Adrian Alker, Chair of PCN Britain, responds to the House of Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships

Adrian Alker, Chair of PCN Britain, responds to the House of Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships

In a letter published in the Church Times on 3rd February, Adrian Alker says that he is "ashamed of the continuing hypocrisy of an institution loyally staffed by many gay and lesbian clergy" and that the hardening of heart against those in same sex relationships will further damage the Church of England.

​Published in Church Times on 3rd February 2017 Adrian Alker wrote:

Despite two years of shared conversations across the dioceses, the bishops of the Church of England in this latest report on marriage and same sex relationships have underscored again how a conservative and evangelical hierarchy can so effectively dig in its heels, reproducing the same set of arguments which have been rehearsed many times. Although the report acknowledges the ‘contested tradition’ of Anglicanism, it is clear that ‘faithfulness to God’s word’ is seen to be understood as lying within the evangelical position. For ‘others’ the imperative to read scripture differently, stems from a ‘parallel conviction’, left unspecified!

The report, as with the long debate over women’s ordination, speaks of the need to take account of widely differing cultures in the Anglican Communion, as if the attitudes towards gay and lesbian Christians in the churches of Uganda and Nigeria and elsewhere are to really influence how the Church of England serves this nation. Do the bishops see nothing positive about the freedoms granted in law to same sex couples to celebrate their union through marriage equality? Is there such a limit to love that even such legal partnerships cannot be blessed in church? Were the more progressive members of the House of Bishops not even willing to consider a minority report, one which might at least have countenanced the blessing of same sex unions in our churches?

The bishops say again that a ‘fresh tone and culture of welcome and support’ must be shown to lesbian and gay people and the Church of England must work in mutual love and understanding on (quote) ‘these issues’. Gay and lesbian people are still, evidently, ‘an issue’.

The report says that there must be boundaries about what clergy may or may not do if their prayers are sought by a couple choosing to prepare or celebrate a civil marriage. In other words they are instructing clergy not to allow such a couple to feel that their relationship is in any way equal to the heterosexual couple who have been able to be married in the church!

After serving as a priest in the Church of England for 37 years this latest salvo from the House of Bishops leaves me ashamed of the continuing hypocrisy of an institution loyally staffed by many gay and lesbian clergy, an institution dominated by a hierarchy who have such a slender appreciation of Anglican theological and biblical scholarship.

I fear that this hardening of the heart which is unwilling to sanctify in marriage the love held by two people of the same gender will further diminish the place of the Church of England in our society and only add to the number of church alumni who join organisations like my own for mutual respect and support.

Criticism of the report has not been confined to PCN Britain. Jonathan Clatworthy of Modern Church has published a blog addressing the report. In it Jonathan sums up the two conflicting theologies:

One side finds it adequate simply to repeat that the Bible forbids same-sex partnerships and nothing can take precedence over a biblical command, as God’s Word, directly revealed, is more reliable than human reason. Christians should just accept it. As soon as it is allowed that some biblical texts are unclear or contradictory, this position collapses, so this tradition invests heavily in interpreting the Bible as though it were a seamless whole. For those who accept this view, there is no reason why Christians should disagree about any matter of faith: on principle, there must be a biblical answer.

The other side takes a historical view: The Bible was written by 30-odd authors or groups of authors over around 1,000 years. Each text got into the Bible because later generations judged it worthy. There was plenty of scope for divine inspiration, but the story is one of continual change within a developing tradition. Since then Christians have accepted the Bible as a canon out of which the Christian tradition has grown, and have used their reason to develop the tradition over the centuries. Thus scripture, reason and tradition all have their place in a flourishing movement. As none is infallible, we need them all to balance each other.

By ignoring the need to choose between these two conflicting theologies, Clatworthy argues that the bishops have made the wrong choice. He calls for a reaffirmation of the theological method known as classic Anglicanism:

They should have insisted that Christianity is not, and never has been, an unchanging monolith… In every age we bring the resources available to bear on the issues we face. Our understanding is always limited and uncertain. The only people who are certainly wrong are the ones who claim to be certainly right. Such people become intolerant and deaf.

He calls for the bishops to stand with those who are prepared to stay and struggle to defend the best of Anglicanism:

We would like to share our church with people who think same-sex partnerships are wrong. They are welcome, even though we disagree with them. But when they demand the right to take over, forbid our openness and oblige the rest of us to accept their intolerance, we will stop them.

Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and Vice President of Modern Church, has also published a detailed response to the report. As part of his conclusion he says:

Our beloved Church of England is, at present, in a state of unfeeling. To the pain of others within its own body and polity, it is indifferent and impotent. Its leaders project their inner angst and tension on to the very groups that look to them for love, mercy and compassion. The result is the slow procrastination and the torturing alienation of people who are only looking for their love, lives and very being to be fully affirmed and embraced. Yet the church cannot seem to do this.

In 2012 John Churcher, the then Chair of PCN Britain, wrote "Loving relationships between two consenting adults [are what are] most important...people who want to make that commitment should not be deprived of God-given blessings if that is what they ask for. " PCN members were asked for their opinions on same sex marriage in order to inform PCN's response to the Government consultation and 94% were in support. Read the John Churcher's full report on this consultation.

Image by Robert Couse-Baker. Click on the 'Related Download' link to view the full House of Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships, which has prompted this commentary.

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