Bishop of Oxford’s essay scores A+

“I’m a member of the Church of England” is not a phrase I often shout at the top of my voice in Liberal Democrat circles.

When my ecclesiastical membership becomes apparent, my normal “escape route” is to say that I am a “Tutu Anglican”. In all matters of the church, I find it sufficient to say “What Desmond said”. For example, the great Archbishop said:

I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.

Bishop Steven Croft, who as the Bishop of Oxford is a member of the House of Lords, published a 52-page essay on November 4th 2022.

There are no words more likely to send me off to into a deep slumber than “52-page essay”.

So it has taken me nearly four months to find sufficient time and head-space to read Bishop Steven’s work, which is called “Together in Love and Faith“. The Oxford diocese have helpfully headlined it as “Clergy should have the freedom to bless and marry same-sex couples”. (The essay formed the basis of move by the Church of England General Synod earlier this month to allow blessings for same-sex couples.)

It is a remarkable work – very rounded and sensible.

There are several reasons why I think this.

Firstly, Bishop Steven outlines his personal “faith” journey on the subject of same-sex couples. He says he comes from the “charismatic evangelical tradition” of the church, taking the Bible very seriously indeed. He goes through the vast amount of work he has done about same-sex couples and the church over decades. He has done a great deal of talking with all sides of the debate, and has been on quite a number of official bodies looking at the subject.

He then describes how his view on the matter has changed so that, after being against, he now supports blessings and marriages of same-sex couples in the Church of England. Furthermore, he offers a heartfelt apology:

I need to acknowledge the acute pain and distress of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the Church. I am sorry that, corporately, we have been so slow as a Church to reach better decisions and practice on these matters. I am sorry that my own views were slow to change and that my actions, and lack of action, have caused genuine hurt, disagreement and pain.

One of the really good things about this essay is that Bishop Steven carefully sets out the theology behind his change of mind (even quoting from Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing” at one point). His theological rationale seems to me, as a layperson, to be pretty clear and powerful. For example, he talks about the “primacy of mercy” in the gospels:

…repeatedly in the Gospels, judgement and mercy are brought into contrast with each other, through the encounters of Christ with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. In every instance, Christ prefers and privileges mercy, grace and gentleness.

Amen to that.

The other great thing about this essay is that the Bishop is clear that he wants discussions on this subject to be characterised by patience and respect for those with differing views. In a section entitled “Moving Forward Together” he says:

Any settlement must be founded on love and respect: love and respect for LGBTQ+ people and their families, within and beyond the Church; love and respect for those who take many different views on sexual ethics. This love must be the hallmark of our debates and conduct through this season.

Lastly, in a single sentence, the Bishop makes a procedural proposal which I think is very sound and wise:

The most helpful way to guarantee this freedom of conscience seems to me to structure the provision such that clergy and congregations opt into them, rather than have to opt out of them through the passing of resolutions in local Church Councils.

I think this is very important. Churches who do not agree with the Bishop, will not have to go through the painful rigmarole of passing a PCC (Parochial Church Council) resolution to opt-out of same-sex blessings.

All of this will lead, no doubt, to situations where some churches will metaphorically have a sign in front of them saying “Same-sex blessings this way”, pointing to a neighbouring church half a mile down the road that will welcome same-sex couples with open arms.

This may seem rather comical, but so be it. That tends to be the way of the Church of England.

I don’t go in for writing on T-shirts too much. But if I was to commission a T-shirt it would say “What Archbishop Desmond says” on the front and “What Bishop Steven says” on the back.

Photo is by Richard Peat Flickr CCL

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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14 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Feb '23 - 4:24pm

    I thank you Paul for this.

    As someone straight and brought up a Catholic, even studying at Heythrop College, Theology and Philosophy for a year before going on to do Politics and History at Queen Mary and LSE, it’s these sorts of approaches, from Paul to Bishop Croft, that mean a lot. They did then when young and progressive, they do now, middle aged and similar.I was as perplexed at twenty, as I am at over fifty, how few can see, Jesus never said a word against the love, that Oscar Wilde, said dare not speak its name.

    I think it irony of a good order, that Archbishop Tutu was the most eloquent and progressive on this issue, irony, due to the modern Church being liberal in South Africa, formerly a far right white supremacist nation, while awful in its prejudice and draconian on LGBT matters, in much of the African continent.

    With the good old US of A leading on this for years, is it now, that a new African Communion needs to emerge, with South Africa getting an opt out, staying with the Anglican Communion?

    Either way the Catholic Church needs a rebirth on this, or appropriately, a renaissance.

  • “The most helpful way to guarantee this freedom of conscience seems to me to structure the provision such that clergy and congregations opt into them”

    This is fundamentally an issue of treating everyone equally. Should equality really be an ‘opt in’ issue, never mind an ‘opt out’ one?

  • Matt (Bristol) 22nd Feb '23 - 10:45am

    Not posted here in a long time, but I would say that the idea of a national church/denomination with universality of practice across all congregations in that tradition (as in Catholic and Anglican thought) is not the only way of doing Christianity. There are traditions with congregational polities where these decisions could – or arguably should – be devolved to local conscience and review. This might appeal to democrats, if not all liberals, whether or not they are religious.

    I also think there should be patience with those who have conceded that state marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing, but are seeking to retain the primacy of religious conscience over religious marriage (whatever the outcome of that decision on conscience). That will disappoint many, I know, but I don’t think its unreasonable unless we are decided as a society to create a culture in which societal change is total and monolithic, wiping out all traces of past thought as we move into each new epoch. I always thought incremental change with pauses for review was the British way. This is necessarily messy and sometimes painful.

    But in my view there is damage to come for our society from requiring people to repudiate or disguise views and traditions they and their community have held for many years, at the pace of collective state decision making. It’s repeating a different historic error of our culture, and not learning.

  • William Wallace 22nd Feb '23 - 10:54am

    The resistance of African churches within the Anglican communion is one of the aspects that has held the Archbishop of Canterbury back on this issue. Traditional societies, still highly patriarchal, resist accepting equal rights for women, let alone for LGBT people; Anglican churches, amongst the most open elements in such societies, find it difficult to move too far beyond what their congregations will accept. The Anglican church in South Africa (in which my sister is a lay reader) was one of the few continuing multi-racial bodies during apartheid. Christianity contains liberal and conservative tendencies (and also radical and reactionary tendencies), as of course also do Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, even Buddhism; and secularists spread across the political spectrum too. I’m a liberal Anglican; I grew up listening to sermons on ‘the social gospel’.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Feb '23 - 3:03pm

    I was brought up as an anglican and eventually left the CoE to become a Quaker largely because I could no longer stomach the snails pace of change within the anglican communion. ( and because I was inspired by Quaker faith and practice) Good gay friends of mine and more recently transexuals have been driven to despair that they are not able to practice their faith openly and with full support from their clergy. It now seems highly likely that the tortuous and highly unsatisfactory half way house adopted by the CoE will split it anyway. You do not resolve difficult problems unless you face up to them, debate them thoroughly and move forward in a radical way. We need more Desmond Tutus and people like the bishop of Oxford to remind some Christians that their religious practice is not christian at all.

  • Mel Borthwaite 22nd Feb '23 - 11:45pm

    @Mark Taylor
    I suppose the difficulty is that it is impossible to reconcile ‘hardline Christian’s’ who believe that the whole Bible should be accepted as the ultimate guide for life, and ‘pick-and-mix Christian’s ‘ who choose to believe the parts of the Bible they like and ignore, or disbelieve, the parts they don’t like.

  • Mel. It’s Mick not Mark!
    The problem for many Christians is interpretation of scripture. Many tenets that might have applied 2000 years ago or earlier if you include the Old Testament, do not have relevance in 2023. Literal interpretation is also a problem. And of course who is doing the interpretation, most usually a man, and probably a white heterosexual one at that.
    I have a family bible from the 19th century which has a written interpretation by a member of the clergy alongside the biblical texts, filled with racism, misogyny and all sorts of imprecations against Islamists and Jews, which would be unacceptable to most Christians in Europe and the USA today. The CoE has changed, but not fast enough.
    Maybe the CoE should be cut loose from its state ties and stop trying to defend the indefensible and accept the inevitable schism with fundamentalist members of the CoE worldwide?

  • The issue with the Church of England is the fundamental flaw that it is the established church. The obvious solution is to disestablish it (as the C19th Liberals did to the Church of Ireland). The Anglican churches in England would probably fracture in to a collection of Anglican Churches and there would be less of an issue.

  • @ Mick Taylor
    “imprecations against Islamists and Jews, which would be unacceptable to most Christians in Europe and the USA today.”
    Do you actually mean against Islamists or against Muslims?

  • @ Matt (Bristol)
    “I also think there should be patience with those who have conceded that state marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing”

    Which is why it would have been far better for Simon Hughes’ suggestion to have been followed, abolish the legal concept of marriage and everyone have civil partnerships. Make things clearly separate.

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Feb '23 - 3:58pm

    @FS people. In the 19th century, Muslims were referred to as Islamists and that’s how the text reads

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Feb '23 - 4:38pm

    FS People, I would personally accept a situation as in Canada and many European countries where most people have 2 ceremonies, a civil marriage for legal purposes and a religious marriage in the denomination of their choice and it is understood that the second is legally fraudulent without the first, but that religious congregations are under no obligation to offer marriage to all without constraint. The CofE’s aspirations towards universality have been the main obstacle holding us back from that. It would have been possible, even, to imagine an established church where my outcome happened and was accepted. But it would probably take disestablishment now for it to be achieved.

  • @ Matt (Bristol)
    Not sure of you meant that literally, but:
    “it is understood that the second is legally fraudulent”

    To consider someone who wanted a religious marriage but did not want the legal atonement as guilty of fraud seems a bit odd. There are plenty of reasons someone may wish that arrangement.

    The use of the Civil Partnership title is better for making this clear, as the Law Commission repeatedly claims people are confused by the term marriage, so adding clarity seems like a good idea.

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