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Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

By Andrew Symes
Feb. 11, 2020

The acting Bishop of Oxford Diocese has released an 'Ad Clerum' letter to all clergy and licensed Lay Ministers, setting out his "reflections on how we may go forward" following the House of Bishops' Statement on Civil Partnerships, and the subsequent apologies and distancing from this Statement. Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester, signs the letter in the absence of Steven Croft who is on sabbatical. Bishop Colin has appeared in these pages in previous years for siding with a progressive position in the debate on sexual ethics (see here and here). He has certainly been on a theological journey since his days of teaching at Wycliffe Hall. But the concern being expressed by faithful Anglicans in Oxford and further afield is not primarily about Bishop Colin and his views, but about the position of the leaders of Oxford Diocese and indeed the Church of England as a whole.

There are many things at stake here. The definition of the church -- is it a space where people with diverse views gather, united by their common humanity, or is it a spiritual body of people from diverse backgrounds, united to Christ and each other through the gospel? The safety of its members -- safe from any suggestion that they might be sinners, or safe from God's judgement after repentance and faith? The survival of authentic Christianity in the West -- will it capitulate to the false ideologies of the world, or preserve the counter-cultural truth in order to share it with love?

Bishop Colin's letter appears at first sight to be balanced. The House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement has caused distress for some, but drawn praise from others. The Oxford Bishops have listened to both sides, concerned for the pastoral care of those who identify as LGBT, while also respecting and not wanting to exclude those who hold to the church's traditional teaching. "Uncanonical blessings" of relationships are still not permitted (presumably referring to liturgical services), while informal prayer for all is encouraged. Living in Love and Faith will soon be released; a resource to help parishes explore all sides of the debate around identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality. Those with different views on the subject in the church are "travelling together" and must "care for each other along the way".

But there are several clues in the letter that the Bishop does not see his office as a guardian of the apostolic faith, or even as a neutral referee between those with opposing views, but rather as gatekeeper of a new era, ushering in a new default position of revisionist theology while continuing for the moment to tolerate those with traditional views.

Bishop Colin begins by referring first not to the Bishops' pastoral statement itself, but to the Archbishops' apology for it following the media furore. He then makes an excuse for the publication of this official episcopal statement, apologises for it himself, and goes further,calling it "wrong-headed and pastorally inept". Although he acknowledges that some people were in favour of the statement, seeing it as a clear expression of the church's historic teaching, he makes it clear that he, and by extension the Oxford Diocesan leadership, stand with those who oppose the statement -- in fact he specifically quotes further criticisms of the statement from the Bishops of Oxford and Reading.

This criticism is not just about tone and timing, but also content. Outlining why the Bishops' Pastoral Statement was needed in the first place, Bishop Colin explains it as a response to Civil Partnerships becoming available for heterosexual couples, which was simply a matter of "justice", and only raised "technical questions" for the church. This dismisses the concerns that many faithful Christians have had about the Civil Partnership legislation: how it undermines marriage, and creates obvious issues about sexual ethics that the Bishops' Statement was trying to answer.

The Ad Clerum goes on to quote with approval highly critical articles about the Bishops' pastoral statement in The Times and in the Via Media blog. It is surely significant that these pieces which fiercely attack and even deride historic Christian teaching about sexual ethics and the Church of England's attempts to navigate the issue, are commended by a Bishop, writing in a position of spiritual authority to his flock. He then makes clear his agreement with the view that, just as the church over the years has changed its understanding on the celibacy of clergy, use of contraception and permitting marriage of divorcees, so there is nothing "static and immovable" in Christian teaching. This, together with a marked absence in the letter of any reference to Scripture or even to God (except at the end -- "God bless you") will surely cause alarm as it appears to illustrate a complete loss of confidence in the idea, basic to Christianity, that faith is based on things that are unchanging!

A letter genuinely trying to balance the different views would offer resources from the two sides, as Living in Love and Faith is likely to do. Bishop Colin does not do this. Instead, he commends two new initiatives specifically geared for "LGBTI+ people": a chaplaincy service covering the whole Diocese, and "evangelical services" at Christ Church Cathedral. These are not primarily designed to help people with same sex attraction live within the church's official teaching (although to be fair there appears to be an option available for this), nor are they complemented by similar resources for heterosexual single or married people on how to live with purity in the context of a society where sexual restraint has been abandoned and maintaining lasting relationships is difficult. Rather they appear to uncritically accept and affirm contemporary secular ideas about sexual identities and behaviour. These initiatives do not appear to be, from an orthodox perspective, about pleasing God, or even about providing consistent and distinctively Christian help to the struggling, but an attempt at virtue signalling to the secular world and particularly the LGBT lobby within the church's leadership.

This Ad Clerum letter sets out the reality of the Church of England today. The fact that the Pastoral Statement was agreed and released, and that the College of Bishops meeting in late January did not rescind it (against the wishes of the Bishop of Oxford, we're told), shows that behind the scenes at least some Bishops are fighting for orthodoxy, even if as individuals many find it difficult to explain and commend the positive Christian teaching on sex and marriage in public. But in the Diocese of Oxford and many other Dioceses the leadership has now embraced and is actively promoting a progressive position on sexual ethics, and it could be argued on other theological issues as well, for example the authority of Scripture.

What are the options for faithful orthodox Anglicans in the Diocese of Oxford? I'm sure that Bishop Colin will be receiving a few politely written letters, expressing appreciation for his ministry but disappointment at this latest indication of the trajectory. No doubt also there will be impetus for securing the election of conservatives to General Synod in September. Sermons might even be preached and courses run on what the bible says about sex and marriage. All of these are useful for clarifying thinking and ensuring continued witness within the denomination, but in my view they won't stop or reverse the train heading in the wrong direction.



To: All clergy and LLMs
10 February 2020

Dear First Name,

The House of Bishops Pastoral Statement:

the journey to date and my reflections on how we may go forward

Archbishop Justin and Archbishop Sentamu issued an apology at the end of January, taking responsibility for releasing a pastoral statement from the House of Bishops concerning Civil Partnerships.

The pastoral statement attracted significant press interest, and it immediately became a source of considerable distress for many within and outside the Church. The statement also drew praise from some quarters for 'upholding the orthodox and historic teaching of the Church of England'.

I hope that this, necessarily long, letter goes some way to explaining what happened and my thinking on the matter. It also comes with news of two major new developments in the Diocese.

What was the purpose of the pastoral statement?

Commenting on the statement, the Revd Canon John Rees, Diocesan Registrar, explains:
"the pastoral statement was prompted by a significant change in the law brought in by the last Parliament, as one of its last acts before Dissolution. The legislation itself followed a Supreme Court decision in 2018, which sought to address the inadequacy of the legal rights and remedies available to committed cohabitants, bringing them essentially into line with the rights and remedies available to couples who go through a secular or religious ceremony of marriage. Many lawyers, myself included, consider this to be a welcome reform in place of the previous rag-bag of historic legal remedies."
In short, the change in legislation meant that, for the first time, Civil Partnerships became legally possible for heterosexual couples. It seems clear that the reasons for the judgement were a matter of justice, and not because the State wished to change the legal position of marriage. However, it did, and does, raise technical questions for the Church that the statement responded to, though in a pastorally insensitive way.

How was the statement approved, and how did it come about?

The document came to the House of Bishops in December as a deemed paper; interpreted by bishops at the time as an "if needed" policy, should there be enquiries concerning the Civil Partnerships legislation outlined above. The House discussed the statement very briefly, but not its publication.
The first thing we knew about the publication of the pastoral statement was when the Guardian got in touch with the national church towards the end of January. An open letter to the Archbishops quickly followed from three General Synod members, which garnered over 3,700 signatures from across a broad spectrum of the Church. Almost three weeks on, the pastoral statement continues to draw criticism.

How did you respond?

I wrote at the time to share my sorrow and that of my brother and sister bishops in Oxford for the upset that the pastoral statement caused:

"A number of you have written or commented on social media about the statement published by the House of Bishops last week. Yesterday's piece by Libby Purves in The Times sums up the mood of many within and outside the Church. Together with +Steven, +Olivia and +Alan, I am sorry for the distress that the statement has caused... there will be further discussion at the College of Bishops tomorrow and, we hope, something more fitting may emerge. The Oxford bishops' pastoral letter, Clothe yourselves with love tried to strike a better note."

Why did so many Bishops speak out?

Although the statement reiterated the legal and doctrinal position of the Church of England, I, together with many other bishops, felt that its release was wrong-headed and pastorally inept. Read through the eyes of anyone fostering/adopting children, single parents or those supporting LGBTI+ family and friends, the statement was, as Bishop Olivia said before the College of Bishops meeting, 'cold, legalistic, and loveless'.

Bishop Steven, along with others, was keen that the statement should be withdrawn or sent back to the House of Bishops for further work, but that was not the will of the College of Bishops meeting.

In recent days, Professor Helen King and the Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby have questioned the content of the statement as well as the tone, pointing out that it presents the teaching of the Church on these matters as static and immovable, despite the Church (I paraphrase) '...accepting clerical heterosexual marriage, accepting contraception, and allowing marriage in church of divorcees.' I'm inclined to agree with that analysis.

But are you listening to other voices?

The responses of the bishops and many others have disturbed some people. We have had clergy in this Diocese, who are loved, respected and valued, write to say that they affirmed the pastoral statement. They are concerned to know that we will continue to honour and pastor to those who uphold the historic teaching of the Church of England on marriage.

We continue to listen carefully to voices from across the Church about these matters. As we stated in our December 2018 letter to members of ODEF, neither I nor my fellow bishops have any intention or desire to exclude in any way those who hold to the traditional teaching of the Church and our marriage discipline. As bishops, these are things we uphold. We do not permit uncanonical blessings, though we do seek to encourage priests who, in good conscience, want to pray for and with people at significant points of their lives in a spirit of generous hospitality. As bishops, we are always happy to advise clergy on these matters as issues arise.

Living in Love and Faith

As well as the pastoral insensitivity of the statement, the timing of it was problematic. The Church is now coming towards the end of a two-year national programme of listening, prayer and discernment led by the bishops.

Living in Love and Faith will help the Church to learn and explore questions of human identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality. Study guides and resources will be published following the July General Synod. We hope and pray that parishes and deaneries will fully engage with those resources when they are published.

For some, the resources will break new ground. For others, they won't go far enough. But we must hold firm to that timetable and await what comes next while trusting and praying for the those most closely involved in the process. Do take time to explore the LLF website.

New initiatives in this Diocese

The Church is criticised, often with good cause, for fine words but little discernible action when it comes to matters of human sexuality. I am delighted that this letter comes with news of two substantial new initiatives in our Diocese.

LGBTI+ Chaplaincy Service

In October 2018 the four bishops of this Diocese issued Clothe yourselves with love: a pastoral letter on the inclusion of and care for LGBTI+ people and their families. We committed ourselves to explore the creation of a new LGBTI+ Chaplaincy Service, which launches today.

The new chaplaincy service seeks to provide the best possible care across the whole church in this Diocese and will respect the theological views that people who come to them hold. I ask for your prayers as this provision takes further shape and develops.

Full details about the chaplaincy service have been published today on our website at oxford.anglican.lgbt

LGBTI+ friendly evangelical services

Last week, Christ Church announced that it would host a six-month series of LGBTI+ friendly evangelical services.

Conceived with the full support of Christ Church's Chapter and College Officers, Sacred will run as a monthly Sunday evening service, with an opportunity to socialise afterwards.

Sacred is very much a grassroots initiative, but I commend it to you, and I hope that you will join me in giving it your prayerful support.

Looking forward and travelling together

It has been an uncomfortable start to the year, but a most valuable one. That people still care about what the Church thinks is important. It's now up to us to ensure that they continue to do so.

I recognise that ours is a continuing journey in which many people are suffering. Let's resolve to care for one another along the way. This letter is available online; please feel free to share it with others if that would be helpful.

May God bless you and your family, your parish, chaplaincy, and deanery in the coming months.

Yours in Christ,

The Rt Revd Colin Fletcher
Bishop of Dorchester and Acting Bishop of Oxford
The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, is on sabbatical

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