By the Rev Dr Angus Ritchie
The image of two bishops embracing – one the first woman to be ordained bishop in the Church of England, the other a man who opposes the ordination of women to the priesthood – was emblematic of a very Anglican approach to disagreement. Contrary to the stereotype, the Church of England does not simply split the difference between opposing positions. It increasingly has to find structures that accommodate a more profound divergence of opinions. Why is there deep and painful disagreement, not only on the ordination of women but on the Church’s attitude to same-sex relationships? And does the way the Church has managed to live with disagreement on the first issue provide any clues as to how we might move forward on the latter?
The depth of disagreement
On both issues, the depth of disagreement flows from the different narratives that Christians use to interpret history. One of the unifying biblical narratives we have is that of disobedience – the story of human rebellion against God, and of the ways in which the distinctive values of the Gospel are challenged by the prevailing culture in every generation. Another is the narrative of liberation – the story of the work of God to free people from unjust oppression, which runs through Scripture and the history of the Church, from the freeing of Hebrew slaves in Egypt through to the fight against apartheid and other forms of racial segregation in our own age. Christians from across the theological spectrum use both narratives to understand our own times. The last few decades have seen changes Christians of all traditions are rightly resisting – towards an increasingly consumerist and hedonistic society, where the values of faithfulness and obedience are eroded by a ‘me-first’ attitude to both economics and to sex (both of which are key areas of biblical teaching). For some, any move to allow sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage is seen as part of that erosion of biblical values. They see the push to accept same-sex relationships as a further unfolding of the narrative of disobedience, as Britain becomes a more secular nation. Likewise, Christians from across the theological spectrum acknowledge the presence and power of God in the fight against slavery and segregation, apartheid and other forms of racism – despite the misuse of Scripture to justify these practices. For some, equality for women in the church and for same-sex couples represents a further unfolding of that same narrative of liberation. Wherever we stand on women bishops or same-sex relationships, Anglicans agree on far more than we usually realize. We all worry about the growing consumerism and hedonism in our society, but we do not imagine that the solution is simply to turn the clock back (whether to the 1950s or the 1980s). Likewise, we all celebrate the liberation of groups who have been unjustly oppressed without assuming that ‘sexual liberation’ is simply synonymous with sexual liberalization. That is why it is so unhelpful to think about the disagreement within the Church as one between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, as if one group wants to soft-pedal Christian teaching and the other to hold fast to it. Each group believes its position to be the one most faithful to the Gospel – to its call to counter-cultural obedience and to the liberation of the oppressed.
Does the settlement on women bishops offer a way forward?
Of course, the analogy between blessing same-sex relationships and the ordination of women to the episcopate falls down in one crucial respect. The Church didn’t have any women bishops until Synod voted to consecrate them. But we already have a great many clergy in same-sex relationships. Quite understandably, opponents of same-sex relationships often ask: Didn’t gay clergy know the rules before they went forward for ordination? Surely they ought to be obedient until they can persuade the Church to change the rules? The reality is more nuanced. ‘The Church’ is not a monolithic institution with a monolithic ‘line’ on this or any other issue. Whatever its official documents may say, people experience ‘the Church’ through interacting with actual human beings. Which is where it gets more complicated. For, depending on their church tradition and the culture of their diocese, gay ordinands may well have been encouraged by all of the key authority figures they had to deal with (including their Vicar, the staff at theological college and even perhaps their Bishop) to become priests without becoming celibate. In certain sections of the Church, the official line has been quietly ignored for years. This gentle and genteel form of civil disobedience is endemic in the Church of England. If we are frank, we must recognize that similar forms of rule-breaking go on in all its theological traditions. (The Church’s rules on liturgy are just one case in point. Nearly every revision has been about adjusting the regulations to keep up with practice.) Today’s reality is that of a growing number of clergy, with growing boldness, defying the official teaching on same-sex relationships. The status quo – an impossible façade of unity around rules that are openly ignored – is no longer sustainable. The Church looks both hypocritical and ridiculous. Despite the excellent work being done on other social issues, whether from the Bench of Bishops or in our poorest neighbourhoods (where the Church embodies both practical compassion and a prophetic call for social justice), increasing numbers of Britain’s young people see us as a negative force.
So what should we do?
Even if you think it desirable, is there any chance the Church of England could unite around its existing disciplines on same-sex relationships? I suggest that, wherever you stand on the rights or wrongs of gay relationships, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’. Given that the Church of England has failed to enforce these rules in past decades (when evangelical opinion and the views of the prevailing culture were both more uniformly hostile), it is inconceivable that it will enforce them now. If that judgement is correct, we must ask ourselves a further question. It is the question the Church has answered with regard to women bishops, and which we answered with respect to the remarriage of divorcees some decades ago. Can we find a way of living together in one Body that preserves the integrity of opponents as well as supporters of change? On those issues our answer was – after much agonizing and agony – a resounding ‘yes’. To accommodate two integrities is not to trivialize the issue in question. The powerful symbol of the embrace between Bishop Libby and Philip is precisely that they manage to sustain the bonds of Christian charity across such painful disagreement. Each could so easily feel excluded by the ministry of the other. For Bishop Libby there is an ‘integrity’ in the Church of England that does not regard her as a validly ordained priest, let alone a bishop. For Bishop Philip the dominant ‘integrity’ in the Church of England has departed from the fullness of the Catholic faith. Yet they choose to remain in one Body together, and to resist parodying each other’s genuinely held convictions as either ‘heresy’ or ‘bigotry’. Seeking unity in the midst of deep disagreement is not some modern idea. The same principle – that the Church may need imperfect rules if it is to stay together – is at the heart of St Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8. It may be acceptable to eat food sacrificed to idols, but not if it is a cause of scandal. The convictions and sensibilities of others need to be taken into account if we are to build a common life. Of course, this is particularly difficult when each group sees a scandal (one of disobedience and the other of oppression) in the issue under discussion. But it seems to be the only possible way forward for the Church of England today.
The challenge for opponents of such a settlement on same-sex relationship – wherever they stand on the substantive issue – is twofold. Firstly, they have to explain why we can live together amid disagreement on both the remarriage of divorcees and the the ordination of women to the episcopate, but not on the blessing of same-sex relationships. From the point of view of faithfulness to Scripture and the Catholic faith, it is very hard to see why the first two issues are ones where we can cope with diversity and the issue of same-sex relationships is not. But, secondly, they have to map a realistic path from the current situation to their preferred outcome. Once again it is very hard to see a way out of an intolerable status quo that does not somehow mirror our resolution of these other issues. We need to be clear-sighted, both about our current situation and about the ways in which our Church might realistically move forward. Today we find ourselves in a situation of institutionalized dishonesty. It causes a huge amount of distrust and heartache to all parties. It is doing an increasing amount of damage to our witness to the Gospel. I would suggest that the choice if not between two integrities and one integrity. It is a choice between enabling two integrities and perpetuating a status quo that has not integrity at all.