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.