8 October 2014

A note from Bishop John:
‘FACILITATED CONVERSATIONS’: some supportive themes

You will be aware that the Church of England is about to enter a period of ‘facilitated conversations’ around the issue of same-sex relationships following the publication and recommendations of the Pilling Report earlier in the year. The Archbishop’s Director of Reconciliation, Canon David Porter, worked with the College of Bishops recently to test out the process, which is now being refined prior to regional conversations at which our diocese will have 24 representatives some time next year. This is part of a Synodical process, and we need to decide separately how any other conversations will be offered to deaneries or interested groups in the rest of the life of the diocese. The Bishop’s Staff will be working on this.

However the Bishop’s Staff also felt it would be valuable for us to start the process with some of our own work to tease out some common themes that we wanted to commend to the diocese.
The process we adopted for this piece of work was for us all to write two pages on our own journey in relation to this area of sexuality and to share these confidential documents with each other beforehand. We then spent a morning at our residential staff meeting with the help of a trusted consultant and came up with the thinking that follows in this paper.

I hope the themes we offer are helpful as we enter this phase of conversations. I realise that anything said and written in this area is scrutinised for code words and messages which indicate deeper prejudices! Can I encourage you to receive this paper simply for what it is: a brief reflection from your Bishop’s staff on what have seemed to us to be significant contextual themes for however we get involved in future conversation and discussion.

As you may know, Bishop Alan has written a book published this month which provides a comprehensive guide to his thinking on these issues. He puts the challenge to the Church with characteristic clarity and vigour, and in so doing makes his personal contribution to the debate. Now as we enter the period of ‘facilitated conversations’ we all have an opportunity, if we wish, to take part in that discussion, which I hope we will do with courtesy and grace, from whatever angle we come.

1 God’s faithfulness
Our discussions take place in the context of the endless faithfulness of God. We often fail to keep the covenant God has made with us, but God never does. This is the guarantee we have and against which we succeed and fail in our own faithfulness. God is faithful to the Church God has loved and blessed, so even as we struggle to handle this issue of same-sex relationships we know God will not desert us. ‘Again and again you drew us back into your covenant of grace’ (Prayer F, CW)
2 Our handling of Scripture is a key issue
One of the deepest fault lines in this discussion is the way different Christians handle Scripture. Anglicans sit under Scripture as ‘revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation’ (Article Vl), but we see Scripture starting a conversation with us as it inhabits us, shapes us and takes us deeper in our faith. We both rest in, and struggle with, Scripture and do not expect to come through the encounter unchanged. If we are engaging honestly with Scripture its truth is never just handed down, it’s always freshly minted.

3 It’s broader than ‘gay’ or ‘straight’
We over-simplify a complex discussion when we speak of identity and activity which is either gay or straight. Human sexuality runs along a spectrum of affections, with all of us at some point on the spectrum – perhaps a point that changes somewhat over time. It’s important not to box people into predetermined categories which break down in the face of human diversity.

4 It’s about being human and how to flourish in our humanity
We delight in the knowledge that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (Jn.10.10). Moreover, our sexuality is a fundamental part of our identity as persons called to that flourishing. We need therefore to set our discussion on sexuality in the broad context of asking what makes for that abundance of which Jesus spoke. This doesn’t determine the answers to our particular questions on same-sex relationships but sets them within a very important wider and deeper context.

5 We aspire to be moral people – but that means being real
This discussion is too important for us to play games. We aspire to virtue but are seen by many, especially younger people, as less than moral in relation to sexual matters. With this missional fracture we can’t afford to be anything but real. We need to get beyond defensive/aggressive positions and speak honestly of our beliefs, our experiences, our family and friends (within the boundaries of confidentiality) so that we encounter each other as sisters and brothers at the foot of the cross where all truth is revealed.

6 Society is in complete confusion about sexuality
Although most couples, once married, are faithful to each other, the statistics on relationship breakdown, casual sexual relationships, sexual abuse, rape, prostitution, STDs, pornography etc. are very alarming and signal a society in considerable confusion over sexuality. The Church is part of this confusion and shares society’s corporate struggle to live well before God and each other. The Church needs, however, to try and model creative disagreement in which people with different views listen to both the Bible and human experience, and include everyone at the table.

7 Covenanted relationships are essential
In the context of such confusion, and whatever different views we have about active gay relationships, we can find common ground in a firm belief in covenanted relationships that are lifelong and faithful. There is no room in a Christian sexual ethic for promiscuity or a loose commitment to permanence and faithfulness. The clear biblical preference for covenanted relationships is our guide, with its apogee in the relationship of Christ and his Church (Eph.5). There is no room for compromise on such a basic biblical principle.
8 This is a justice issue
There are different responses when anyone says this is a justice issue. Some see it as an unjustified intrusion of a modern secular discourse of human rights. Nevertheless we believe that the biblical witness is uncompromising on issues of justice. ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice…’ (Micah 6.8). We cannot relapse into special pleading on sexuality when we also claim that justice, rooted in the nature of God, is foundational for so many other debates in society.

9 What does good disagreement look like?
This is a fundamental question which underlies our conversations. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be brought to a single position on same-sex relationships. What we can look for, however, is a way of living with disagreement that honours and respects views we don’t agree with, believing that those who hold such views are not just perverse, ignorant or immoral, but rather are bearing witness to different aspects of the truth that lies in Christ alone. Not only is all truth God’s truth, but God’s truth is ultimately bound to be beyond our grasp because our minds are but miniscule receptors before the great and beautiful Mystery of God.

10 Time is not on our side
Some of our ethical/doctrinal discussions have taken decades, if not centuries, to work through – contraception, remarriage after divorce, the ordination of women. It’s important not to rush debates on profound issues, and it’s also important to keep such Godly conversations in the liquid solution of grace. However, the speed of social exchange in today’s world and the seriousness of our dis-connect with large sections of society on the issue of same-sex relationships mean that we haven’t got the luxury of endless internal debate. We are in real need of faithful, hopeful and pastoral ways forward.

+John Oxon and the Bishop’s Staff
October 2014

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