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OXFORD CRISIS: The time to act has surely come

OXFORD CRISIS: The time to act has surely come

By Will Jones, Ph.D
Special to Virtueonline
January 11, 2019

The response of the four Oxford bishops to the 'letter of concern' from over 100 of their serving clergy, placed in the public domain this week, did not make for happy reading. Perhaps its clearest message was that none of the bishops in Oxford diocese subscribe any longer to the teaching of the Church of England in sexual matters. Neither do they have any intention of upholding that teaching in their diocese or encouraging others to do the same.

Challenged by the clergy that 'the situation is serious' and 'if not addressed, we would all struggle to support the leadership of our bishops in this matter and a number of our churches may want to seek alternative means of receiving episcopal ministry,' the bishops simply responded that they needed to be 'honest'. Pointing out that they had each of them been considering these matters for over 30 years, the implication presumably being that they had come to a considered view that was not likely to change, they concluded: 'We want to offer our own views therefore but not impose them.'

A curious person might wonder why, if all the bishops wanted to do was 'offer' their views, they didn't just write an article in the diocesan newsletter. That might have felt considerably less imposing than issuing divisive pastoral guidance and setting up a new advisory group of LGBT people which specifically excluded those committed to the church's current and historic teaching.

The bishops in their letter contrast 'silence' and 'honesty', explaining that they chose the latter as the 'right course in this diocese at this time'. The option that doesn't appear to have occurred to them is simply to have faithfully restated the teaching of the church, which, after all, they are committed by their ordination vows to 'expound and teach'. They appear to have forgotten that unless or until the teaching of their church is changed, whatever their private views of the matter, it is that teaching which they are charged with proclaiming and holding forth. If they feel unable to do this for conscience reasons then really they are in the wrong job and should resign, but the best they can with integrity offer in those circumstances is silence as far as official pronouncements are concerned. The 'honesty' which they say they opted for instead certainly cannot be right insofar as it involves a direct contravention of their ordination vows to uphold the teaching of the church.

What is urgently needed now is for the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, and his episcopal colleagues to write again to all their clergy reminding them of the teaching of the Church of England in relation to marriage and sexual relations and explaining that nothing in their recent correspondence and guidance should be construed as endorsement of anything contrary to that. Such a gesture, while small in the scheme of things, would go some way to reassuring their biblically orthodox clergy that as bishops they remain leaders who, whatever their own reservations, are willing to hold forth the teaching of the church which all of them, priests and bishops, have solemnly committed to teach and model. This may not be sufficient for all the signatories of the letter to recover their confidence in their bishops, but it could not fail to help.

If such confidence cannot be recovered then it is difficult to see how the biblically faithful in Oxford diocese have much option at this point but to take direct action. If their bishops will not fulfil their sacred obligation to teach and expound 'the doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it', and instead are placing their clergy in the invidious position of having to choose between obeying their own ordination vows before God and obeying their bishops, then it is hard to see what choice they have.

In terms of what this action might look like, the letter of concern itself mentions seeking alternative episcopal oversight. Another possibility, alongside this, would be withholding funds from the diocese. It is unclear the extent to which this would trouble Oxford, which is among the wealthiest dioceses in the Church of England -- which is perhaps why the bishops there feel able to take a step which they know will upset their large conservative churches. But simply as a matter of integrity churches must consider withholding their contributions to a diocesan organisation that is in dereliction of its basic responsibilities under church law. The Church of England nationally has been making much show recently of its determination to invest its funds only in companies it deems ethical in areas such as climate change and gender representation, so it can hardly complain about its own churches taking stock of whether their dioceses constitute a worthy and ethical recipient of their funds. There are plenty of excellent Christian organisations which continue to stand resolutely within the faith once delivered to the saints to which such funds could usefully be diverted.

Whatever course of action the churches of Oxford diocese decide to take (and I write conscious that I am not myself among them and this is a matter for them to decide themselves), the time for merely speaking and listening is surely over. The bishops have made clear their direction of travel and appear to have no intention of turning back for such trifling things as upholding the biblical teaching of the church or honouring their ordination vows. It is true that direct action may not have any affect at all on the resolve of the bishops, and indeed they may well make a principle out of not giving in to threats and punitive behaviour, and may respond in kind with negative consequences of their own. But at least those who engage in them can say that, when the time came, they did not sit idly by, but took a stand, and ceased to give succour to soul-imperilling error.

Will Jones is a UK-based writer. A mathematics graduate with a diploma in theology and a PhD in political philosophy, he lives in Warwickshire with his wife and two young children. He is the author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017) and blogs at www.faith-and-politics.com

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