The Bishop of Sheffield replied to three questions taken together.
Mr Clive Scowen (London) to ask the Chair of the House of Bishops:
Q12 With regard to the College of Bishops‟ request to the Archbishops to commission the design of (i) a process for facilitated conversations on the subject of sexuality, involving profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture, and (ii) additional materials to support and enable them, will the Chair of the House of Bishops give assurances that the design will ensure that:
• the process will not be a “one way street” intended at the outset to lead to a change in the church‟s teaching or pastoral practice concerning sexuality or marriage;
• the primary purpose of the conversations will be to enable participants‟ views to be clearly articulated, heard and understood, rather than to change participants‟ views;
• the conversations will be professionally facilitated in a way which does not steer them to any particular conclusion;
• the conversations will not be premised on the proposition that scripture is not clear about these matters; and
• participants who believe that scripture clearly teaches that having sexual relationships, otherwise than within the marriage covenant between one man and one woman, is not consistent with Christian discipleship will be free fully to articulate and explain that view?
Mrs Andrea Minichiello Williams (Chichester) to ask the Chair of the House of Bishops:
Q13 Why, in light of the Statement on the Pilling Report by the College of Bishops (issued 27 January 2014) which emphasises upholding the Church of England‟s commitment to biblical orthodoxy on God‟s purpose for sexual expression (within marriage between one man and one woman), is a two-year process of facilitated conversation taking place, if such a process is not intended to change the orthodoxy?
The Revd John Cook (Oxford) to ask the Chair of the House of Bishops:
Q14 Given the College of Bishops‟ request to the Archbishops to commission the design of a process for facilitated conversation on sexuality, can the Chair of the House of Bishops give an assurance that the process and additional materials will focus first on scripture and its perspicuity, so that experience and culture are responded to in the light of a clear understanding of Scripture?
The Bishop of Sheffield replied:
The Church Times’ headline – ‘Pilling report-Bishops accept recommendations’ – would have been less inaccurate if it had said ‘accept recommendation [singular] for facilitated conversations.’
There is no predetermined outcome to these conversations nor is there any intention on the part of bishops collectively to steer them to a particular conclusion. In our statement of 27 January the one aspiration we articulated was for ‘good disagreement that testifies to our love for one another across the church in obedience to Christ’.
The statement made clear that the Church of England’s ‘pastoral and liturgical practice remains unchanged during this process of facilitated conversation’ and that ‘no change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisaged’. It also stresses that our task, in taking counsel together, is ‘to read and reflect upon the Scriptures and to continue to discern together the mind of Christ.’
What is the point of all this reflection and conversation, some ask, if Scripture is clear and the truth unchanging and unchangeable? The answer is that the substantial shift in attitudes in society to same sex relationships inevitably raises significant questions for the Church of England. In every generation the Church is called to proclaim the faith afresh, not refashioning it but nevertheless wrestling with the interpretation and application of Scripture as the Spirit who inspired it continues to lead us into all truth.
Mr Scowen asked a supplementary question:
May I take it therefore that the answer to each of the five points of my question is Yes?
Answer: i think I would refer Mr Scowen to the answer I have already given, if I may. I think it is fair to say that there was some wrestling in the College of Bishops meeting about whether we should use the term ‘facilitated conversations” for the process which we had in mind, and which we agreed to take forward. Partly because it was pointed out within the conversation, that the only experience we have had corporately of facilitated conversation, is of a process which is designed to lead to a particular outcome, and set of conclusions. A counterargument was that the term is one used by the Pilling process and the Pilling report, it’s not… and we couldn’t easily think of a better substitute for it. But we did want to find a way to communicate clearly that no two sets of facilitated conversations are exactly the same, and that this set is not designed to reach a premeditated, already determined conclusion.
There was a further supplementary question (or was it two?) asked by Professor Richard Burridge about the involvement of Scripture scholars in the process.