Comments: Opinion - 22 November 2017

Colin: "the Church of England doesn’t have an agreed, undisputed theology about Scripture, God, the nature of Jesus, sin, human sexuality, gender, clergy clothing, the sacraments, or almost anything else."

That's the point.

We don't have to agree (and we won't), but we do need to love.

If we can't do that, and co-exist, it is a sorry state we're in.

The test isn't "Who's right?"

The test is "Will you open your hearts to grace, and love one another?"

That is the test.

Can we live with one another's differences, and love each other, and pray for one another's flourishing?

Our unity isn't (and can never be) uniformity. Our unity is found only in Jesus Christ. Our unity is forged in the opening of our hearts to the love of God.

Our differences aren't the main issue. Our lack of love is the main issue. For a start we need to stop dominating one another, demanding everyone complies with what we believe: and instead, we need to try to build our unity in diversity.

For that, we need much grace. But it can lead to growth of who we are, in a way that narrow dogmatism never can.

Grace and love are the substantial reality of God.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Wednesday, 22 November 2017 at 2:12pm GMT

Excellent piece from Colin Coward, not least for showing how little seems to have advanced (except perhaps in tone) since the (unpublished) 1968 report on homosexuality. Two options: A or B. It's not very difficult...

Posted by Charles Clapham at Wednesday, 22 November 2017 at 3:20pm GMT

I'd also like to commend Colin Coward on his perceptive article: "decadence" is the perfect word not only for poor, beleaguered English Anglicanism, but the direction of the West in general. It's riven by the battle between those obsessed with recovering a halcyon age that never existed, and those who believe that we're at some Year Zero where we've mysteriously managed to transcend timeless human frailties.

Like Susannah, I've no desire to impose ideological uniformity, within the church, or without. That old, unfashionable liberal principle of toleration's the only way we can listen, argue, and try and thrash out compromises to take us forwards. We need both wings to fly.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 22 November 2017 at 5:02pm GMT

Martin Sewell gives us yet another horrifying example of the Church's incompetence in handling abuse cases. There seems to be no limit to our ignorance of good practice.

I wrote to both Archbishops a couple of weeks ago disclosing the ongoing sexual harassment I had undergone from my incumbent when I was a curate, and the bishop's refusal to deal with it. Worse, he told my incumbent about our conversation.

I had a better initial response than expected, from one of the safeguarding team at Lambeth Palace. But when she asked if it would help if I talked to a female priest, I said that counselling was what I needed, since I was only just realising how profoundly the episode had affected me. That didn't get such a good response, she seemed very hesitant about the possibility of the Church's providing counselling.

The Church absolutely must set aside funds to pay for counselling for its victims. If necessary, sell a property or two in Soho, but find funding from somewhere. It's the very least we can do.

Posted by Cassandra at Wednesday, 22 November 2017 at 5:15pm GMT

It's unfortunate that Colin Coward chooses to begin his assessment of the current state of the Church of England by recycling a hackneyed bit of Russophobic lore worthy of the most rabid of Cold Warriors: the benighted Slav intellectually and politically crippled by centuries of absolutism and tyranny etc. etc. It seems to me that there are two responses to this. The first is that societies and states (and churches) do not have psychologies like individuals do, and projecting psycho-histories onto them is - at best - glib. The second is that Coward (via Masha Gessen) is just factually wrong. The reality is that Russia's present political stagnation has less to do with the collective trauma of Soviet Socialism than it does with the failures of liberalism and anarcho-capitalism in the chaotic decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is not 'decadent' (and what Nietzschean language that is!) but merely reacting against a destructive and humiliating revolution foisted on it from the outside.

I have some sympathy for conservative Anglicans who feel similarly; who may be alarmed or alienated by the pace of change that Colin considers intolerably slow, or who look with suspicion on the violence (as they see it) done to their moral universe by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. I'm not one of them, but nor do I think - as Colin apparently does - that they are all 'addicted to homophobia'(nor that the African ones are psychologically scarred because of Queen Victoria or something). I do not think that the Church is suffering from "psychological wounds" just because it accommodates theological conservatives as well as liberals; I do not think that struggling with difficult moral questions points to a collective state of psychic trauma. And while I understand (and even share) Colin's exasperation with the endless cycles of debate and indecision, ultimately I don't think that the poor little talkative Church of England really invites comparison with Putin's Russia - a country where Colin's brand of therapeutic forgetfulness and unanimity is in fact quite a la mode.

Posted by rjb at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 6:31am GMT

I am with rjb. I think Colin Coward overrreaches in his description of both Russia and the Church of England as decadent, and his comparison between the two. It's a shame because his list of reports, and a conclusion this should have been resolved years ago, would have been much stronger had he kept to topic - the failure of his comparison taints what should have been the core message.

Worse, perhaps, he fails to even question whether the process of working parties and reports is either valuable or Scriptural. Might it not be better, for example, for the House of Bishops to go on retreat to a monastery and pray for enlightenment? Of course they won't - they are too self-important to do such a thing. And there, Coward could rightly have said that the Church is decadent, not in the way he suggests, but because our bishops feel that they are too important to devote the time to prayer to resolve this chasm within the church.

Posted by Kate at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 12:03pm GMT

Colin Coward's run through the various reports looking at issues of sexuality is very helpful. It doesn't ever hurt to be reminded of the path we've taken to get to where we are. But I'm not sure he draws the most natural conclusion - which is that after numerous attempts to square the circle have been found wanting, it's time to give up the attempt. perhaps it's even time to put our energy into more important things, the sort of thing which gets a lot of attention in the Bible, like poverty, and economic exploitation by the powerful. Isn't that the most natural way to heal the trauma, rather than to keep worrying at the wound and picking at the scab? Wouldn't that show the "prophetic courage" for which Colin calls?

We might also note that it is hardly surprising that a House of Bishops working party should be composed of bishops - it's only doing what it says on the tin. And given that the bishops hold the primary teaching ministry and authority in the Church it's right that they we should listen to their voices, even when that may be personally unpalatable.

The fact is that, contra Colin, the Church of England does have an agreed "theology about Scripture, God, the nature of Jesus," and many other things, including marriage. This theology is to be found in the liturgy, and the Canons. If these things are disputed it is only because and to the extent that some people do not heed the teaching of their bishops. Perhaps a more healthy respect for the teaching authority of bishops would allow us to move past embarrassing family squabbles. There are better ways for a family develop and grow, and, dare we whisper it, change.

Posted by Bernard Randall at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 3:08pm GMT

Rachel Mann on ' Why Transgender Day of Remembrance Matters'.

This is a really important piece to be read and pondered by one and all.

Full of insights and of great clarity.

Thank you, Rachel.

The treatment of all trans folk here and everywhere needs urgent and sustained attention.

It has to concern us all.

It is not possible, to me anyway, to think of Jesus, saints, or boddhisatvas turning away with closing minds or hardening hearts....

Posted by Laurie Roberts at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 4:45pm GMT

The Church of England - the institution - may have an ideal 'uniform' belief in various things, but the Church of England - the living people - most certainly don't.

What you seem to be endorsing, Bernard, is a kind of 'Anglican Covenant' approach where dogma is imposed and uniformity is required... or, 'consequences'.

The reality however is that there is NO uniformity of belief in our Church, and I'm very unsure if bishops gain rather than lose 'authority' if they threaten sanctions against members who hold diverse views.

The liturgy and the canons may say one thing, but the liturgy and canons are not necessarily infallible or immutable. And precisely WHY should I as a transgender woman believe the bishops have greater teaching insights on gender identity than... psychological experts, the medical profession, gender clinics, legislators, or... perish the thought... transgender people themselves.

I DO believe people in challenging positions deserve prayer and support, and bishops' roles are challenging. However, I also believe people are too easily 'infantilised' into subordination and elevating people like bishops, as if they had moral authority to judge, when in reality they are no more and no less fallible, perplexed, mistaken, inspired, uncertain than anyone else.

I have shared correspondence with over 40 bishops on the problem around human sexuality. Their exchanges have been predominantly kindly, concerned and perplexed. Probably the central view is that the Scottish solution - unity in diversity - would be the most logical way forward, were it not for the fear that it would lead to conservative reaction and alienation.

The bishops I know personally are lovely, decent, and prayerful people. They are not necessarily all "teaching authorities". They most of them just want a way forward, so we can get on with helping the sick, the hopeless, the marginalised. But a top-down 'Covenant-style' uniformity is never going to work. It ignores the reality of the people who are the actual Church and their diverse views and consciences. The problem is precisely too much authority being demanded. Imposed uniformity drives schism. A kind of 'peace, peace, when there is no peace'. In a way, that's a theological fascism, if you try to dominate through ideological purity and authority from the top.

What's needed is magnanimity to each other, and love despite difference, and frankly I believe we should stop dominating each other and allow love to trump rigid dogma.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 5:30pm GMT

Bernard Randall: that's a very long-winded way of telling LGBT folk to shut up and carry on suffering.

Posted by Jo at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 9:33pm GMT

"If these things are disputed it is only because and to the extent that some people do not heed the teaching of their bishops."

A former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada once said to me that, "Bishop bashing is not acceptable, but Bishop pushing is a time-honoured Christian tradition." In a similar vein, Dom Gregory Dix said that it really doesn't matter what the bishops want, for ultimately the laity always gets its way.

"... the Church of England does have an agreed "theology about ..." And yet, the reality of course is that there is no longer agreement (if indeed there ever was) and the laity is increasingly impatient and in disagreement with the bishops. If it were not so there would not be so much vigorous and very public bishop pushing.

Posted by Garry Lovatt at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 9:37pm GMT

Re Bernard Randall, " And given that the bishops hold the primary teaching ministry and authority in the Church it's right that they we should listen to their voices, even when that may be personally unpalatable."

When I first read this I thought, well there is a rather servile notion of ecclesiology; but then I thought, nah, the guy must be saying this tongue in cheek. It could not have been written by a conservative because it is too deferential to authority whereas most conservatives have made creative insubordination into a Zen art form ( :

Posted by Rod Gillis at Thursday, 23 November 2017 at 10:26pm GMT


Christian dogma is received rather than imposed, and received through Tradition, which is the active and dynamic work of the Holy Spirit in the Church (as Georges Florovsky put it, if memory serves). And of course (in an episcopal Church) there is a particular charism of the Holy Spirit in the teaching office of the bishops. That's why bishops are to be regarded as having a greater teaching authority on matters of theology and doctrine than the rest of us - the authority is actually that of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church.

So no, our liturgy and canons are neither infallible nor immutable - but they are agreed. If and when we agree to change them, our agreed doctrine will be other than it is now. And talking to our bishops, writing to them, engaging with them is a right and proper activity for all in the Church.

There has never been absolute unanimity of belief among Christians, on all sorts of matters, and I'm not for a moment supposing that there should be an imposed purity. Indeed, I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works with and in the creative tension that creates. But equally, when it comes to things like public worship and ministries, there is a proper place for discipline and obedience, so that there's isn't a free-for-all. That's the nature of the Church of England - it's intended to prevent a slide into congregationalism.

As I see it, the question is ultimately, will we behave as if we, and the Church, are under the guidance and authority of the Holy Spirit, or do we think we know better than God?

I know which side of that I have to stand, and if that means that I am sometimes (often?) standing in an uncomfortable place, so be it.

Posted by Bernard Randall at Friday, 24 November 2017 at 10:27am GMT


I feel there must be better ways of doing this, given that, as Colin so clearly describes, previous attempts have not been productive. And if we carry on tearing ourselves apart, we just end up with the wreckage of a Church, which is no good to anyone. Maybe, just maybe, by pouring our energies into love for the poor we will find that there is more love to go around, and it filters into the wounds created by fighting over sexuality. I don't know, but that feels to me a more hopeful approach.


I think it's worth highlighting that there may be disagreement among the people who make up the Church (and I've no desire to see that change), but there is agreement at the institutional level. So we need to behave differently as members of an institution from how we might person-to-person. When we are public-facing or in a public forum, speaking to or on behalf of the institution, then we should recognize the existence and nature of what is agreed. It's about starting from the same common ground. I can't see the personal disagreements contributing to resolutions of issues in any other way.


no, I'm quite liberal. I know this to be true, as a bishop once told me so.

Posted by Bernard Randall at Friday, 24 November 2017 at 10:51am GMT

Re Bernard Randall, "no, I'm quite liberal. I know this to be true, as a bishop once told me so."

You could put that to music,

"I'm a liberal this I know
cause my bishop told me so"


" pouring our energies into love for the poor we will find that there is more love to go around" Yes, the church is quite expert at demanding justice from every one else but itself. It's called hypocrisy.

Besides, the notion that we cannot advocate for economic justice and justice for sexual minorities is both a false dichotomy and misdirection. Besides,if we do right, it is no less controversial.

Interesting quote, the gender biased language notwithstanding, found in, Believing in The Church, the chapter titled, The Archbishop's Hat:

"Every man who possesses real vitality can be seen as the resultant of two forces. He is first the child of a particular age, society, convention; of what we may call in one word a tradition. He is secondly, in one degree or another, a rebel against that tradition. And the best traditions make the best rebels."
( Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age).

Posted by Rod Gillis at Friday, 24 November 2017 at 3:23pm GMT

The wounds to the body of Christ we should be concerned about, because they are both by far the largest and the the most unjust, in relation to sexuality are those endured by our LGBT brothers and sisters. Those wounds will not heal while the church maintains a policy of opening new ones. This isn't people having their feelings hurt in an argument, where a period of quiet and time will soothe, but an ongoing and present persecution that daily harms and in far, far too many cases kills our brothers and sisters. Demanding that their cries for justice be silenced is not a neutral or loving act. Aside from the obvious that delaying justice for LGBT folk does nothing to advance economic justice, the church's continued persecution undermines any moral authority it might have been able to bring to bear on economic matters.

Posted by Jo at Friday, 24 November 2017 at 6:22pm GMT

Bernard Randall: " ... there may be disagreement among the people who make up the Church (and I've no desire to see that change), but there is agreement at the institutional level."

But what is the "institutional" level if it is not "those who make up the Church?" There is a paradox here with which we all must wrestle in one way or another. To select one or the other arbitrarily because it suits our wish or need of the moment is to give up the struggle and ignore the paradox. And since the paradox lies at the very heart of our understanding of the nature of the Trinitarian God, to ignore it is to turn our back on God and instead to set up a momentarily more comfortable/comforting idol in the place of God.

Clearly, whatever the words in documents may say, there is no agreement at either "the people" level or the "institutional" level. One has only to follow this blog to observe that any illusion of agreement is crumbling, no matter how hard some may try to back and fill. Indeed, the effort some expend only results in them turning themselves and their theologies into pretzels - which is hardly edifying for anyone and in no way contributes to a resolution of issues.

Posted by Garry Lovatt at Friday, 24 November 2017 at 10:49pm GMT

We're supposed to treat the parade of placemen, time-servers and careerists who pack the English bishops' bench as God's mouthpiece now? Say what?

Desmond Tutu said that if God's homophobic, then God's wrong. If the Almighty can be mistaken, then even an English bishop can be.

Nothing in Anglican theology justifies this level of blind deference. Even Anglo-Catholics don't believe that English bishops are an infallible magisterium. I'll accept that evangelicals' hands are tied by biblical authority, and the vast majority don't bear LGB people personal ill-will: but others' aren't.

Posted by James Byron at Saturday, 25 November 2017 at 4:27pm GMT

I have observed that the Ordinal bestows the office of teaching with the priesthood. The episcopate's primary function is custodial. That of course begs the question that the Ordinal establishes the doctrine of who has the responsibility to teach. (Of course, the ability cannot be bestowed so easily as the faculty.)

Posted by Tobias Haller at Saturday, 25 November 2017 at 7:29pm GMT

Re Tobias Haller...." ...responsibility to teach. (...the ability cannot be bestowed so easily as the faculty.)"

An excellent observation. There is the issue of theological competence of presbyters and bishops. One may be a competent preacher, pastor and teacher; but one must recognize the limits to one's competence and know when to seek out advice from theological specialists. Such an approach is complicated by the wide range of perspectives available in the 'market place of ideas'.

Additionally, we live in an interdisciplinary world. Beyond consultation with theological specialists, there is the matter of wider collaboration with specialists in other fields i.e, psychology, sociology, medicine,and so forth. Such is the requirement for an effective addressing of issues not within the horizon of the biblical writers.

The ubiquitous church task force is only as helpful the collaboration resourcing it.

The notion of the omnicompetent bishop, or panel of bishops, pontificating ex-cathedra to the huddled masses is a romantic notion that lacks credibility and promotes hubris.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 26 November 2017 at 4:11pm GMT

Today’s gospel reminds us that unless we do it to the least of people in whom Christ is incarnated, then we will be cast into outer darkness.

I wonder why the ‘teaching authority’ of the bishops is so little regarded. Is it because they have put a spurious unity above what is right? The church cannot have a valid ministry to the poor until it has recognised the necessity of its valid ministry amongst lgbti people. Handouts to the poor are palliatives, what needs to change is both the way the poor are treated, as equals and partners and the system which keeps them poor. Soft words and fine phrases to lgbti people have no validity unless the way we are treated is changed and the attitudes of others towards us is inclusive and of genuine equality and equal worth.

The bishops have squandered their authority in neither recognising both our validity and our equality and by pretending that they have a unity which defies fact and logic. In an age when deference is (rightly) questioned only honesty will be seen as legitimising authority. Like politicians, the bishops and some at least of the church have fallen back on the ‘do I say argument’. Where there is no honesty there is no trust and thus no authority.

Colin Coward quite rightly outlines the decades of the institutional failure of the church to engage honestly with us. And the bishops have failed to find a way to disagree honestly and openly with each other. Unity cannot be allowed to overwhelm what is right and until this is resolved there is no way forward.

I, like many others, have no hope for the forthcoming ‘teaching document’. The composition of the working party guarantees yet another failed outcome.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Sunday, 26 November 2017 at 6:43pm GMT
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.