What happens when bishops start telling their clergy to act contrary to the teaching of the Bible? We’re about to find out, as more than 100 serving clergy in the Diocese of Oxford have written to their four bishops registering their concern.
The cause of their disquiet is recent ‘guidance’ issued by the bishops to their clergy on the matter of LGBTI+ people which called for ‘above all, an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people’. The bishops also instructed clergy not to concern themselves with a person’s sexual practices.
For years now, clergy have been trained to handle such matters sensitively and to respect all people; but there is no getting away from biblical teaching on sexuality. Christians are called to have lives of purity in sexual as well as in other matters, which means abstaining from sex outside the married state. The bishops’ guidance, however, studiously avoids mention of this biblical and doctrinal standard. It is no surprise that the absence of any reference to it, alongside the instruction to be fully inclusive of LGBT people, no questions asked, has been widely understood to be undermining of the core Christian belief.
The bishops have now responded to their clergy’s concerns, and their letter makes grim reading for anyone who cares about the integrity and fidelity of the C of E. Standing by their action, the bishops explain that the guidance ‘was written primarily to address the significant sense of hurt and exclusion felt by LGBTI+ Christians and their families, whom we all recognise as our sisters and brothers in Christ’. The implication: the biblical code of sexual ethics hurts and excludes, and clergy need to be told to ignore it.
Startling for its clarity here is that none of the bishops in the Oxford diocese subscribes any longer to the biblical teaching of the Church of England in sexual matters. Nor do they have any intention of upholding that teaching in their diocese or of 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 respond that they need to be ‘honest’. Pointing out that each had been considering these matters for more than 30 years, the implication presumably being that they had come to a considered view that was not likely to change, they conclude: ‘We want to offer our own views therefore but not impose them.’
This is a specious argument. Why, if all the bishops wanted to do was ‘offer’ their views, didn’t they just write an article in the diocesan newsletter? Why the divisive pastoral guidance to all clergy and the setting up of a new LGBT advisory group which has specifically excluded anyone committed to the church’s current and historic teaching on sex and marriage?
The bishops claim that they had to choose between ‘silence’ and ‘honesty’, and have chosen the latter as the ‘right course in this diocese at this time’. But what about actually stating the biblical teaching of the church, regardless of their personal views on the matter? After all, that is what they are committed by their ordination vows to ‘expound and teach’. Unless and until the church’s teaching is changed that is their job, not to be ‘honest’ by encouraging views and actions contrary to it.
What is urgently needed now is for the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, and his colleagues to write again to all their clergy and remind them of the church’s biblical teaching on sex and marriage and explain that nothing in their recent guidance should be construed as endorsement of anything contrary to it. Such a gesture, while small, would go some way to reassuring the clergy that their bishops remain leaders who, whatever their own reservations, are willing to present the church’s biblical teaching. This may not be sufficient for all the clergy to recover their confidence in their bishops, but it would help.
If such confidence cannot be recovered, it is difficult to see how the clergy have much option at this point but to take direct action. If their bishops will not fulfil their sacred obligation to teach ‘the doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it’, and instead are placing the clergy in the invidious position of having to choose between obeying their own ordination vows before God and obeying their bishops, it is hard to see what choice they have.
What kind of action are we talking about here? Some of the clergy are considering switching their allegiance to Anglican bishops outside of the Church of England in the Gafcon movement. Another possibility is to withhold church funds from the diocese, payments to which are always voluntary.
Whatever course of action the clergy and their churches decide to take, 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 matters as upholding the biblical teaching of the church or honouring their ordination vows. It is true that the bishops may well make a principle out of not giving in to threats and punitive behaviour, and may respond in kind. But at least those who engage in such action at this point 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.
(Image: Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Credit: Tejvan Pettinger/Wikimedia Commons)