Thinking Anglicans

A Time for Grace: Bishops’ responses to the concept of Unity in Diversity

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:

  • the problem of many conflicting priorities and claims
  • the absence of any easy answers
  • the difficulty of adopting the same approach as was taken over women bishops because gay marriage is not the same order of issue
  • that I’ve nailed the issue, but would the CofE permit diversity on this question?
  • the desire for a church where room is made for all, more wholeheartedly than we are able to do at the moment
  • huge disappointment with the bishops’ report, pleasure it was not noted, almost exact agreement over Unity in Diversity, but possible under-estimation of the conservative response if this approach was adopted
  • if the Church could model a different way of living unity in diversity, it would have much to show a wider society, which seems to be fragmenting at an alarming rate
  • my proposal for Unity in Diversity could be supported if it was presented to GS, is not that radical, and if anything is pragmatic, leaving one wishing for a more radical, whole-heartedly inclusive position
  • the basic thesis of agreeing to disagree will have to be acknowledged in some way
  • unity in diversity may well come into play in the difficult days ahead, love and grace seem in short supply
  • agreement that we need to “co-exist in a ‘unity in diversity’” — and many would agree; however, the reason this is not straightforward is that for a number in the Church the issue of human sexuality is a first order issue and a matter of salvation, and therefore it does not become possible for them to remain in a Church which accepts other possibilities
  • we are living in difficult times … particularly struck by the comment “In other words, rather than trying to “win” … love and grace” which is spot on
  • it is a complex subject … but the key issue is unity in diversity.
  • in terms of the way forward, your suggestions, a third ethical approach, often categorised as virtue ethics, as well as deontological and utilitarian ethics need to be very robustly tested and set alongside each other in a way akin to Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. His exploration of marriage in that book exemplifies the sort of discussion we need to engage in and which the generation of a teaching document should involve.

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Stephn B
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Stephn B

excellent piece – the voice of reason -( purposely not a theological comment)

James Barnett
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I had not intended to make an observation on the appointment of the Bishop of Llandaff. Alas, the debate has become depressingly internal and ecclesiastical rather than open and ecclesial. I used to be Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative at the European Institutions and I am still involved with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg where I represent an international NGO, as well as in other European projects. After twenty-two years of this work I believe that Human rights trump religion in their field. I also recognise that the right to religious liberty (Article 9) can enable some groups to set… Read more »

Froghole
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Froghole

“Considering I am simply an obscure nurse…”

An ‘obscure nurse’ who should also be a bishop.

Very many thanks for this, Susannah!

Chris A
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Chris A

I have no confidence in any bishop who expresses the views expressed above and then votes in the General Synod is a manner which would make the Chinese Communist party feel proud.

Kate
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Kate

I just can’t reconcile what you propose with Scripture. Paul’s life work was trying to bring erring churches in line with correct doctrine. That is why we have his epistles.

In particular, I commend 2 Corinthians 2:1-4 to you. Disagreeing with our fellow Christians is a truly painful thing to do – or at least should be – but if they are wrong our duty is to correct them, not through lack of love as you suggest, but we must disagree because we do love them.

Father Ron Smith
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A very good set of arguments, Sussanah.

Perhaps the nearest paradigm for your position – of Unity in Diversity, is the current filial relationship existing between Anglicans and the Bishop of Rome – each party seeking to respect and work with the other – yet acknowledging there are some serious differences in our theological approach to doctrines.

Pam
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Pam

The church can let love and grace into this situation. Thank you Susannah.

Cynthia
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Cynthia

It’s a great piece. I would only say though, that it’s vital to think about the most vulnerable and to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. In the case of WO and WB, it is girls who desperately need to flourish. Self-esteem, unequal pay, rape culture, domestic violence, objectification in culture, the church needs to lift up these girls. As for LGBTQI inclusion, the church needs to lift up the downtrodden. This includes LGBTQI teens, where the rate of suicide is alarming, as is their rate of homelessness and being trafficked. And vulnerable adults too, where psychological wounds… Read more »

AmandaG
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AmandaG

I was strongly reminded of guest writer Cynthia Bourgeault’s message on Richard Rohr’s daily meditation one day last week:
Law of Three: (1) the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; (2) the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but by learning to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction. Imagine what a different world it would be if these two simple precepts were internalized and enacted.

Kate
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Kate

«The news that “most of you are accepted in some places but not others” is not the Good News» Which is why universal recognition must be part of teaching: universal recognition of women bishops and the validity of their place in the line of Apostolic succession; universal recognition of same sex marriage. Anything less does say to people “you are welcome but only to some people” and that cannot be part of our teaching for the reason you give. We have also seen in Wales what happens when acceptance is only partial. If teaching allows some people to refuse to… Read more »

Susannah Clark
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Thank you all for your comments. Chris, some of the bishops whose views I have mentioned were not eligible to vote in the General Synod. In total 32 bishops have so far written to me. 12 of these are diocesan bishops and the other 20 are suffragan bishops. 4 members of the bishops’ reflection group on sexuality wrote to me. Of the 14 bishops whose views I have cited, 6 are diocesan bishops and 8 are suffragan bishops. 2 whose views I cited were members of the bishops’ reflection group on sexuality. I found this very helpful: “the problem will… Read more »