Wednesday, 8 February 2017

After listening? A response to the CofE House of Bishops

Dear Bishops,

I write this as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England. In those identity markers, I share much in common with most - but thank God, not all - of you. But I write too as a member of the body of Christ, a body which includes people like me, and - thank God - people very different to me, in sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, vocation, theology.

Like the very gracious and wise statement from St Martin's in the Fields today, I too want to welcome some of what is in your report: first and foremost, your re-affirmation right at the outset that "all human beings are made in the image of God". What follows in the report, however, is not just "challenging or difficult reading", as you suggest. It is, I believe, deeply flawed in ways that you do not seem to acknowledge. Ultimately, in fact, it seems to contradict your initial affirmation: it fails to see, acknowledge and honour the image of God in may of our sisters and brothers in Christ. There are, I suggest, three interconnected reasons why it fails in this respect.

Firstly, while it claims to listen attentively to the Shared Conversations, this report represents a failure to listen. "The House hoped to sustain the atmosphere of careful and respectful listening that had marked the Shared Conversations," you write, "but was clear that the current situation requires some clearer assertion of where the Church now finds itself" (section 14). Among a select group of bishops, you continue, the "emerging consensus" was that "there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage". What did need revising, you tell us, was the "resources, guidance and tone" (section 18). Among other things, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships" (section 23) will be produced.

Much in this report has the character of an 'interim' document, a 'snapshot' of how things are right now, a 'work in progress'. However, what has happened is that you have chosen to end a period of intense and attentive listening - a process within which many people made themselves incredibly vulnerable - with an "assertion", a reiteration of the established position, a suggestion that what is needed is a resource to 'teach' that position more carefully. Any further reference to "listening" in the report is absent, other than a vague sense of "double listening" to "Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures" and to "the particular culture in which we live" (57), a listening "with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion" (60), and "to other Synod members’ responses to this report" (69). Further careful listening, most particularly to the experience of LGBTI people within and beyond the Church of England, seems now to be irrelevant.

We are a divided church, and for some those divides are felt much more deeply than others. This is not a time for "reassertion" - it is a time for acknowledging those divides with deep sorrow, and for committing ourselves to further listening to each other. An "emerging consensus" among a small group of bishops is not an adequate basis on which to write a report such as this. However much I, and many others, may be impatient for a change of direction (and not just a change of tone) within the Church of England, this is one of those moments where a bit more daring patience is what is most needed. Who knows, at this critical time in the wider politics of the world, the hard-won experience of 'listening across difference' might even have been a gift we could have offered the world beyond the church.

Which brings me to my second point. You will by now have picked up, hopefully, the deep offence you have caused so many of your sister and brother Christians by pairing the terms "lesbian and gay people" with "those who experience same sex attraction". You may think you are practising, as well as advocating for, a change of tone with this report. You may believe that your reassertion of "the Church of England’s teaching on marriage" can be held consistently with a reaffirmation of the image of God in all human beings. However, if you are indeed continuing to 'listen', you might have heard just a little of the hurt felt by LGBTI Christians at your use of words here. A phrase that is heard to deny some of the deepest reality of people's lives, their most intimate sense of identity, their profoundest experiences.

What we are talking about here, technically, we call a question of ontology. Descriptions of reality, of 'the way things are', of who and what people are. Serious listening to other people takes seriously their own descriptions of who and what they are. Any suggestion that even the Shared Conversations were a 'level playing field' is falsified by this one reality: those on one 'side' of the conversation refuse to accept the ontological reality of those on the other side. Those who refuse to accept the God-given reality of same-sex love are not just limited in their listening - they are denying the reality of those they are listening to. To claim that the 'vulnerabilities', or the 'sacrifices', on both sides of these conversations are comparable, then, is to wilfully ignore the imbalance of power, of recognition, of capacity to listen and be listened to. To reassert, in such contexts, the Church of England's existing "teaching on marriage", in whatever "tone" of voice, is to continue in such wilful ignorance. Jesus' teaching on our attention to "the least of these" surely cannot come as anything other than a rebuke to such closedness.

Third and finally, your report is a failure of theology. You recognise, rightly, "that alongside missiology, we should place pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology as cardinal points of the compass in navigating towards a right understanding and true judgment in this area" (section 58). You propose, as we've already noted, "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships". But nothing you say in this paper (and particularly in your outline of the content for that new document, in section 34), suggests that you will spend much time, effort or care exploring a theology of sexuality itself. To reassert the place of "sexual relationships" within the "current doctrine of marriage" fails to consider what Archbishop Rowan Williams has called "the body's grace": the place of sexuality within all of our relationships (and our sense of embodied identity), and the reality of both healthy and unhealthy sexuality, both inside and outside of 'marriage'. The report concentrates on questions of form and institution (marriage), and almost ignores questions of content (sexuality). It is almost as if you, as bishops, can only cope with thinking about sexuality when it is 'safely' boundaried inside the institution of marriage - and that the institution itself then allows you to avoid thinking about it even there.

On the day you published your report, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that my LGBTI friends in faithful, committed relationships should have lots of sex, "joyfully, proudly, even loudly". It raised a few smiles and laughs on a day when there was much shock, grief, anger and tears. But I was making a point of deep seriousness. "By their fruits shall you know them", said Jesus. It seems that for many of you, it is impossible to imagine that faithful, committed, same-sex relationships can possibly reflect the love, the joy, and the glory of God. It is easier to continue in that unbelief if you stop listening to LGBTI people, or fail to acknowledge the reality of their own lives and relationships that they describe. So as a straight, white, middle-class, male priest in the Church of England, I urge both you, our bishops, and my LGBTI friends, to a wild patience, and an attentiveness to the fruit of faithful, embodied relationships. Only then might we all truly discover that we are 'one body'.

Revd Al Barrett
Hodge Hill Church
Wednesday 8th February, 2017