On 26 February, the Diocese of Oxford published a letter from the Bishop, Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, to the clergy in the Diocese on the recent Statement by the House of Bishops on same-sex marriage. Unlike the Ad Clerum of other bishops, such as that of the Bishop of Lincoln which are primarily for information and seeking comments and opinions on the Statement, that of the Bishop of Oxford provides valuable insights to the thinking behind it, the next steps to be taken by the Church, and the approach adopted within his own diocese.
Given the pervading tl;dr culture, many will be tempted to rely upon summaries of the letter. However, as observed by another blogger, “secondary comment is no substitute for primary cognisance” and we would urge that it is read in toto. Nevertheless, from our point of view, the main parts we picked out were [emphasis in original]:
“It was never going to be likely that the House of Bishops would change two thousand years of teaching during a day in February at Church House Westminster.
“The longer conversation is one on which David Porter, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Reconciliation, is to give advice in three or four months, having worked on the task with a well-chosen group.
“I also know that many will be reluctant to examine the biblical material yet again. But the Bible is our core authority and issues of both exegesis and hermeneutical method are crucial. Let me be absolutely honest here. I don’t expect that many people will change their mind through this biblical exploration.
“What I do very much hope, however, is that we can get to a point where we can respect the integrity of the biblical interpretation of others. I hope we can come to understand deeply why others take a different view, and to respect that conviction even though we disagree, perhaps profoundly. None of us is taking a cavalier attitude to biblical authority, but thoughtful, honest people can thoughtfully, honestly disagree.
“The task then becomes twofold: to discover how much we can agree on, and to learn how to disagree well on what we can’t agree on. Archbishop Justin often uses that phrase ‘disagree well’. So then the third question becomes whether we want to affirm that spectrum of honest belief or detach ourselves from it.
“I’m sorry that the attempt by the House of Bishops to hold the ancient borders
while the conversation goes on has proved so divisive in itself. The train crash was probably inevitable; the only question was when, where and involving how many. But be sure of this – there will be no witch-hunts in this diocese. We are seeking to live as God’s people, in God’s world, in God’s way. And we do that best as we stand shoulder to shoulder and look together at the cross, and at its heart see an empty tomb.”
From a legal point standpoint, the issues arising from the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement are: the sanctions, if any, that are applied to clergy who enter into same-sex marriage after 29 March 2014; and the blessing of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages. In addition, there has been uncertainty on how the discussions initiated by the Pilling Report will be progressed over the next two years. As we have noted earlier, it would be unusual if Bishops were any more specific in relation to sanctions than the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft was when interviewed by William Crawley on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 16 February. However, Bishop John’s assurance that there will be no “witch hunts” will provide a degree of reassurance to those within the Oxford Diocese.
Furthermore, he reiterated his position regarding the blessing of civil partnerships within the Diocese,
“As you will know from my statement on the website in December 2012 I have been very happy to affirm civil partnerships as a positive development which gives same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples. As that statement says, such relationships ‘are capable of the same level of love, permanence and loyalty as marriage, and I believe God delights in such qualities’.”
but with regard to same-sex marriage, he added
“[n]evertheless I believe that to say that civil partnership is the same thing as marriage is a category confusion … I have therefore looked for different ways of recognising two different patterns of relationship. I realise that that puts me at odds with most people on both ‘sides’ of the argument! And society has largely gone past that argument now anyway. The issue has become same-sex marriage, though some may still want to opt for a form of civil partnership.
“So where do we end up? That’s just the point – we don’t know.”
The problem is that the 29 March is fast approaching, and there may be clergy who are prepared to force the issue, so the Church as a whole needs to make up its mind soon.
On the final post-Pilling point, Bishop John’s letter states that this will be taken forward by David Porter, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Reconciliation, who will give advice in three or four months, having worked on the task with a well-chosen group. This is probably an obvious way forward given David Porter’s role, but the news may come as a surprise to many, whilst others will question “why three or four months?”
 “too long, didn’t read”.