It’s fair to assume that many people have false impressions about the nature of the House of Bishops report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS2055), for a variety of reasons: the limitations of press reports, cursory reading, the misinterpretations of some commentators, or the sometimes misleading or obscure language in the report and its press release. I here wish to dispel nine possible misconceptions.
1. Is it all about marriage?
Some have criticised the report for focusing on marriage when there was no realistic expectation of a move towards supporting same sex marriage. Marriage is certainly dominant in the report but in two places it is made clear that the maintenance of the Church’s teaching on all sexual relationships is envisaged (26, 63). That teaching includes: “Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings [i.e. sinful]” (p. 18).
2. Does it gives more freedom pastorally?
The report talks about “maximum freedom”, never more freedom. It makes clear that there is no plan for any liturgy or services which recognise same sex relationships (43). Instead there will be guidance to help clergy navigate a course in offering informal prayer which can recognise some social virtue in a homosexual relationship (fidelity and mutuality) while always regarding its sexuality as morally questionable (63). By spelling this out in more detailed guidelines, “maximum freedom” may turn out to be less freedom.
3. Does it promise updated teaching?
It’s true that the new teaching document will have a later publication date than any previous teaching. The Bishop of Norwich hints at more though when he speaks of “a theology of relationships for our changed times”. However, by focusing on “community and relationships of all kinds”, “the role of single people and solitaries” and “covenanted friendships”, the report’s outline of the teaching document (34) makes one wonder whether the only voices of our changed times which have been heard are those of the minority who wish to promote these goods in the context of imposed celibacy for gay and lesbian people – or “people who experience same-sex attraction”, to use their term (offensive to many) which is repeated throughout this report.
4. Does it promise an end to intrusive and unfair questioning of gay ordinands and clergy?
The bishops are inclined to end the unfairness by questioning everyone and to end the peculiar focus on sexual conduct by introducing a “wider examination” (54, 55). That means potentially more intrusion. And it’s very hard to avoid the sense that the question the bishops have asked themselves is “How may we keep on questioning homosexual ordinands and clergy about their sexual conduct while making it appear fairer and less specific?”
5. Is it a call to repentance for homophobia?
The press release says the report “speaks of the need for the Church to repent of the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke”. In fact, the report never mentions homophobia. The nearest it gets is the in the section on the new teaching document (34): “There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church.” It was clearly carried that the teaching document should speak of single people and friendship. By contrast, enough bishops were opposed that it was not clearly carried that the Church should be taught to be penitent for its homophobic behaviour.
6. Does it seek theological coherence?
While claiming that the bishops have reached a compromise, the report nevertheless stresses the importance of theological coherence. In particular, “Given the distinctive relationship between doctrine and public worship in the Church of England, that also requires that what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching” (61). No public pastoral practice may therefore contradict the Church’s teaching. In other words, this is a reason why there can be no liturgy which recognises same sex relationships. Yet the Church allows the practice of marriage after divorce whilst teaching “that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman” (Canon B 30). One may therefore wonder whether theological coherence is a driver for the bishops’ position or a convenient tool to support it.
7. Does it represent where the Church is?
According to the press release, the report “attempts to sum up the Church's position after a two-year process of shared conversations on the subject of human sexuality, involving clergy and laity”. This is ambiguous, but it may lead one to think that the bishops are trying to reflect the balance and range of views in the Church, having engaged in the sharing process. The Bishop of Manchester appears to support this when he says that the degree of change proposed in the report is limited by whether synodical majorities may be expected. Yet there is no mention of this in the report itself, which rather speaks of a “centre of gravity” or “consensus” or “compromise” only in relation to the bishops (16, 17, 56).
8. Is it just the next step in a process?
So the bishops would have us believe, since they recognise that their responsibility is “to identify the next steps – not necessarily towards a ‘solution’ but towards greater clarity… we do not offer ‘resolution’… but seek to make steps together” (10, 11). But this is undermined by the proposal of a teaching document which by its nature will draw a line and establish a position for some time. Indeed, as the report says, the path laid out “inevitably means choosing not to give attention to other possibilities” (27). When outlining a consultation with General Synod, the limited influence of any process is emphasised when we are reminded “that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church” (67).
9. Is it a compromise?
“The Church of England's law and guidance on marriage should be interpreted to provide ‘maximum freedom’ for gay and lesbian people without changing the Church's doctrine of marriage itself, bishops are recommending.”
That’s the top line from the press release, which on its own may suggest a middle way. The report calls itself “a compromise between some bishops who would be inclined to seek more far-reaching changes in the direction of e.g. affirming married same-sex couples within the life of the Church, and some bishops who would like to see the sinfulness of any sexually active relationship outside heterosexual marriage more consistently upheld” (56).
In truth, as has been shown, the report does what the latter group of bishops wish to be done. There is no compromise in substance, only a little compromise in presentation.
Despite some attempt having been made to soften the report’s appearance, careful reading makes it difficult not to conclude that the bishops, with little reference to the views of the Church, and on a pretext of theological coherence, are determined to confirm for the foreseeable future an uncompromising conservative understanding of all sexual relationships, which offers no greater pastoral freedom, no new teaching, no less intrusive questioning, and a very uncertain call to penitence for homophobia.