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OXFORD: A response to Bishop Steven's recent call to same-sex unions

OXFORD: A response to Bishop Steven's recent call to same-sex unions

By Dan McGowan,
November 5, 2022

It may seem to some that dark clouds are gathering once again in the Anglican church - and specifically in the Oxford diocese. However, I'm afraid the clouds have never really gone away, but have been building slowly over the past five years. On Friday, Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, made a number of press statements announcing he was now in favour of the marriage of same-sex couples in church. He also spoke of ways the Anglican Communion might survive as a 'broad' church going forward.

About three years ago I produced a time-line for St Paul's church family of where we were with our relationship in Oxford Diocese. I will attempt a short overview now before addressing Bishop Steven's latest announcement.

Over the past five years, because of various messages and statements coming out of Diocesan House and in particular from the four bishops (EG the 'Ad Clerum' -- note to clergy of 2018), demonstrating a clear departure from biblical teaching on human sexuality, the clergy of St Ebbe's Oxford, St Mary's Maidenhead, Arborfield and Barkham and St Paul's Banbury, have been meeting with Bishop of Oxford to try and find a way of continuing to minister as orthodox churches in the diocese. These conversations were always respectful and helpful, and Bishop Steven seems to genuinely want to make 'mutual flourishing' possible.

As a result of the Ad Clerum of 2018, the PCCs of the four churches, including St Paul's, decided to ask the Bishop of Oxford to provide us with "extended oversight" from Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone. Because the Bishop of Maidstone had been established after the decision to appoint women bishops, Bishop Steven said he could not allow it officially; however, he allowed for Bishop Rod to oversee each of the four churches on pastoral matters, including the minister's wellbeing. (NB Bishop Rod recently retired and we are currently awaiting the appointment of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet to continue this role). It is also worth mentioning that on Bishop Colin's retirement (Dorchester) in 2021, there was an opportunity to appoint an orthodox Bishop to serve churches such as ourselves; instead, a revisionist Bishop (Bishop Gavin - who specifically campaigns to bring about same sex marriage) was appointed as our local Bishop. The writing was on the wall.

Meanwhile, as a result of the partnership between the vicars of the four churches mentioned above, the PCC's of those churches have met a handful of times for fellowship and discussion about how we might maintain gospel integrity, and continue to hold out the good news of Jesus as Anglican churches into our diocese. As a result, those churches have begun planning to set up The Oxford Good Stewards Trust (OGST), modelled on similar diocesan Trusts around the UK. A main purpose of such a trust would be to divert our 'Parish Share' (ongoing annual payments to the diocese to finance the ministry in the local church -- including the clergy's stipend) to the Trust, in order to avoid supporting revisionist churches financially and indeed directly support churches that maintain Anglican doctrine. At the very least, in order to demonstrate our dismay, and how seriously we view the situation, a simple course of action could be to simply pay our Parish Share via the OGST. The actual setting up of the OGST was a pragmatic move to get the wheels turning, whilst we discussed how we might utilise it going forward. Whilst we have not yet made any payment to the OGST, the PCC officially aligned itself with it in November 2021 but are yet to contribute financially or to use it as a vehicle for payment (though we have received a generous gift from it). However, next Monday the PCC will be discussing ways we might utilise the fund more, going forward (with a view to making a firm decision in January 2023).

As mentioned, in his essay "Together in Love and Faith", which he launched on Friday, Bishop Steven argues for a change in the Church's practice, saying the Church of England should now marry same-sex couples. This will also, de facto, involve a change in its doctrine. This goes significantly further than the Ad Clerum of 2018 as it firmly presses down the accelerator of change. Also, Bishop Steven is now the most senior cleric in the Church of England (so far) to speak out in favour of same-sex marriage, and will mean him becoming the leading public advocate for change among the House of Bishops (who meet next week to discuss this with a view to debating it at General Synod early next year). It also feels like a pre-empting of the results of the 'Living in Love and Faith' initiative (a countrywide 'discussion' regarding human sexuality based around teaching materials that were biased towards a more liberal approach. I had planned to lead something at St Paul's to contribute to this debate, but the coronavirus pandemic and my own health meant this did not happen).

At this stage, it is important to reiterate is that, as Christians, we object to sex outside marriage in any form, not because we don't like the idea of it, but because the Bible (which is our authority/rule) is clear in its rejection of it. This means that all our deliberations need to be conducted in an atmosphere of love and respect, acknowledging that we all struggle in different ways with different sins.

If you go to the Oxford diocese website you can obtain a copy of Bishop Steven's essay for a small charge (payment because it's his opinion and cannot be seen to be sponsored by the diocese).

However, I also want to thoroughly commend to you a response to the essay by Rev. Vaughan Roberts (St Ebbe's). [Bishop Steven kindly allowed Vaughan to read and digest "Together in Love and Faith" in order to have a response ready when it's finally published]. If you would like an electronic version of Vaughan's response "Together in Love and Faith? Should the Church bless same-sex partnerships? A Response to the Bishop of Oxford" --click here or go to the members area of the website.

Many of you would have already benefited from resources from the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), but do click here for their excellent contribution to those conversations on 'Living in Love and Faith'.

Finally, and very interestingly, in his essay Bishop Steven also proposes a settlement, which would provide for differentiation of provision and oversight for those who could not support the change he is proposing. This, of course, would need to be of a structural nature and robust enough to secure the sustained flourishing of orthodoxy going forwards, but we must welcome his desire to work hard to make it happen. There is no time to explore it here but possibly fuel for a future blog!

I don't need to say that all of this is a matter that needs much prayer, particularly as the Church of England's House of Bishops and members of General Synod continue to discuss the 'next steps' after the Living in Love and Faith' initiative. The troubles we are facing in our diocese may soon be replicated, and more, across the whole church. And please pray for the PCC discussion regarding the OGST on November 14th. It is, of course, possible that Bishop Steven's views are rejected either in the House of Bishops or indeed General Synod. However, at the very least at our local level we need to make a response as a church seeking to honour Christ.

Friends, we pray for God's mercy, that he will continue to build gospel witness in the Oxford diocese and beyond. Also, let's pray that the Lord will keep us humble (knowing our own many failings), and gracious and loving when discussing all these things. We also pray for boldness to stand on the truth of God's word, whatever the cost. All for God and his glory.

The Rev Dan McGowan is vicar of St Paul's Church Banbury, Oxfordshire

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