The current debate within the Church of England on human sexuality commenced with the House of Bishops announcement on 1 July 2011 that it intended to “draw together material from the listening process undertaken within the Church of England over recent years in the light of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution on human sexuality. It also committed itself to offering proposals on how the continuing discussions within the Church of England about these matters might best be shaped in the light of the listening process”. Two new pieces of work were commissioned:
- a review of the HoB’s Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships “in the light of subsequent developments”: this was to include examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops, an issue on which this 2005 statement was silent. The review was to be completed in 2012, and the group undertaking this work was chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, the Rt Rev Robert Paterson. Its membership was announced on 1 December 2011 and the report Men and Women in Marriage published on 10 April 2013.
- a wider look at the Church of England’s approach to same-sex relationships in the light of the listening process launched by the Lambeth Conference in 1998, with a view to producing a consultation document in 2013. This group, whose membership was announced on 5 January 2012, was chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling and published its findings, the Pilling Report in November 2013.
Following a meeting of the College of Bishops on 27 January 2014, the Church issued a statement which accepted the recommendations of the Pilling Report and requested the Archbishops to commission a small group to design a process for “facilitated conversations, ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level”, supplemented by additional material.
The outlines of the process were agreed by the House of Bishops in May, when it was decided that for consistency and clarity in reporting the process should be managed centrally, a decision endorsed by its Standing Committee on 18 June. On 26 June, these plans were published in Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission, GS Misc 1083, which outlines the next steps in its process for shared conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission. The document has been sent to members of the Church’s General Synod for consideration at its meeting in York, 11 -15 July.
‘Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission’
The two objectives of this short paper by the Rt Rev Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, both focus on the church’s mission:
- to reflect, in the light of scripture, on the implications of the immense cultural change that has been taking place, and clarifying how the Church can most effectively be a missionary church within this changing culture around sexuality;
- to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called “good disagreement” on these issues.
The process across the Church of England will be supervised by Canon David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director for Reconciliation, and a team of ~20 trained facilitators who will “bring the skills necessary to ensure that the process provides a safe place for all viewpoints to be expressed and to keep the conversations to the objective of seeking understanding rather than having any predetermined trajectory”. Milestones within the timeline include:
- September, 2014: Two-day meeting of the College of Bishops, working in small groups with facilitators. This will mean that the bishops are exposed to the process first, helping them to offer leadership and reassurance in their dioceses, and also enable the process and resource materials to be refined in the light of experience. Additional resources will include “substantial theological material commissioned from scholars with differing viewpoints”, and once these have been “road-tested” by the College of Bishops, they will be published for use by the other conversation groups.
- Extension of process across the dioceses, which will work in clusters “to enable 12 regional conversations, each involving around 60 participants, to experience the process”. Participants will be chosen by diocesan bishops, subject to certain criteria. Apart from the bishops there will be:
- equal numbers of clergy and laity; equal numbers of women and men; twenty five per cent under 40 years old;
- representatives of LGBTI views should comprise more than one person in each diocesan group;
- the range and balance of views in the group should, as far as possible, reflect the range and balance within the diocese itself;
- participation from within the Anglican Communion will be achieved through diocesan companion links.
- July 2016: envisaged conclusion. The General Synod, recently elected for 2016 to 2021 to spend two days in shared conversations. Reports from all conversations will be drawn together so that the direction and impact of the whole process can be evaluated.
Neither of the objectives within this latest document alludes to any change in the basic teaching of the Church on marriage. This is emphasized in paragraph 4 which states:
“[t]here is no expectation of achieving any consensus – in either direction – in the foreseeable future. But there is a task to be done of encouraging those within the church who are at odds on this issue to express their concerns in a safe environment, listen carefully to those with whom they disagree profoundly, find something of Christ in each other and consider together what the practical consequence of disagreement might be.”
Nevertheless, it is possible that these considerations may result in changes in the approach of the Church to some of the associated issues: the blessing of same-sex couples; its tolerance to clergy in same-sex marriages; or even the celebration of same-sex marriages. However, any such changes are unlikely to be implemented until late 2016, and this leads to the question of how the Church will then address the decisions it took in the intervening period, such as the removal of Permission to Officiate.
With regard to the participants chosen for the “regional conversations”, diocesan bishops must inevitably adopt a pragmatic approach to some of the more prescriptive criteria, which if applied strictly would lead to the “over-representation” of some groups would not necessarily “reflect the range and balance within the diocese”. Further representational issues arise in relation to ethnicity, and to “LGBTI” views. With regard to the criterion that “representatives of LGBTI views should comprise more than one person in each diocesan group”, spokespersons will need to be chosen who can represent the views of all those with this group.
 See: Statistics for Mission 2012: Ministry.