Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Gloucester
by the Bishop, The Right Reverend Michael Perham,
on 6 May 2010

I want to anticipate some of the inevitable discussion at least in the church media, if not in the pews of the churches of the Diocese of Gloucester, that is likely in the aftermath of the ordination in nine days time of Canon Mary Glasspool as an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles in California. The interest, of course, will lie in the fact that Mary Glasspool is a lesbian woman, living in a committed relationship over the last 22 years with another woman. The interest will not be in all the spiritual and pastoral qualities that she will bring to the episcopal office.

I think there are some things here we need to explore sensitively together. In doing so I want to acknowledge the honesty and courage of my friend, James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, who has publicly told his own story of moving his position on the issue of homosexuality over recent years and urged the Church not to allow this issue to divide us in a way that breaks communion. And I also need to acknowledge that I have long been in a different place and so have not had to travel as difficult a path as he has to be in the place where I now am. My own understanding has long been that the Church of England’s current stance is not tenable long term, but that, while we engage, struggle, with these issues, it must be task of the bishop to uphold our agreed policy, with all its weaknesses, and to try to hold the Church together while we tackle the things that divide us. I don’t believe I can move away from that position, though I need to share with you some of my discomfort.

It is difficult to know where to begin, but I think the best place is with the categorising of first and second order issues. I am quite clear that the issues on which the creeds make a firm statement  -  God as trinity, the divinity of Christ, the death and the resurrection of the Lord, the role of the Spirit and more  -  are first order issues on which there can be no change in what the Church teaches. They are fundamental to the Christian faith. I am equally clear that there are second order issues, which are important, and where interpretation of the tradition needs to be careful and prayerful, but where nevertheless individual churches and provinces need to be free to define doctrine in the way that seems to them to be in accordance with the mind of Christ.

Second order issues are those where we recognise that Christians can come to different conclusions and Christians can allow their view to be shaped in dialogue with their culture without imperilling the good news of Jesus Christ, setting back the Kingdom of God or breaking the fundamental unity of the Church. Among those many second order issues is, of course, that of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. I mean no slight to women to say this, for equally the ordination of men to the priesthood and the episcopate seems to me not to be on the same level as doctrine about the nature of God or the person of Christ. In relation to the historic step of ordaining women to the priesthood, and of recognising that there are compelling arguments for their ordination to the episcopate, this province and this Church of England has grasped the freedom, granted by the Lambeth Conference, inasmuch as it has authority to determine issues across the Anglican Communion, to decide this at provincial or national level. In doing so, we have recognised that there are other Anglican provinces that have not taken that decision, some that would be strongly opposed to it, some that simply recognise that, in their culture, the time is not yet. They respect our decision. We respect their position, even if sometimes some of us are a little impatient.

My own view is that decisions about the admission of partnered gay and lesbian people to holy orders ought to be made in a similar way. I am clear that this ethical question, though not unimportant, is not a first order issue. It is something on which we ought to be able to stay together while recognising that we honestly interpret scripture and tradition in different ways. I know there are those who believe it is a first order issue, because it relates to the authority and interpretation of scripture, but I confess that, while respecting and understanding that view, I remain unconvinced. Any church that has found a way of coming to terms with divorce and remarriage, in a way that our Church has, has put itself firmly in a place that says that ethical behaviour, especially in regard to human relationships, involves a dialogue between the biblical tradition and the cultural realities if the Church is to have any chance of ministering to people in the complexities of contemporary life. A decision about whether Gene Robinson or Mary Glasspool should be bishops is a decision we ought to have been willing to leave to the Episcopal Church and to have believed that they, listening to the Holy Spirit, would have done what they were led to recognise as right.

However the Anglican Communion has not resolved to give that freedom to the Episcopal Church. It has said, in some cases, “This is outrageous and wrong”, and, in other cases, “This is too difficult and premature.” We have simply not reached a point where the Communion has felt able to endorse the American decision. Now I may regret that (and many of you regret that, though others are greatly relieved that there has been no endorsement of that freedom), but the fact is that that is where the Communion is just now. For that reason I cannot rejoice in the ordination that will take place on the 15th of May. I have to share the prevailing view within the Communion that it would be better if it were not happening, though it pains me to say that, for everything I have heard about Canon Mary Glasspool convinces me that, unless you see her sexuality as a bar, she is in every way an excellent choice to be a bishop in the Church of God. But I do regret the American action, because it does fly in the face of the season of restraint that so many of us hoped would come after the Lambeth Conference.

And I am critical of the Episcopal Church, (humbly critical, for there are some issues on which they have every reason to criticise us and I will return to one of those), for pressing ahead with this ordination. For you cannot, in a worldwide Communion, move at the speed of the fastest. You need to give people space and time to understand what the issues are that compel them to act in a particular way, to listen to their doubts and anxieties. In England, though we may not agree with the decision of the Episcopal Church, because our culture is not so very different from theirs many of us can understand why both mission and pastoral care have led them to the policy they have adopted in relation to the rights of gay people.  But, in many parts of the Communion, and in Africa in particular, people cannot begin to understand. Their society is so different,  their attitudes to homosexuality so different, and the laws around marriage and sexual relationships so different, that they cannot begin to comprehend how the American action can be reconciled with the gospel. And, frankly, we need patient talking, time for conversation and gracious restraint to move from that total failure and unwillingness to understand one another’s context or one another’s interpretation of scripture.

I know that not everybody reckons the comprehensiveness of the Church of England to be its strength, but I am one who does reckon just that. I am glad that within our Church are people of varying believes and that through our history we have learned to respect one another and to lean over backwards to accept those who love the Lord but understand Christian truth in a way quite different from our own. I hope I never sound as if I believe that anything goes. I am passionate for the truth of the gospel and I have a clear view what that gospel is. But I recognise authentic following of Christ and listening to the Spirit in people who have come to a different view of that truth from me and I honour them. I want a Church of England that rejoices in that comprehensiveness and models it for the Anglican Communion. I don’t want to show anybody the door.

At this point I want to talk about our own diocesan triangular partnership with Western Tanganyika and El Camino Real. It was set up eighteen months ago, as you know, in order to facilitate just the kind of conversations that we need in the Communion and we have made a very good start. And behind the conversations, of course, the creating of relationships of trust and affection in which some honest talking can take place. In five weeks time Bishop Gerard, and his successor-presumptive, Bishop Sadock, and Bishop Mary will all be here for further exploration together of what it means to belong to a world-wide Communion and to find ways of staying together when there are pressures to draw apart. You can, perhaps, imagine, the email correspondence among the bishops over the election of Canon Mary Glasspool and our fear of what that ordination might mean for the Communion, but also for our partnership, given that some in all three dioceses will find that ordination difficult to live with.

I have to tell you that Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves has made what I think is a courageous, and I know a painful, decision, partly in response to representations from Bishop Gerard and myself, not to take part in next week’s ordination. Mary Glasspool is the first woman to be ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church since Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves herself two and a half years ago. Los Angeles is the neighbouring diocese to El Camino Real. The absence at the ordination of our Bishop Mary, if I may call her that, is a considerable personal sacrifice for the sake of our unity and out of respect for our position. And I want to pay tribute to that, to recognise the cost, to note, of course, that not all of you will rejoice at her decision, though many will be grateful. In reality I don’t think anyone should rejoice. Whatever our position, we need to recognise a lot of pain in ourselves and in those who disagree with us. But my hope is that Bishop Mary’s decision will mean that our partnership can move forward unaffected by the strident voices that will be heard internationally and we can go on working away at maintaining and enhancing the unity of our Communion. Certainly that is how I believe our Tanzanian partners have responded to her decision. I ought to add that I have written a personal letter to Mary Glasspool, who is caught in the middle of a controversy that is not of her making and, whatever you think of the ordination on 15 May, she is in need of our prayers.

I want to say something more about what could happen in relation to the Episcopal Church and its place in the Communion in the coming years. I welcome the proposed Anglican Covenant as an honest attempt to give us a framework for handling disputes and I suppose we do have to countenance the possibility of a kind of two-tier Communion, where those who cannot buy in to some agreed policies or restraints, are put at some distance from others. I recognise we do have to countenance that possibility, but I very much hope and fervently pray that we shall not find ourselves going down that path. And in relation to the Episcopal Church I want to say why. This was something that came to me very strongly during my two visits to the United States in the last year. It is this  -  that the Episcopal Church is so thoroughly Anglican that to describe it as something less than Anglican seems to be sheer foolishness and immensely hurtful.

You will have heard already this morning that I am not uncritical of the American Church, but I need to say that what I encountered, from Boston across to Seattle and down to San José, was deeply Anglican. Indeed the Episcopal Church talks about its Anglican roots, its Anglican ethos, its Anglican distinctiveness a good deal more than many members of the Church of England who hardly have the rest of the Communion on their radar. The American Church has a vibrant sacramental theology, a deep liturgical tradition, real attention to the Bible, a concern for church polity and order, and an approach to decision making that honours scripture, tradition and reason. If that isn’t Anglican, I don’t know what is! We must do everything to stay with them and they with us. These are our spiritual sisters and brothers as much as any in the world. It would be heart-breaking if our communion with them were impaired.

Just before I finish I want to put down a marker about something, which I think the Church of England needs to attend to and it may be that the Diocese of Gloucester needs to press this nationally. I discovered only recently that, although the Church of England has made a decision in principle that it is for the good of the Church that women should be ordained to the episcopate and although we recognise that in some Anglican provinces, not just in America, women have been duly and canonically ordained to the episcopate, men and women clergy from abroad, if ordained by a woman, are not permitted to minister as priests in the Church of England. In other words any priest, male or female, canonically ordained by the Bishop of El Camino Real, might need to undergo re-ordination if they were to serve in this diocese. That seems to me to be, at the very least, discourteous, and, at worst, insulting, and I believe that, without waiting for the outcome of our own tortuous process towards the ordination of women to the episcopate, we ought in the Church of England to put that right. Of course it will remain true that no bishop or parish need accept the ministry of a priest that they do not wish to accept, but, for those of us who would welcome such ministry, it seems unjust that there are legal impediments. This needs to be changed.

Time will not permit me to speak about the related subject of the report of the Legislative Committee on the ordination of women to the episcopate. The proposals, due to be published in a few days’ time, will have my support as being the best we can achieve in moving forward on this issue that is crucial in terms of our mission, quite apart from the case in terms of theology, ecclesiology and justice, while making it possible for most of those who see this as an inopportune development to remain among us. If the General Synod gives its approval in July, the matter will be referred to the Diocesan Synod and that will be the time to explore in more detail what the proposals will mean for us here, both for those committed to this development and those opposed to it. The fact that 30% of the clergy of this diocese are women will inevitably and rightly shape our diocesan response.

Nothing that I have said this morning should be heard as a desire to marginalize those who, either on the ordination of gay people or of women to the episcopate, have a view at variance with what I have said. Now (since Tuesday) in the seventh year of my episcopate, I hope everyone will recognise my deep desire to be a bishop for all the clergy and all the parishes and to honour the variety of views that are held here. But I am pleading for patient conversation, for unity, for staying together and for trying to move on from the stalemate that afflicts the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. It diverts us from the joyful task of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone in our society and it is not good for our souls.

+Michael Gloucestr: