Diversity among bishops as ‘shared conversations’ on sexuality begin

By Savi Hensman
September 23, 2014

A two-year process of conversations on sexuality has begun in the Church of England, at a gathering of bishops. Similar discussions are taking place in several other churches in Britain.

The College of Bishops spent two days listening, sharing thoughts and feelings and reflecting on sexuality, the Bible and the church’s mission. This helped to pave the way for similar ‘shared conversations’ to be held on a regional basis from early 2015.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, an increasing number of theologians have made the case for supporting committed same-sex partnerships, though not all agree. Meanwhile society has become more accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Nevertheless bishops collectively tended to take a strong public stance against accepting same-sex partnerships, though privately some were more positive or even in gay relationships themselves. The mid-September discussions have accelerated a gradual shift towards greater candour.

Beforehand, Canon David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's director of reconciliation, explained the value of a “capacity to disagree well, that means that when we get to the process which is beyond the shared conversations when decision will have to be made, the way we approach the making of those decisions is done in a way that honours the fact that we are brothers and sisters of Christ.”

A similar process helped to create the conditions to reach agreement on legislation to allow women to be bishops. Addressing divisions on sexuality may be even harder.

A small but vocal faction is adamantly opposed to any softening of the official position, which treats all sex outside heterosexual marriage as immoral.

Others passionately believe that nothing short of full equality right now is morally acceptable. Their impatience has been fuelled by past processes which have failed to bring about change and the fact that clergy risk losing their jobs if they marry same-sex partners.

The 2013, British Social Attitudes survey found that only 21 per cent of Anglicans still thought that sex between adults of the same sex was always wrong. 16 per cent of Anglicans agreed strongly that gay couples should have the right to marry, compared to 14 per cent who disagreed strongly. Overall about 46 per cent backed equal marriage, with 30 per cent opposed.

The bishops “reflected the diversity of experience and view held by the country as a whole” while seeking to be “open to see Jesus Christ in those who took an opposing view to their own position,” communications officers reported after the meeting.

Having been involved in the quest for greater inclusion in church and society for over thirty years, I would like to see the church become rapidly better at reflecting God’s love for all, including those of us who are LGBT. However I recognise that “disagreeing well” may be important for moving forward after years of inertia, as well as enabling people with diverse views to remain in fellowship.

Perhaps the Church of England could learn something from the United Reformed Church. There, congregations and ministers who wish to celebrate civil partnerships, and those who do not, allow each other to act in line with their consciences. A similar option is being consulted on with regard to marriage.

The Methodist Church, with which the Church of England works closely, will also be discussing sexuality over the next two years. While the current teaching on marriage remains for the time being, in July 2014 the conference agreed that no-one should be disciplined for getting married to a partner of the same sex. This has helped to create a safe atmosphere for conversations and reflection.

The bishops have made a positive start but there is still a considerable way to go.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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