remain within the Church of England.”

Their statement noted that a new area of emphasis would be “a detailed examination of legal safeguards and appropriate structures that will enable as high a degree as possible of unity and communion in the Church, while providing the reassurance needed for those concerned by the changes.”

Many conservatives objected to the bishops’ decision to push ahead on commending Prayers of Love and Faith before the groundwork for such structures of differentiation was in place. Prominent supporters of change, including the Archbishop of York, had previously promised that the liturgies, provisions for reassurance, and changes to the clergy disciplinary standards would be introduced simultaneously.

The Church of England Evangelical Council has launched emergency structures for such differentiation already, coordinating pastoral care for parishes in dioceses led by progressive bishops, and announcing the launch of a fund for supporting clerical ministry in place of the “parish share” that Church of England congregations pay to their dioceses.

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