Initial Observations on the ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’ Report

Today there was a press conference where the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, presented a paper from the House of Bishops on Marriage and Same Sex Relations after the Shared Conversations, which will be discussed at the General Synod in February.

This is the latest chapter in the on going discussions within the Church of England surrounding a variety of questions of the place and value of lesbians and gays in the Church of England, and the degree to which same sex relationships are compatible (or not) with the teaching of the Church of England. Having written briefly on the Primates meeting this time last year I thought I’d identify a couple of interesting features while not intending to preempt the discussions which will happen at General Synod.

There’s two strands of context which I found helpful: the historical and the legal.

The Marriage and Same Sex Relations (M&SSR) report, locates itself as the intermediary conclusion of the ongoing process of the Church of England considering issues arising from same sex relationships since ‘well before’ Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 (13). In 1999 there was Marriage: A Teaching Document, which worked on the basis that marriage was between one man and one woman. In 2013 there was The Pilling Report which recognised a range of views and proposed two years of, what became, ‘Shared Conversations’. These were facilitated conversations intended to ‘assist the careful listening that would support clear and open exchange of views and embody the principle of disagreeing Christianly, in a manner marked by Christian care for each other'(13). These concluded in July 2016, at which point the House of Bishops took responsibility for exploring ‘what should happen next'(14).

The Archbishops nominated ten bishops to form a Bishop’s Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS) to propose a process to put before the synod (15). There were meetings in September, November and December which all led to the formation of this course and these meetings involved prayer and mediation, both personally and corporately.

The other strand of context is the legal advice as to what the potential options of moving forward would be with regards to the changes which would have to be made to Canon Law. There were two issues which were dealt with (provided in Annex 1 of the report as a background resource): Services and Clergy Conduct.

As it stands, Clergy are only allowed to use services which have been approved (Authorised or Commended) and where there are no available services they may form their own so long as it does not depart from the doctrine of the Church of England. The effect of this is that in the light of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony ‘it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’.

As such there are four possible responses:

  1. Remove the requirement to be faithful to the doctrine of the Church of England.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Make no changes but explain it would be okay for clergy to use forms of services which did not equate same sex relationships with holy matrimony.
  4. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

With regards to clergy conduct, presently there is the expectation that clergy will ‘be diligent to frame and fashion their life and that of their family according to the doctrine of Christ’. It’s understood that this would mean maintaining the doctrine of Holy Matrimony in their personal lives as well, which would mean one man and one woman. More than this, it’s pointed out in paragraph 46 that all clergy explicitly assent to the principle of this in their ordination vows. As such to enter a marriage with a person of the same sex is fashioning ones’ life into a way which is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ.

From a legal perspective there are five possible responses:

  1. Change the rule so that being married to a person of the same sex doesn’t break the rule.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony to state that civil marriage to a person of the same sex is a different institution from Holy Matrimony and so entering into that institution does not amount to an act contrary to the doctrine of holy matrimony.
  4. Make no change but issue a teaching document which explains that the Church of England does not equate same sex civil marriages with holy matrimony, and that by entering one clergy would not be considered to be acting in a way contrary to the doctrine.
  5. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

I think that acknowledging any response (in any direction) to the Shared Conversations is bound to deal with these legal realities in order to make sure that the conversations weren’t merely ‘a smoke screen for dismissing those we disagree with’ (10) but actually have a real ecclesial response.

The general consensus, though not unanimous, of the bishops in writing the report was twofold (18):

  1. There was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage;
  2. There was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.

As such the intention is to:

  • interpret the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church (22).

Paragraph 23 goes on to summarise the four practical proposals that much of the rest of the report goes on to expand, namely:

  1. Establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, and their families, and continuing to work towards mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church.
  2. There should be a substantial new Teaching Document, replacing or expanding upon the 1999 Marriage Teaching Document. This should be comprehensive but accessible enough to be widely read and understood throughout the Church of England.
  3. There should be clear guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples.
  4. There should be new guidance from the House of Bishops about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

That last one is particularly interesting to me as an ordinand myself. I am aware of those who are under regular scrutiny of their moral integrity with living by the standards they have assented to in Issues in Human Sexuality (as all ordinands must in order to proceed with training) on the basis of their sexuality while others, who may well be morally deficient in other ways, escape that scrutiny on the basis of their presumed heterosexual orientation. As such the suggestions in paragraph 55 and 54 that questioning about sexual morality should form part of a wider examination of ordinands by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and bishop, and that this questioning should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form, seems to me to be a sensible development of the discernment and accountability processes of the Church.

There was one phrase which leapt out at me while I was working my way through the report. Paragraph 31 says:

  • The national Shared Conversations have demonstrated the need for and value of careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with the reading of scripture.

I found the addition of the word ‘reading’ an interesting one, in that it implicitly acknowledges that the location of the discussions aren’t necessarily located within the text of scripture but within the different ‘ways’ that different Anglican traditions approach scripture. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s not going to be questions of morality which will prolong and hinder the Church in finding a unified position on sexuality, but rather the less asked and underlying questions of biblical methodology, hermeneutic practice and even epistemology.

This process is one which has placed a strain on the Church of England, and this comes through in paragraphs 59 and 65. Paragraph 65 stresses that ‘to maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine in this matter [holy matrimony is one man and one woman] while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it is entirely consistent with our traditions and is a perfectly coherent approach to take’. As such, returning to paragraph 59, ‘We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.’

The report is well worth a read, and I imagine that many will be pleased and disappointed by various different elements of what the bishops have to say. However I think that, particularly bearing in mind the legal realities and options which are available to take as the next steps in this continuing process, in reality the bishops would have been hard-pressed to say anything substantially different than they have done. There’s a certain logic to the movements which have long since been set in motion and what will be far more interesting, from my perspective, will be the response and feedback of the General Synod as the Church of England continues to ‘walk together’ through this process, hopefully, wherever the Spirit leads them.

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