Bishop-elect’s radio interview struggle reveals Church’s unresolved dilemmas

Dec 19, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

She would have known that it would come. She would have prepared for it, rehearsing her lines, perhaps with coaches, wanting to appear wise, generous, compassionate, authoritative. It came, finally, at the end of the interview; the dreaded “Tim Farron question” – “do you think homosexual relationships are sinful?”

Like an England batsman in the nets in Australia she had practiced for this moment (apologies to American and mainland European readers at this point – please see here for background). Like the player who finds himself out in the middle, in a hostile environment, with the pressure on, the ball when it comes is no different from hundreds he has faced in training. But mentally, the batsman is not the same. Less relaxed, more tense, his feet , head and hands don’t move as they should. In practice, he’s confident. Now, he can be caught out at any time, with a nasty crowd ready to laugh and jeer as he trudges back to the dressing room. In practice he hits sweetly; now facing the real thing, he pokes and prods nervously.

I’ve been in that situation (with a radio interview, not playing cricket – I don’t think my stint in the Diocesan clergy team games brought quite the same pressure as The Ashes). And of course on the issue of homosexuality Bishop Sarah Mullally is going to cause disappointment and anger to one or even both sides, in the church and the country as a whole, whatever she says. So I’m loathe to criticize her for her performance on Radio 4 at breakfast time the day after her announcement as Bishop of London. I felt for her as she attempted to answer the inevitable question, and she flannelled and waffled, a combination of the cringeworthy and the hilarious (see transcript below).

Many will be relieved that at least she had previously re-stated the church’s teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. Unlike other male Bishops in the frame for this high office, such as Stephen Cottrell of Chelmsford, she had not used her position to publicly advocate for a change in the Church’s teaching. She didn’t answer the question like Theresa May (“no of course it’s not a sin”), or like Tim Farron (initially “I’m not here to discuss theology”; later “no of course it’s not a sin”). But Sarah Mullally can’t sit on the fence forever, “managing difference”. And should that be the Bishop’s job anyway? We will see eventually what her theological and ethical views actually are, on this and other key questions of Christian orthodoxy.

The new Bishop of London is such a high profile and civic position, and the British establishment so converted to the new illiberal social liberalism (or cultural Marxism), that taking a position seen as anti-LGBT would be simply unacceptable and impossible, as Tim Farron showed. Those biblically faithful Anglicans who are determined to stay in the Church of England without conditions will have to face up to this reality, that even theologically orthodox Bishops are constrained in what they can publicly teach in this area. But at the very least it’s disappointing that Rt Revd Mullally was not able to deflect the focus on to the Gospel; to say something like: “I know you’re interested in my views on sex, but I don’t want to talk about that now. I want to talk about the good news of Jesus Christ which we all remember this Christmas”.




For some in the C of E, the appointment of a woman to the Bishopric of London will have already crossed a line. But the majority of conservatives who believe in male ‘headship’ have already decided, it seems, not to complain about Dame Sarah’s gender, to trust in the idea of ‘mutual flourishing’, perhaps recognizing the administrative authority of the new Bishop but turning to others for spiritual oversight.

Anglican Mainstream, like Gafcon, has always seen the issue of women clergy and Bishops to be secondary to the more serious issues of what constitutes sin that separates us from God and neighbour, and how we can be reconciled to God through Christ. Questions such as “is it OK for a woman to be the Bishop of London?”, or to highlight a debate from last week, “does an Anglican have to be recognized as such by Canterbury?” are pressing, but not of primary importance. Committed young Christians from Anglican backgrounds, or those finding faith for the first time, looking for a spiritual home at university or in their new workplace, are by and large not interested in the arguments about who is really an Anglican, or who the Bishop of London is. They want to know rather, are Anglicans Christians? Is the local Anglican congregation part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, and do their leaders rightly believe and preach the word and rightly administer the sacraments; are they open to the Holy Spirit?

Some decide to leave the Anglican church because its alignment with historic apostolic Christian faith appears to be muted or unclear, and Bishop-elect Sarah in her radio interview is by no means the first or only senior leader in the C of E to give that impression. But thanks to God’s grace, and the vision and courage of great leaders around the world in the Gafcon movement, it is possible to be genuinely Anglican and biblically Christian, whether part of the official structures or not, united by shared understanding and experience of faith in Christ, respectful of history, tradition and polity, even of Canterbury, but not primarily defined by these things.


Transcript excerpt: Interview of the Bishop of London-elect, Dame Sarah Mullally, by BBC’s Mishal Husain, Radio 4 Today Programme, Tuesday 19th December, 7.54am:

MH: How would you vote when Synod debates blessings for same sex relationships?

SM: Well, at that point I won’t be in Synod, so I won’t have a vote. But what we haveto remember is…

MH: How would you vote?

SM: What we have to remember is that this is about people, and, um, the church seeks to demonstrate love to all, because it reflects the God of love, who loves everybody, and obviously this issue isn’t just an issue for London, not just for us in the Church of England, but also the Anglican Community, um and at the moment the church is taking a period to reflect, there is work that is going on, er, and I’m involved in that, and, er, for me that is important that we take a time of reflection, whilst, you know, standing on the traditions of the Church of England…

MH: Would you bless a same sex marriage?

SM: At the moment there is no provision to do that

MH: Would you like there to be that provision?

SM: As I said there is a period of reflection that is going on at the moment, and I am part of that…

MH: Have you not decided how you feel about blessing a same sex marriage?

SM: I think that, what we have to recognize is a real diversity within the Church of England, and if we are going to take seriously the wish of the two Archbishops to take a period of reflection, then we need to allow that process to go ahead, and I have been very encouraged by those who wish to work with us on that. And at the same time we do have to recognize that this is a challenge for all people, and we do this as we have always done it in the past, we manage difference…

MH: [Interrupts] I recognize that this is difficult…a sensitive issue…[continues, then mentions] St Helen’s Bishopsgate where the vicar has said he is looking to the new Bishop to condemn homosexual relationships as sinful, otherwise there will be some kind of break. [Deep breath]. Do you think homosexual relationships are sinful?

SM: Er, well, the comment came across in the press, and one the things I’m doing is meeting those people that reflect the whole diversity across the Church of England. And in a sense it’s not avoiding the subject but it’s recognizing that there is a difference, that the Church of England, um, is taking a period of reflection, and recognizing that it does involve people, so there is a sense in which you have to compassionately, um, deal with these issues, and, er, I am forever encouraged that the church across London is undertaking a whole series of things in communities, to be, er, welcoming to that diversity. And one of the wonderful things yesterday was being out in Hackney, and seeing, er, a church that is welcoming people…

Interviewer interrupts and asks about the possibility of a female Archbishop in her lifetime.

SM replies about focusing on the job in hand.

Interview ends. Programme moves to the weather forecast.


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