Stirrings in Salisbury

An interesting news item posted on the Salisbury Diocese website together with the content of Bishop Nick Holtam’s address to the Diocesan Synod.

The Bishop of Sherborne, the Archdeacon of Dorset and I met with 10 clergy from Dorset who had contacted me following my remarks on same-sex relationships in an interview published in The Times on 3 February, and on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme on 5 February.

Bishop Graham and I disagree about the appropriateness of using the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex relationships. He expressed his concerns to me privately and in the meeting. We are, however, committed to working together creatively.

A number of bullet points followed including the following,

  • My thanks for their constructive response to what I had said
  • The context of the wider interview from which the published remarks were drawn
  • The state of the debate about same-sex relationships
  • My intention to encourage an honest conversation
  • Our understanding of what marriage constitutes and mean
  • The place of same-sex relationships and couples within the life of the Church and our pastoral care of them
  • The nature of same-sex relationships
  • The difference between contractual and covenantal relationships and their relationship to Civil Partnerships and marriage
  • The appropriateness of using the language of marriage for same-sex relationships
  • Our understanding of the authority of Scripture and Tradition, and their immutability
  • The significance of scriptural references to homosexuality
  • The Church’s relationship with the wider community and its culture
  • The current discipline and practice of the Church of England
  • My role as Bishop and leader in the Diocese
  • Pluralism, the width of the Church and the Bishop’s relationship to it
  • How we address contentious issues within the Diocese
  • Our relationships with the Church in other parts of the world, especially Sudan
  • Concerns for local Ecumenical relationships
  • How we might go forward constructively when we are in such profound disagreement about the definition of marriage

Speaking to sources in the Diocese, it becomes clear that there was real anger in some places at the way that Nick Holtam spoke out on the issue. It appears that his Times interview and then his comments to the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme resulted as a response to the remarks made by Archbishop Sentamu in Jamaica on the same subject. He believes passionately that the Church should bless same-sex relationships and this becomes clearer in the presidential statement.

I am sorry my comments about same sex relationships got such elevated treatment by The Times, when reporting a small part of a wider interview. I hope I got the tone and content clearer in the subsequent interview for BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme.  When Civil Partnerships were introduced in 2005, I thought their distinction from heterosexual marriage was helpful. They are an important support to faithful love, and faithful love is a distinctive mark of Christianity because it reflects God’s love of us.

Because the quality and nature of some Civil Partnerships is similar, possibly the same as for married couples, I have come to see that the rapidly adopted name “gay marriage” may be appropriate. As we know, the Government begins its consultation about this next month and that they have already explicitly exempted religious communities from being forced to accept the conduct of homosexual marriage in addition to heterosexual marriage.

In saying what I did, I am trying to create the space for an honest conversation.  We have no option but to recognise our context is changing and that we are talking about people, some of whom are within the life of the Church; that we are talking about ‘us’, not ‘them’.

For the avoidance of doubt, the position of the Church of England, House of Bishops and Diocese of Salisbury has not changed. There are no authorised services of blessing for same sex partnerships and it is not possible for Civil Partnerships to take place in Church of England churches. I will, of course, keep to the Church’s discipline whilst hoping that we find opportunity to explore the issues which divide us.

Last Tuesday I met with the Bishop of Sherborne, the Archdeacon of Dorset and 10 clergy who had written expressing their concerns about my reported comments and a short note of that meeting is being drawn up and I will put a statement on the Diocesan web site.

Sexuality was one of the items identified at our last meeting for inclusion in a future Diocesan Synod agenda. The Chairs of the Houses of Clergy and Laity, the Diocesan Secretary and myself had provisionally identified this would best take place after the working parties of the House of Bishops had reported on Civil Partnerships later this year and that on some other matters related to ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ next year.  Synod might feel a greater sense of urgency about this in response to my contribution but I wasn’t starting the debate, and my own instinct would be for us to wait and for me to consult with my Bishop’s staff.  If you want to let me know what you think about the timing of such a debate I would be grateful or your views.

My understanding is that one of the chief concerns raised at the meeting of the ten Dorset clergy with the Bishop was that statements such as the one that Bishop Nick made in the Times are deeply damaging to the links of the church both internationally (specifically with the Anglican Church in Sudan) and locally ecumenically. Beyond that there was deep disquiet at any sense that the Bishop, in his role as chief pastor of the Diocese, should take any major role in any campaign to change the Church’s practice on this issue. Although the impression given by many is that Salisbury is a liberal diocese (the reason it has become home to same-sex campaigners like Colin Coward of Changing Attitude), there is a significant proportion of conservative clergy of all kinds of stripes (Evangelical, traditional Catholic) who are deeply disturbed by any notion that Salisbury will be the centre of any future political pressure in this area.

And note carefully Holtam’s language,

Because the quality and nature of some Civil Partnerships is similar, possibly the same as for married couples, I have come to see that the rapidly adopted name “gay marriage” may be appropriate.

This is the language of “equivalent rights”, essentially arguing that we should change what we call Civil Partnerships but that we shouldn’t amalgamate Civil Partnerships with marriage. Once again, talking to a few sources in the Diocese it’s very clear that any notion from Nick Holtam that there should just be one definition of marriage regardless of the sex of the spouses would be met with such a vigorous response from elements in his Diocese that it would make the furore over Jeffrey John’s appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 look like a mild disagreement of no consequence. I’m told the fact that Bishop Nick voted against the Anglican Covenant in the recent Diocesan Synod vote was another matter that caused one or two to ask questions as to his real commitment to holding the Diocese together.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to people that Bishop Nick Holtam and elements of his Diocese (including his Suffragan, Bishop Graham Kings) disagree on this subject and quite profoundly. What is news-worthy is that it is now very public that such a disagreement exists and more importantly, that given the size of the conservative caucus in the Diocese, Nick Holtam had to do some hefty back-tracking in this publicised memo and Diocesan address.

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