Making a Case for Pastoral Guidance

The latest pastoral guidance by the Bishops of the Church of England is designed to address the change in the law in England and Wales that has now opened up Civil Partnerships to opposite sex couples as well as same sex ones.

In the guidance they have provided the bishops make one or two things clear:

  • Sex is for heterosexual marriage and nowhere else
  • That civil partnerships are a form of friendship
  • That they should be sexually abstinent, whoever is in the CP

Let’s look at the good things first. First of all, this is clear guidance. No one can be in any doubt about where the bishops stand over the question of sexual relationships. Secondly, at least it does not discriminate further against LGBT people – it takes precisely the same stance over the sexual lives of heterosexuals as well. Thirdly, there is a certain bravery about offering guidance that is so massively at variance with the mores of the time. According to a recent survey, only 4% of British people now think that sex should wait until marriage in all cases.

That is all that I think can truly be said in its favour. The Guidance has been received with obloquy. Here are some of the reasons why.

Having a sexual ethic that says sex is only for marriage between a heterosexual couple made quite a lot of sense when there was no reliable contraception and no antibiotics. It did not stop people having all kinds of sex, but as an ideal it made a lot of sense and offered protection to the most vulnerable – the young women who would get left holding the babies. In the days before social security and child support, when single parents were almost unknown because a single woman with a child simply could not survive without independent means, only family and societal pressure could oblige young men who fathered children out of wedlock to do the decent thing; marry and support their children. It didn’t work with rich men who had no compunction in abandoning girls of a lower social status. So that ethic wasn’t just about an ideal of virginity, it connected with the real lives of almost everyone. There could be and often was real cruelty in society’s response to those who fell short of this norm, but there was also sometimes real compassion.

But if the bishops are going to adhere to this ethical norm, which has an uncertain basis in Scripture, which assumes for the most part that women and children are the property of men, they had better start by explaining why. Telling us it is what the Church’s doctrine teaches is not an answer – why does the doctrine teach it (if it does)? Why is there nothing else that can be said about sex, except no? Why have medical advances made no difference to what we have to say? If there was really good quality relationship teaching coming out of the House of Bishops about personal and sexual relations people might be more inclined to listen. But there isn’t. All we have is a Church under siege for the way it has handled sexual offending and continues to behave extremely defensively towards victims and survivors.

Again, some consistency would help them. When Prince William, as he then was, was going to marry Miss Kate Middleton, the Archbishop of York was asked about their decision to live together before marriage. His rather flippant and tasteless answer made no reference to the importance of virginity and abstinence, but rather suggested that he assumed they would be having sex – “Taste the milk before you buy the cow”. Why should we take any notice of pastoral guidance which says the opposite?

There is, in this guidance, which follows the lines or argument of the 2014 guidance about same-sex marriage, one novel twist. There is an attempt to distinguish between civil partnerships and marriage by focusing on vows. Vows are not obligatory at a CP, though many people entering one choose to have vows. One senses the bishops reaching for anything that might increase the distance they want to create between marriage and CP. But this is not a help to them.

For a start, I don’t know of any bishop who would say that a heterosexual civil marriage is not a marriage. Yet it is not a requirement that couples contracting a heterosexual civil marriage use any form of vows at all. They are often introduced – but they form no part of the legal requirement. Other religious communities also contract marriages without vows – the Orthodox, for example.

The bishops make a lot of sex – and nothing at all of love. Sex is mentioned forty-nine times in the Guidance, love not once. They correctly point out that civil partnerships do not presuppose sexual intimacy and can be simply a kind of covenanted friendship. They hold on this as being the reason they can permit clergy to be in same-sex civil partnerships – because they assume them all to be celibate. Daring bishops may have asked for assurances that this is so, but they are not really supposed to do that these days. Obedient clergy may be adhering to this discipline. There is no way of telling.

Marriages, they think, presuppose sexual relations. But this is, of course, mistaken. There are lots of sexless marriages contracted for all kinds of reasons. There always have been. They have all been marriages, just as much as the ones where the couples have an enthusiastic and energetic sex life. Sex, in and of itself, does not make a marriage. Marriages, in the old language, can be consummated. But they are marriages anyway. Non-consummation is a ground for a marriage to be annulled – at least in the case of opposite-sex marriages. This notion was not included in the legislation for same-sex marriages.

My own experience is that, under cross-examination, an Anglican bishop and a senior Church House official were quite unable to offer any convincing explanation of the essential difference between a opposite-sex marriage, a same-sex marriage and a civil partnership. The doctrine of the Church tells us that marriage is “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” This doctrine is trotted out cheerfully by the supporters of the bishops’ views. They never really explain satisfactorily why the indissolubility of marriage, which it seems to me the plain meaning of these words expresses, is now more observed in the breach. And if that feature of the doctrine can be flexed, as it is, to support and permit remarriage after divorce, then why can’t other aspects of it?

Lying behind this latest guidance is the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage. There has been no attempt to develop a sexual ethic that takes account of any of the changes of the last century. With those changes have come also huge social revolution in peoples’ personal and sexual lives. There has been determined resistance at a formal level to the changes that have brought some equality and dignity to the lives of LGBT people.

The sexual revolution has not been without its victims. Human beings hurt themselves and others just as they always have done. But, as even Justin Welby could recognise, same sex relationships can be “stellar” in their quality, as can opposite sex ones. So too can civil partnerships of both kinds. The bishops need to do a lot more work to explain to us how and why what happens in their different bedrooms is determinative of the goodness or otherwise of the relationship.

They also need to focus more on love and generosity, and on the contributions that good relationships make to our society. These contributions take all kinds of forms – as diverse as the homes they come out of. They all need encouraging.

The sad thing about this Guidance is that it reeks of an attempt to maintain some consistency with earlier offerings. But that is an internal conversation – it is simply arse-covering, and its audience are the conservatives in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion who are always quick to see heresy in any softening of tone or content in the church’s teaching. Just look at the criticisms that are currently being aimed at Steven Cottrell, the Archbishop of York designate.

This guidance offers nothing pastoral. It never deals with the deeper questions about why doctrines are as they are. And if the bishops believe their own rhetoric, and people are asking deep questions about how to live, then a dogmatic response like this is worse than useless when what is needed is an apologetic for the Christian life as a joyful calling.

Mood Music – A Letter from Lichfield

There have been a variety of reactions to the letter from the bishops of Lichfield diocese to all clergy and licensed lay ministers entitled Welcoming and Honouring LGBT+ people. The  letter can be read here. It is clearly intended to be a strongly positive statement affirming the place and role of LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of that diocese. It has received an unequivocal welcome from OneBodyOneFaith, whose chair, Peter Leonard, says “Our Archbishops have called for radical Christian inclusion and this is the beginning of what it needs to look like in practice.” Others have been less enthusiastic. Colin Coward writes: “What it manages to say is unexceptional. That it is the first of its kind as a letter from bishops to clergy is salutary. This letter does not argue for or commend an unequivocal welcome for lesbian and gay people. This is not radical Christian inclusion.”

How far, then, does the letter represent a step towards “radical Christian inclusion”? No one knows, at present, what the Archbishops meant by that slogan. It was dreamt up, hurriedly, in the aftermath of General Synod’s declining to take note of the House of Bishops report following the end of the Shared Conversations (GS2055) in February 2017. Church House staff were visibly surprised by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he uttered the phrase in Church House the next day. There had been no time to work it through the normal processes of policy formation. But, once said, it was on record.

Different groups have interpreted it according to their own perspectives. Those who defend the current position of the church on sexuality and relationships take it to mean that we must be radically inclusive within the current guidelines and not change them at all. Campaigners for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice think it means something entirely different.

The Lichfield bishops are careful to frame their remarks in the context of the work that is going on to produce a “teaching document”. Quite what this will be, or when it will appear, or what status it will have is all still unknown. But it is true to say that it may  possibly help us understand better what the Archbishops meant by “radical Christian inclusion”.

A great deal of work has been done in the last fifty years on the Biblical texts that appear to disapprobate same-sex relationships. Some of that has defended time-honoured stances that prohibit any same-sex sexual activity, or any relationship that goes beyond a chaste friendship; much has been produced to argue that the texts either do not apply, or that they do not have to be read in that way. There is probably no conclusion to be drawn from the outpouring of material in this area – what you think will depend fairly much on what you think counts as an argument for or against.

There has also been a lot of writing about the theology of relationships, some of it very creative and interesting. But official thinking has been almost entirely static since 1991 and Issues in Human Sexuality. That document, intended to open up discussion, achieved almost the exact opposite. It froze the discussion, and became an official position. Those wishing to be ordained in the Church of England will certainly be asked specifically about whether they assent to the position outlined by this document, indeed they have to sign on the dotted line that they do, which is that while LGBT lay people may conscientiously decide to enter into a sexually active same-sex relationship, those to be ordained must remain chaste. They are very unlikely to be questioned as closely about their personal assent to every article of the Nicene Creed.

In a way, Issues tried to soften the position voted for by the General Synod in the Higton/Baughen motion of 1987, which robustly defended the notion that the only place for human sexual expression of any kind was inside a heterosexual marriage, and anything else was sin. Nothing in the intervening thirty or more years has fundamentally changed the terms of this debate within the Church of England.

Many people feel that to attempt to do so would be unlikely to succeed and would only open even wider the chasm between the defenders of the past and the champions of reform. But unless and until we do face the fundamental theological problems caused by an inadequate theology of sexuality and the Canons and various forms of pastoral guidance that derive from it, then we will not have a clear sense of what we are aiming for in urging the church towards “radical Christian inclusion”.

It may be that the “Teaching Document” will provide this. It is more likely that it will be a highly defensive creation, designed to manage competing demands from institutional players of various kinds here and abroad. If it is this kind of a document, it will fail, and we will be no further forward. Martyn Percy and Andrew Lightbown have written about the tendency of the present church leadership to see problems as opportunities for better management. The introduction of all kinds of management practices, the adoption of vision statements, line management, targets, audits, all accompanied by endless upbeat messages from the diocesan or national church centre do not disguise the fact that the church is still in sharp decline. The disconnect from the nation is becoming so severe that even the Archbishop of Canterbury has to face questions about the viability of establishment.

Over the last generation the nation has grown used to being a place in which it is no longer acceptable or, indeed, legal to discriminate against people on the grounds of the sex or their gender identity or their marital status or their sexuality, or a number of other grounds. The churches are some of the only places left where that is still possible. That is not to say that the nation as whole has been cured of homophobia, or misogyny, or racism. Homophobes, misogynists and racists are still there, and they have all kinds of reasons, including reasons of conscience, for holding the views that they do. And they have every right to hold those views in private. But they can’t espouse them in public, however conscientiously they hold them. The only kind of conscience that seems to get a special category of protection is a collective religious conscience. The Church of England, in particular, has won for itself the right to discriminate where others no longer can.

Set against its official teaching in the area of sexuality and gender minorities, I can see why those protections are important. I can’t see that they are important for real people, but I can see that they are a defence of the institution and its current impasse. There is clear evidence that the official teaching of the church is significantly out of line with her theologians and a majority of her clergy and laity. But still nothing is done to address what we might call the doctrinal deficit in this area. Theology is dangerous, and it produces unintended consequences. It is not susceptible to tidy managerialism. It changes things. It is not spin.

I want to see a change in the teaching of the church in relation to sex and relationships and marriage. I want to see it principally because I do not think that the present position is true. Higton and Issues should be consigned to history not because they are out of fashion, nor because they are a missional liability (though they are) but because they are not true. Canon B30 should change not because it is out of kilter with society (though it is) but because it is not true. The Church of England’s sleight of hand over marriage after divorce simply shows that it no longer believes that marriage is necessarily indissoluble, as the Canon states. Its Canon no longer tells the truth as the Church understands it. It should have changed the Canon to reflect what it actually believes.

Whatever happens in relation to LGBT+ people in the church, it will not be settled until we have a better theology of personhood and sexuality and relationships. The truth is that people can see what Bishop Michael Curry preached about this afternoon – the power of love – at work changing lives and relationships in all kinds of places that a generation or two ago were thought incapable of holding, sustaining and developing loving human relationships. Our theology, whatever else it says, must take account of these truths and these realities. So must our Canons. If we got those right there would be no need of complex, occluded, unkind and unjust pastoral guidance about this and that.

In the meantime, a letter like that from the bishops of Lichfield is mood music. Changing the mood isn’t bad. But it needs to be understood that anyone in Lichfield who decides that they don’t like the mood of their bishops, and who wants to preach that the official position of the church is that of Higton and Issues has every right to do so. If they feel that partnered LGBT+ people are unrepentant sinners not fit to participate in leading worship or holding office in their church I can’t see any reason that they can’t hold that view. It is unpleasant, it is homophobic, it is offensive to possibly the majority of people in the church these days, their bishops may not approve of it, but it is entirely congruent with the official position of the Church of England. Refusing baptism to the child of a lesbian couple or denying gay people communion is another matter – that is not legal or permitted. But moods are moods, and those who want to create a mood of rejection still have lots of space within which they can do that.

I’m a musician. I know the power of music to create moods. But I know that music that is simply there for mood modification is not really music at its best. The best music, in whatever genre you enjoy, is music that has something true to say. Soft or loud, intimate or gigantic, played by a soloist or by a huge orchestra or band, music that changes the world is music that blazes with truth. That blazing truth can take the shape of something incredibly intimate and tender – but it is that quality of truth that makes music that changes people. Mood music is calculated; it doesn’t speak truth, it tries to manipulate emotions for effect. It is not bad for doing that – it is just limited. Truthful music changes people in ways the composer cannot control.

I am writing on the eve of Pentecost, and I am aware that to speak of the power of music like this is not dissimilar to speaking of the freedom and power of the Spirit to meet and change people.  I don’t criticise the Lichfield bishops for trying to make something better out of the present situation. I just wish they, and their brother and sister bishops would stop managing and started to tell us rather more profound and important truths about what they believe about people and sex and God.