Bishop offers orthodox Anglicans hope of retaining protected minority status as Diocese takes progressive route

Feb 11, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

The acting Bishop of Oxford Diocese has released an ‘Ad Clerum’ letter to all clergy and licensed Lay Ministers, setting out his “reflections on how we may go forward” following the House of Bishops’ Statement on Civil Partnerships, and the subsequent apologies and distancing from this Statement. Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester, signs the letter in the absence of Steven Croft who is on sabbatical. Bishop Colin has appeared in these pages in previous years for siding with a progressive position in the debate on sexual ethics (see here and here). He has certainly been on a theological journey since his days of teaching at Wycliffe Hall. But the concern being expressed by faithful Anglicans in Oxford and further afield is not primarily about Bishop Colin and his views, but about the position of the leaders of Oxford Diocese and indeed the Church of England as a whole.

There are many things at stake here. The definition of the church – is it a space where people with diverse views gather, united by their common humanity, or is it a spiritual body of people from diverse backgrounds, united to Christ and each other through the gospel? The safety of its members – safe from any suggestion that they might be sinners, or safe from God’s judgement after repentance and faith? The survival of authentic Christianity in the West – will it capitulate to the false ideologies of the world, or preserve the counter-cultural truth in order to share it with love?

Bishop Colin’s letter appears at first sight to be balanced. The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement has caused distress for some, but drawn praise from others. The Oxford Bishops have listened to both sides, concerned for the pastoral care of those who identify as LGBT, while also respecting and not wanting to exclude those who hold to the church’s traditional teaching. “Uncanonical blessings” of relationships are still not permitted (presumably referring to liturgical services), while informal prayer for all is encouraged. Living in Love and Faith will soon be released; a resource to help parishes explore all sides of the debate around identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality. Those with different views on the subject in the church are “travelling together” and must “care for each other along the way”.

But there are several clues in the letter that the Bishop does not see his office as a guardian of the apostolic faith, or even as a neutral referee between those with opposing views, but rather as gatekeeper of a new era, ushering in a new default position of revisionist theology while continuing for the moment to tolerate those with traditional views.

Bishop Colin begins by referring first not to the Bishops’ pastoral statement itself, but to the Archbishops’ apology for it following the media furore. He then makes an excuse for the publication of this official episcopal statement, apologises for it himself, and goes further,calling it “wrong-headed and pastorally inept”. Although he acknowledges that some people were in favour of the statement, seeing it as a clear expression of the church’s historic teaching, he makes it clear that he, and by extension the Oxford Diocesan leadership, stand with those who oppose the statement – in fact he specifically quotes further criticisms of the statement from the Bishops of Oxford and Reading.

This criticism is not just about tone and timing, but also content. Outlining why the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement was needed in the first place, Bishop Colin explains it as a response to Civil Partnerships becoming available for heterosexual couples, which was simply a matter of “justice”, and only raised “technical questions” for the church. This dismisses the concerns that many faithful Christians have had about the Civil Partnership legislation: how it undermines marriage, and creates obvious issues about sexual ethics that the Bishops’ Statement was trying to answer.

The Ad Clerum goes on to quote with approval highly critical articles about the Bishops’ pastoral statement in The Times and in the Via Media blogIt is surely significant that these pieces which fiercely attack and even deride historic Christian teaching about sexual ethics and the Church of England’s attempts to navigate the issue, are commended by a Bishop, writing in a position of spiritual authority to his flock. He then makes clear  his agreement with the view that, just as the church over the years has changed its understanding on the celibacy of clergy, use of contraception and permitting marriage of divorcees, so there is nothing “static and immovable” in Christian teaching. This, together with a marked absence in the letter of any reference to Scripture or even to God (except at the end – “God bless you”) will surely cause alarm as it appears to illustrate a complete loss of confidence in the idea, basic to Christianity, that faith is based on things that are unchanging!

A letter genuinely trying to balance the different views would offer resources from the two sides, as Living in Love and Faith is likely to do. Bishop Colin does not do this. Instead, he commends two new initiatives specifically geared for “LGBTI+ people”: a chaplaincy service covering the whole Diocese, and “evangelical services” at Christ Church Cathedral. These are not primarily designed to help people with same sex attraction live within the church’s official teaching (although to be fair there appears to be an option available for this), nor are they complemented by similar resources for heterosexual single or married people on how to live with purity in the context of a society where sexual restraint has been abandoned and maintaining lasting relationships is difficult. Rather they appear to uncritically accept and affirm contemporary secular ideas about sexual identities and behaviour. These initiatives do not appear to be, from an orthodox perspective, about pleasing God, or even about providing consistent and distinctively Christian help to the struggling, but an attempt at virtue signalling to the secular world and particularly the LGBT lobby within the church’s leadership.

This Ad Clerum letter sets out the reality of the Church of England today. The fact that the Pastoral Statement was agreed and released, and that the College of Bishops meeting in late January did not rescind it (against the wishes of the Bishop of Oxford, we’re told), shows that behind the scenes at least some Bishops are fighting for orthodoxy, even if as individuals many find it difficult to explain and commend the positive Christian teaching on sex and marriage in public. But in the Diocese of Oxford and many other Dioceses the leadership has now embraced and is actively promoting a progressive position on sexual ethics, and it could be argued on other theological issues as well, for example the authority of Scripture.

What are the options for faithful orthodox Anglicans in the Diocese of Oxford? I’m sure that Bishop Colin will be receiving a few politely written letters, expressing appreciation for his ministry but disappointment at this latest indication of the trajectory. No doubt also there will be impetus for securing the election of conservatives to General Synod in September. Sermons might even be preached and courses run on what the bible says about sex and marriage. All of these are useful for clarifying thinking and ensuring continued witness within the denomination, but in my view they won’t stop or reverse the train heading in the wrong direction.

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