Editors’ note: this is a guest piece by Susannah Clark.
It is obvious to any observer that the Church of England is faced with a stand-off on the issue of human sexuality, and is divided down the middle, trending in the direction of acceptance of gay and lesbian sex, but with people of good faith and strong conscience on either side, along with diverse views motivated by complex implications, related to understanding of gender, Communion-wide consequences, and the risk of schism in the English provinces. In these contexts it is disingenuous to suggest that there is a uniform position in the Church, or even among the bishops (as I have discovered for myself this month), whatever the ‘front’ of collegiality that gets projected. Indeed, the rejection of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ in England indicated that most people did not want a uniformity of view imposed on Anglicans, or the domination of one conscience by another one. This stand-off clearly cannot be resolved by political struggle over ‘Who is right?’ which only leads toward schism and, for many, what really matters is finding the grace to love one another, seeking the flourishing of those we disagree with, and finding our unity in Jesus Christ: a Unity in Diversity. The whole of the rest of the Church’s mission is too vital, and too important, for the Church to keep floundering and expending so much energy on sexuality in a perpetual stand-off.
To this end, I set out a case for the accommodation of diverse views, and wrote to 109 bishops, with the proviso that ‘no reply was expected or assumed’. Considering I am simply an obscure nurse it is touching that, in the event, 31 bishops have so far corresponded with me, expressing a wide range of views and positions, and demonstrating that there is indeed no uniformity of belief on these issues.
While not naming individual bishops out of respect for confidentiality, and mostly not quoting verbatim, I have detailed the issues raised by 14 of these bishops (and see below), whose statements typify the diversity of episcopal opinions and some of the problems and challenges we face. These problems of implementation are very realistically reviewed by Bishop Stephen Cottrell, in his address to the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod. I have not included the views of the Bishops of Buckingham and Bradwell which have already been well-publicised and both of which regret the recent Bishops’ Report of which the General Synod declined to take note — as did 14 retired bishops.
In the end, if we cannot respect and accommodate sincere but diverse views, and allow priests, PCCs and local churches to follow their consciences in the service of their own communities, we run the risk of evangelistic alienation of those communities, and alienation from one another as Christians. There is a strong case, reflected in the Bishops’ responses to me, not for imposed uniformity, but for the grace to disagree well in a broad and diverse Church. As Bishop John Wraw said: “There are very differing views on this [lgbti inclusion] within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion, but there is much more we hold in common. Unity in Christ is a fact, a command, a promise; not simply something we can opt in and out of as we pick and choose. We need to live with our differences.” Indeed, perhaps the real test for us all is not “Who is right?”, but “Can we find abundance of grace and love?”… to co-exist, to serve, to welcome, to live with the diversity to which each one of us is called, uniquely, differently, in good conscience, as we are drawn towards that community of the Trinity, which is the eternal household of God, in whom alone in the end our unity is found — not in imposed uniformity or dogmatic correctness.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to dominate one another, and ‘winning the argument’. Perhaps really the argument is won to the extent we find love and grace for one another: accommodating each other’s consciences and as a Church becoming more than our individual parts, growing through our need for grace and the primary biblical imperative to exercise love, even uncomfortable love where people disagree. In short we arguably need a kind of power-sharing and peace process in the Church of England to end the long decades of stand-off and conflict, and turn to all the other crying needs of our communities: poverty, health and social care, loneliness, lostness, marginal lives, material craving and spiritual wastes; and the breakdown and atomisation of society, that in some ways we sadly mirror when we separate ourselves from each other in the Church, and let dogma polarise us rigidly, when actually it can separate and drive us apart, where grace might reconcile us and love might be calling us daily, with our diverse consciences and diverse expressions of faith, but giving us lives of sharing, and helping us bear in our own wounds and healing the touch of God’s love for hurting, yearning hearts.
To do this credibly, we need to demonstrate real love for each other, so people can see… not ‘how uniform we are’ but ‘how we love one another’. That challenge to love is surely, also, the challenge the bishops must face and are facing. No-one said it would be easy. They have written to me sincerely and with touching honesty. But in the face of decades more stand-off and division perhaps, as one of them says, “the key issue is Unity in Diversity” and as another states, “agreeing to disagree will have to be acknowledged in some way.” The crisis in the Church of England cannot be resolved by one side ‘winning’. Descending into schism and division is not winning. Grace is winning. Love is winning. Mutually recognising divergent consciences is winning. Unity in Diversity may face degrees of opposition, but it does at least reflect the realities of the Church of England — and what better solution exists for preventing wholesale schism and the dismantling of a broad and tolerant Church?
(The extended entry contains quotations from some of the responses received.)
These are typical issues raised by 14 bishops who wrote to me, illustrating the tensions and difficulties faced: