Salisbury and Oxford

Slowly but surely the Ad Clerums are coming.

Nick Holtam - Bishop of SalisburyThe Bishop of Salisbury asks the clergy and laity of the Diocese to note the pastoral guidance which was agreed at the House of Bishops meeting on 13th February 2014. It supports lay people who enter the new possibility of same-sex marriage in civil law and it should be expected that some will want the pastoral support of Christians in prayer that their joyful covenanted relationship be loving, faithful and lifelong.

The pastoral guidance notes the conflict created with Canon Law. Therefore if a person in holy orders contracts a same-sex marriage a complaint could be made against them, which would result in discipline for which the full range of penalties are possible.

This pastoral guidance allows the Church of England to begin the facilitated conversations that have been agreed following the recommendations of the Pilling Report without any predetermined outcome. The Bishop asks for the prayers and understanding of the Christian community at this time.

And here’s Oxford.

John Pritchard, Bishop of OxfordThis is a very difficult part of the letter to get right. I know that what I write will be unacceptable to gay clergy who despair of the Church of England, and to conservatives who will see compromise looming. But I can’t not write about the Pastoral Letter and Appendix on Same Sex Marriage which emerged recently. I wish I could talk individually to everyone in order to engage properly and personally, but we all know this is impossible. I sit amongst many different loyalties and seek to honour as many of them as possible.

First I apologise for the tone of the letter (or rather the Appendix). It was written by committee and that is always bad news. This is a deeply personal issue, indeed a visceral one, and every word and inference is capable of harm. I hope it’s common ground that we are part of a Church which is called to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to gay and lesbian people. Nor have we listened well to those whose voice has not been heard, including the experience of those called to celibacy, those in committed same sex relationships, and clergy who have lovingly and sensitively ministered to gay couples over the years.

It was never going to be likely that the House of Bishops would change two thousand years of teaching during a day in February at Church House Westminster. The intention was to respond to a new legal situation in the context of a longer conversation in the Church about an issue which has theological, biblical, ethical, missiological and ecclesiological implications. This longer conversation is what the Pilling report has asked us to do and to which the College of Bishops is committed.

The House was also aware of a huge level of interest and concern from other parts of the Anglican Communion, and from other denominations and faith traditions. The Archbishop told us how in the previous few days, literally in the midst of corpses and tales of systematic rape, he had been quizzed by his African episcopal hosts about the Pilling Report, such was their anxiety.

The resulting letter and appendix is supposed to be a holding statement on the logical position of the House in the new situation, given the Church’s history and teaching – while the longer conversation goes on. The fact that this was done in a way which has caused dismay is a source of huge regret to me but that’s back to my first point above.

The longer conversation is one on which David Porter, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Reconciliation, is to give advice in three or four months, having worked on the task with a well-chosen group.

I appreciate that some are unwilling to participate in this process on the grounds that they believe the scriptural position is perfectly clear and ‘facilitated conversation’ can only mean an intention to change, while conversely others will be wary because they believe that to have participated in a process that didn’t in the end change anything might expose them to adverse treatment by bishops and/or others. Nevertheless, I dare to ask that we do enter the conversation with integrity and trust because we do need to seek God’s mind and heart, and we can’t do this without all of us being round the table and being honest with each other.

I also know that many will be reluctant to examine the biblical material yet again. But the Bible is our core authority and issues of both exegesis and hermeneutical method are crucial. Let me be absolutely honest here. I don’t expect that many people will change their mind through this biblical exploration. I hope some might, because we must have the highest loyalty to truth, but in reality I don’t expect many to change their basic position.

What I do very much hope, however, is that we can get to a point where we can respect the integrity of the biblical interpretation of others. I hope we can come to understand deeply why others take a different view, and to respect that conviction even though we disagree, perhaps profoundly. None of us is taking a cavalier attitude to biblical authority, but thoughtful, honest people can thoughtfully, honestly disagree.

The task then becomes twofold: to discover how much we can agree on, and to learn how to disagree well on what we can’t agree on. Archbishop Justin often uses that phrase ‘disagree well’. So then the third question becomes whether we want to affirm that spectrum of honest belief or detach ourselves from it.  I dearly want to keep intact the range and scale of the Church of England’s theology, and we will be grievously hurt by the loss of any from the richness of our calling and our reach in the nation’s life.

As you will know from my statement on the website in December 2012 I have been very happy to affirm civil partnerships as a positive development which gives same sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples. As that statement says, such relationships ‘are capable of the same level of love, permanence and loyalty as marriage, and I believe God delights in such qualities’.

Nevertheless I believe that to say that civil partnership is the same thing as marriage is a category confusion. To use a musical image, nature has its ‘theme and variations’, both part of the music, but not the same thing. I have therefore looked for different ways of recognising two different patterns of relationship. I realise that that puts me at odds with most people on both ‘sides’ of the argument! And society has largely gone past that argument now anyway. The issue has become same sex marriage, though some may still want to opt for a form of civil partnership.

So where do we end up? That’s just the point – we don’t know. The Pilling Report urges us to talk, and although it makes at least one recommendation about the recognition of a same sex relationship in a public service, its main recommendation is to talk and listen so that God may be heard. And that voice of God will undoubtedly be a gracious, gentle and challenging voice, just as I trust our conversations with each other will be marked by humility and grace.

It’s quite clear that these conversations take place in a wider context of deep sexual confusion in society with everyone making up their own script, and the result is much chaos and pain. We have a responsibility to model something better in the way we handle principle and practice, disagreement and hope.

As I wrote at the start, I’m sorry that the attempt by the House of Bishops to hold the ancient borders while the conversation goes on has proved so divisive in itself. The train crash was probably inevitable; the only question was when, where and involving how many. But be sure of this – there will be no witch-hunts in this diocese. We are seeking to live as God’s people, in God’s world, in God’s way. And we do that best as we stand shoulder to shoulder and look together at the cross, and at its heart see an empty tomb.

If you hear of any more., please let me know.

23 Comments on “Salisbury and Oxford

  1. Sometimes, getting at the truth requires some digging. If you’re trying to lay a foundation for a garden wall, removing the first layers of top soil is easy. But then, you might expose a pipe and it makes sense to follow it, if only to find out what it’s carrying and where it leads.

    It was a bit like that when I read in the Oxford ad clerum:

    The longer conversation is one on which David Porter, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Reconciliation, is to give advice in three or four months, having worked on the task with a well-chosen group.

    While the Bishop of Oxford makes no secret of his sympathies towards some sort of recognition of same-sexc, it’s worth working out where the church’s statutory undertaking of facilitated conversations is leading.

    The key is to discover the mind-set of David Porter, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director for Reconciliation. He is self-described himself on his blog in this way ‘A political activist he contributed to media and government on key issues in the political and peace processes and to ongoing public policy debate on good relations, equality and human rights.’,/i>

    In 1987, he cofounded ECONI, ‘which until 2005 acted as a catalyst for Evangelical Protestant involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process’ .

    What’s crucial about his involvement in that process (he sat on the now-defunct Northern Ireland Civic Forum), is that it gives a flavour of what ‘CofE Reconciliation a la Porter’ looks like.

    When asked on BBC’s Sunday programme about his new role, he said: My job is actually to look at ‘process’ – it is to look at how we create the space for conversations to take place where people will still differ and they still will disagree but they will do so in a way that is able to say ‘look this is how Christians disagree, this is how we hold tensions and differences together’

    As an example drawn from the Northern Ireland peace process, he further stated: well, in my background in Northern Ireland, I used to say to people that if you are a fundamentalist protestant who believes that the catholic church are not Christian or if you are a strong catholic who believes there is no salvation outside the church and you’re in that conversation, the reality is that Jesus still tells you to love the people that you perceive as your enemies and that shows that you are holding what you hold on to in a Christian way and are able to disagree within that commitment of Jesus teling us how we disagree”

    Archbishop Justin Welby also concurs. In his ‘Hard Talk’ interview, he explained: ‘What I am trying to do is to – not to get everyone to agree, because I don’t think we are going to agree. It is to try and transform bad disagreement to good disagreement. There is some very good disagreement.

    In the Northern Ireland peace process is anything to go by, we can see where the facilitated discussions might lead.

    In a critique of the Civic Forum (the Northern Ireland consultative forum on social and economic matters) on which Canon Porter sat, Ray McCaffrey identified the following limitations of participative democracy.
    1. In many matters of state, open and unconstrained civic engagement is not desirable.

    2. Civic engagement does encourage disparate views, preferences, urgencies and sentiments.

    3. Civic engagement can be captured by special interests just as these interests may form, transform or influence others to do their private (group or corporate) bidding.

    4. Civic engagement can be inconvenient or inopportune to the government given its outlook, its promises, its philosophies, and its ability or willingness to perform.

    5. Civic engagement, though often low cost, is rarely a zero opportunity cost activity to individual citizens.

    Unfortunately, the same is true of these facilitated conversations.

    1. Facilitated conversations may not change the church’s policy on marriage, but may undermine it by providing alternative recognition for what the Bishop of Oxford calls ‘

      • I know!

        At a guess, Holtam’s overcompensating for his previous opinions by taking a hard line: he’s the first bishop I’ve seen who mentions discipline & penalties. Alternatively, he’s making a fantastically misguided attempt to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

        Whatever it is, this is the nice liberal bishop. With friends like these …

        • Hard line? “If… could … possible … ” If pigs could fly, it’s possible someone would complain about them – but it won’t be me.

          • Relative to the other bishops, it certainly is: he said any complaint “would result in discipline,” and empathized that “the full range of penalties are possible.”

            Why on earth hasn’t he said: “I disagree profoundly with my fellow bishops, apologize to every LGBT person in my diocese that I couldn’t persuade them otherwise, and guarantee that, so long as I am bishop, no one will be penalized for entering into a marriage.”

            Some ally he turned out to be.

            • James – apologies for going off on a tangent – I had a quick q for you (purely informational – not trying to make a point here). Most people i’ve encountered in the affirming camp have argued that gay relationships as we know them today are in a completely different category to those known by Paul such that the biblical condemnations of homosexual acts aren’t applicable. You, however, have generally argued that Paul et al. are simply wrong (my apologies if I’m misrepresenting you). I was just wondering how common you reckon your position is among the affirming crowd (within the CofE)?

              • You’re not, I argue exactly that.

                To my knowledge, no research has been done. At a guess, it varies by tradition. Affirming evangelicals are very unlikely to take that line. The more liberal, the more likely, although most wouldn’t put it as bluntly as that.

                The “not applicable” line appears to be the mainstream.

  2. What I do very much hope, however, is that we can get to a point where we can respect the integrity of the biblical interpretation of others. I hope we can come to understand deeply why others take a different view, and to respect that conviction even though we disagree, perhaps

    Not going to happen.

    None of us is taking a cavalier attitude to biblical authority

    If only that were true!

    • How do you square saying that they were wrong with the fact that they are all said, according to the gospel writers, by Jesus? Are you questioning the validity of the Gospels? If so, where does this questioning stop? I mean, how can you deny Jesus saying that anyone who had lustful thoughts about someone had as good as committed adultery (Matt 5:28) and still believe in anything else that the gospels say? And, if you are left questioning the Gospels, how then can you claim to be a Christian if there is nothing firm to base your faith in Christ upon?

      • It’s been known for a good long while that the Gospels ain’t verbatim reports. Synoptic problem, anyone? Anachronistic “sayings” that have a lot more to do with early church politics than an apocalyptic prophet.

        The questioning doesn’t stop. The assumption that it should speaks volumes about the evangelical approach, an approach I don’t share.

        • So, how about we colour code your contributions here?

          1. that’s JB;

          2. that really sounds like JB;

          3. Doubtful;

          4. Not JB.

          We’ll vote on it, since this post might be from someone who’s hacked your disqus account in order to score theological points.

          Jesus’ response to the Sadducees tricky question about the resurrection could meet all the criteria for the historical Jesus. So, let’s say Jesus said it, rather than it being a narrative embellishment designed to shore up the early church’s authority. You, then, have to ask the basic question whether He was right?
          According to the criterion of embarassment, you then have to speculate about the reasons that the gospels cast the apostles’ unbelief after Jesus’ arrest and trial in such a bad light. Their hardened disbelief is only ovecome by more and more individual sightings until they finally see Him in person.
          The issue that I see here is that it’s easy to pretend that Jesus never spoke about the resurrection, or that He was misinterpeted by His apostles. You also have to conjure up a reason why they all conspired to allow a blatant falsehood to pervade their community about a dead Saviour, who was unable to control the legacy of teachings communicated to the church, overtaken as they were by the church leaders’ own agenda.
          In any other context, Jesus comes off looking bad until historical criticism clarifies by scholarly vote what Jesus could have truly said and did.
          The challenge to this is that unlearned ‘idiots’, like me, who took Christ’s miraculous claims at face value and listened to the temptimony of others.
          It’s the evidence of miraculously transformed lives that gives credence to our faith, not the verification of historical scholarship. I could pretend that transformation hadn’t happened to me through a sudden and unexpected access of faith in the authority of a living Christ. It could even be conditioned: it’s not true because, Jesus is not likely to have said it. Unfortunately, for historical criticism, I can only testify about what happened. That’s how the gospel changes lives. People hearing my testimony wonder whether He, this living Jesus, could fix them too.
          the Real Jesus: the Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus might be worth a read.

        • Problem is that if you poopoo the Bible then you have nothing to base any belief in God on. “Personal experiences”, when lacking the support of Scripture, are nothing more than feelings and imagination.
          So I ask again, how can you claim to be a Christian? This is not denying you are, just trying to work out how you can possibly claim it with nothing to start from?

          • “Problem is that if you poopoo the Bible then you have nothing to base any belief in God on.”

            How about faith?

            I don’t dismiss the Bible; I do, unashamedly, view it critically as a human work, and treat it like any other text.

            • But faith in what? The Bible? You have already said that it cannot be taken literally and so all we have are a collection of anecdotes about a tribe becoming a nation and all that happens to them with their superstitious beliefs about their god, who is so inconsistent in his support for them that they experience ups and downs in conflict with their neighbours that it resembled a sine wave!
              Or is your faith based upon your own personal experiences? What if I were to express belief in a giant spaghetti monster as a result of experiences of my own? Your experiences are no less valid than mine and so all we have are a collection of experiences that you have gone through. But they have no definition unless put in context by reading the Bible. But if we cannot trust the Bible to be true then your experiences mean nothing.
              Additionally, along with my curiosity at your faith existing in spite of no proof or supporting evidence, I would ask why you seem to have such a low opinion of God’s ability to get Man to write a book that tells the story of history correctly?

              • This views faith in propositional terms (“How do I know X is true?”) rather as a lived experience within a tradition. (Not putting undue weight in empiricism as knowledge-gathering isn’t the primary objective.)

                As far as propositions about questions of ultimate concern go, I (unsurprisingly) view them with extreme uncertainty.

                The alternative is investing human words with undue weight. Even God can’t strip the words of Man of ambiguity, in writing and interpretation. It’s a categorical impossibility.

                • Tradition is man-made, something which you have already argued against with regards to the Bible. Therefore your counter to empiricism is to go against your previous argument, which makes no sense! If your response to that is that it is more about what is lived out as an experience of God, well that’s still just airy-fairy clouds in the sky for all anyone else knows. Experiential faith in and of its self is no faith at all, it’s just feelings and emotions intertwined in your own mind to form into a god of your own choosing (pick-and-mix as Unbelievable puts it).

                  Regarding your final comment “Even God can’t strip the words of Man of ambiguity”, that is something that I find very worrying as an approach, as it describes a god that I do not recognise as the God who created the universe. God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (to name but a few of the omni’s that He is), which means that He is able to do anything and everything, able to see anything and everything and able to be anywhere and everywhere (all at the same time too). Therefore an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God is capable of knowing how to inspire the writers of the Bible to write so that it is correct and accurate and able to be read as such. He is able to see into “the future” and see who will be translating it and guide their hands and He is able to guide us in how we read and understand the words that He has inspired to be written. If you say that God can’t do that then I fear that we part ways on our understanding of God here and I pray that God reveal Himself to you fully so that this shadow of a god that you appear to recognise is revealed to you as false.

        • OI! This was my line of debate!!

          James, if you reject the words of Christ, as reported in the canonical Christian scriptures, aren’t you just creating a pick and mix religion to suit yourself ?

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