A few weeks before Easter I wrote to every Diocesan Bishop (or acting Diocesan) to ask a straightforward question.
If someone who identifies as homosexual was to approach your Diocese to ask for support in maintaining a life of celibacy, what specific Diocesan resources do you have in place to help him/her?
The purpose of the question was very simple. If the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage is that sex should only take place within the marriage of a man and a woman, and if the Bishops encouraged their parishioners to live this moral, what were they doing to actually help people do this?
The responses were interesting.
Two Bishops wrote back talking about specific pastoral resources that they knew about that they would recommend (for example the True Freedom Trust or Living Out). Brilliant – two areas of the Church of England where they took the issue seriously and wanted to actively help. Another Bishop pointed me towards Single Consecrated Life which I had never heard of before. Fascinating stuff, and exactly the kind of thing I was beginning to explore myself before God decided he had a different plan for my life. AÂ fewÂ Bishops wrote back to commend particular resources in their Dioceses and others indicated that such pastoral conversations would normally happen at the parish level rather than the Diocesan (indeed one Bishop commented on the fact that he didn’t have a lot of central resources for many things).
A few Bishops indicated to me explicitly that their response would be no different regardless of the sexuality of the person making the request. Two Bishops were kind enough to thank me for my work. I really appreciate that.
And then as a contrast, 29 of the 43 Bishops contacted (two-thirds) didn’t even bother to respond. One of those who responded simply emailed to say he wasn’t going to respond.
What is that about?
Well some of it might be the business of the season, but I actually gave a long lead time to when I was going to write this post. I suspect though it was something more, and this was partly the reason why I asked the question in the first place.
It seems to me that there is a serious disconnect in the way that the Church of England is approaching the issue of homosexuality at the moment. Our pastoral statements (from the House of Bishops and Synod) are suitably conservative, but do we actually put our money where our theology is? Our official doctrine is to essentially call a number people to celibacy, but do we put formal structures in place to enable people to make that difficult lifestyle choice. A few months ago I addressed a conference of the Church of Ireland on the issue and I said the following.
Friends, if you are serious about walking together, then the Church of Ireland needs to discover together ways to walk alongside those who are called to a particular costly form of discipleship as your own Bishops themselves affirm. Without such a commitment, you will have pastorally already reached a conclusion that I suspect your theology will then catch up with. With such a commitment, â€œLiving Togetherâ€ becomes not just a way to agree to disagree, but rather a corporate journey of death in Christ and resurrection life beyond that, a sharing of burdens and pain as Jesus has shared ours, a discernment of the depths of discipleship and heights of true Biblical joy. If that becomes your vision, then everything else will follow.
As we enter a post-Pilling period of conversation around human sexuality, are we ready for what is next? If some of us in the Church of England are serious about maintaining the current teaching (and in this group I encompass everyone from those in the pews to those in the House of Bishops who have this vision) what are we actually doing on the ground to help people make the hard choices we think they should? Do we genuinely have anything better to offer than the liberals? Are we even offering anything?
Apparently, in two-thirds of the Church of England we’re not.
Interesting post, Peter.
Earlier this year I did a course on Pastoral / Biblical Counselling. One of the things I took from that particularly was the idea that counselling is a whole-church activity. It’s not something done by “professionals”: it’s the responsibility of the church to fulfil the ‘one-anotherness’ of the New Testament. As such, someone who struggles with issues of sexuality should be handled as any other sinner – a group of Christians, confessing to one other, exposing their vulnerabilities, loving one other and supporting them to live a life in obedience to Christ.
Given that, I wonder whether the role of Bishops in this kind of situation is to resource churches to create this kind of community – rather than providing help with dealing with sexuality per se, instead training on how to establish the kind of community Bonhoeffer talks about in Life Together.
However, for a Bishop to do that would be imposing something of a theological vision on what a parish church should be like (even if it’s the right vision), and I can’t see that actually happening.
I think this is a good point. But you would still want the Diocesan Office to be a bit proactive in supporting parishes to do this and at the moment that simply isn’t happening. Official policy is to all intents and purposes undermined by official inaction.
Bishops (and liberals) might be a lot more receptive to supporting conservatives if the church stops trying to impose celibacy on those gay people who don’t believe they’re called to it. (While imposing no official penalty on laity who dissent.)
Who’s imposing what on who? Do you think the Bishops should impose celibacy on incestuous couples who don’t believe they’re called to it? What about poly units?
Incest remains against the law, poly relationships are very rare
Whereas same-sex relationships are now fully recognised in law and marriage is available for this purpose – and this makes a difference to the way the church is viewed in terms of their attitudes, whatever way you look at it. Indeed, if this wasn’t the case this wouldn’t be an issue now. The church is having to deal with the reality of legal and social change
So your argument is “Illegal = immoral, legal = moral”?
As a non Christian I think morality is relative and generally unhelpful in trrms of public policy. As an established Church the CofE has little choice but to deal with reality which isn’t a society dominated by their idea of morality. Indeed I think the church is not viewed as particularly moral by the majority of people
You’re right James. Peter is a bit of a one trick pony. No doubt they viewed his correspondence with the suspicion it deserved. Why didn’t he write to the Bishops about resources for helping all unmarried couples remain celibate? isn’t this the real log in his eye.
Actually, there are a LOT of resources for helping unmarried couples remain chaste (especially for teenagers for whom marriage is likely quite a long way off). It’s true that single people face some of the same issues as gay Christians, but they don’t face the unique problems – like feeling uncomfortable when somebody says ‘that is so gay!’ in a derogatory way or not feeling able to talk about the strong feelings they have for their Bible study leader. This kind of isolation is what makes people desperate.
I suspect that it is rather an issue of “putting your mouth where your theology is” — in other words, many bishops don’t actually believe that which they sign up to in such HoB statements, but go along for political reasons, knowing full well that they will do little or nothing to actually implemeny that position in their dioceses.
James Byron’s comment points in the same direction — he sees statements requiring abstinence/celibacy outside the marrige of a man and a woman not as the joint position of the church, but as something “impsoed” by “conservatives”.
So perhaps many bishops’ first problem is honesty.
I can well understand some bishops’ reluctance to enter into any correspondence containing the ‘h’ word, obviously sensing some sort of heffalump trap and fearing their names being splashed all over the front page of Pink News, or being nominated for the Stonewall ‘Bigot of the Year’ award. It is just possible, Peter (though highly unlikely, admittedly) that there are some bishops who don’t know who you are or what you do!
Later today I will be scouring the BCP Ordinal for any mention of requirement to act as social workers. It is true that some bishops appear to have forgotten some of the solemn vows they made before God about upholding the doctrine of the Church of England, so this might be a worthwhile exercise.
I thought it was rather sweet that some of the responses were positive. I must admit, though, that were I a single woman – of whatever sexual persuasion – the very last person I would be discussing my sexual yearnings with would be a bishop!
“And then as a contrast, 29 of the 43 Bishops contacted (two-thirds) didnâ€™t even bother to respond.” Peter Ould.
You forget that some Bishops don’t know how to use email. Not kidding.
But their PAs and Chaplains do.