“Clothe yourselves with love” – a response to the pastoral letter from the Bishops of Oxford Diocese

Nov 5, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

On Wednesday 31st October a long pastoral letter from the Bishop of Oxford and the three Suffragan Bishops was sent to all clergy and licensed lay ministers in the Diocese. The Bishops begin with a verse from Paul’s letter to the Colossians about the need for love. I’ll return to this at the end of this piece, because Colossians as a whole, rather than individual verses taken out of context, has a lot to teach today’s church as we seek to be faithful to the Lord in the current context of serious division over doctrine, and particularly sexual ethics.

The letter continues: “It is not easy to make a meaningful contribution to the present debate for a number of reasons” (para 2). Given that a huge amount of thinking has gone into this subject over the past decades, from many different perspectives, and the Bishops’ role in leading and teaching, this is a curiously diffident way to begin. Perhaps they mean that whatever they say, they will upset some people. They have now decided to speak out after “many requests for guidance”. It appears they see their role not as explaining and commending the church’s bible-based teaching on sex and marriage, but instead, seeing this teaching as temporary and restrictive, they are giving a steer on how ‘inclusive’ the church can be during this current period of working towards dismantling the ‘restrictions’ and changing the teaching in the future.

As a summary of the process, the Bishops mention Pilling, the Shared Conversations, the 2017 GS2055 report, the Archbishops’ pastoral letter following Synod’s rejection of the report, and the setting up of the Pastoral Advisory Group and the Living in Love and Faith document process. They highlight the call for “radical inclusion” and the universality of God’s love. They do not mention the historic Christian view of the liberating and life-giving bible-based boundaries on marriage and sexual expression – the need to help Christians to live a life of holiness and commend God’s good plan for singleness and marriage in a world where sexual immorality, gender confusion and relationship breakdown is harming society and leading people away from the gospel.

Para 8 gives the clearest indication yet of what we have long suspected: that the Church of England Bishops are planning to “issue new pastoral guidance within the Church of England’s current legal, doctrinal and liturgical frameworks”. This is not explained, but is likely to mean guidance as to how same sex relationships can be marked and celebrated in a church setting without using the word ‘blessing’, and without changing the Church’s official liturgy or doctrine. The word “current” implies that this situation will be temporary, and the longer term plan is to change canons and liturgy.

In the section “the wider debate”, the entire focus is not on sexual ethics or the nature of marriage in the context of our discipleship of a gracious Saviour who has freed his people from sin and gives the Holy Spirit for distinctive living. Rather the subject is “LGBTI+ people” and their place in the life of the church. This is deliberate, and flows directly from the Archbishops’ letter, previously quoted, which in stating “there are no ‘problems’. There are simply people…” excludes discussion of the wider secular humanist cultural context which has given rise to the concept of LGBTI+, and reduces the issue to pastoral care for a particular group of people who have created an identity for themselves according to their sexual orientation and behaviour.

There is no explanation of who “LGBTI+ people” / “LGBTI+ Christians” are. Does this phrase refer to those with same sex attraction and gender dysphoria, who are nevertheless striving to follow Christ according to the teaching of the Bible? Does it include those who self-identify with one or more of these labels with all their socio-political connotations, who reject clear biblical teaching on sexual behaviour and are campaigning to change the teaching of the church? Those who are actively involved in same sex relationships and/or gender transitioning?

These distinctions are important. To say, for example, that same-sex attracted Christians “are actively involved in church life…bullying and harassment are not acceptable…their sexual orientation does not exclude them from leadership in the church” is orthodox Christian teaching. It is no different from saying that all Christians have weaknesses which may lead to sin (requiring repentance and forgiveness), but which can also be used by God for his greater glory. No Christian should bully or harass another human being, regardless of who they are. If this is what the Bishops meant, then they should have made it clear.

But the Bishops’ letter will be read to say that people who publicly identify as gay, bisexual or transgender, who do not consider homosexual practice or sex outside of marriage to be sinful, who may be in same sex relationships – such people should not be invited to explore and submit to what the bible clearly says, should be able to receive the sacraments without question, can and should be leaders in the church. This interpretation of the full inclusion of LGBTI+ people in the church, then, is not simply about love of neighbour, and welcoming those who are different. It involves a radical change in Christian anthropology and sexual ethics.

In talking about the debate in the church on sexual ethics, the Bishops make no attempt to ground what they say theologically. Instead, their focus is on the pain felt by LGBTI+ people. Para 14 refers to the different views held and the emotions of those on different sides of the debate. This framing of the debate around different groups and their feelings, rather than on an objective standard of truth to which we are all asked to conform regardless of our feelings, is typical of a form of manipulation, whereby when conservatives appeal to biblical truth, this carries no weight other than their strong feelings around their own particular commitments.

Para 15 sets Scripture not as the overriding guide, but as one thing to be mindful of in the debate, along with reason, tradition, prayer, worship, experience and love. This section assumes that there is no definitive Christian teaching on the subject, ignoring the consistent and clear witness of the Scriptures, and the teaching of almost all Christian denominations through the ages, reiterated at various Lambeth Conferences.

The reference to the “five principles” from the Diocese of Lichfield is particularly unfortunate, as the Lichfield document caused controversy and division when it was released in May. The first problem with the Lichfield document, echoed by Oxford, is what is set out as the theological foundation: “the basic principle that all people are welcomed in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table”. If this is how the Bishops are summarising the gospel of Jesus, it is a dangerous half-truth at best. They have omitted key elements without which the gospel is incoherent: alienation from God, the need for the atoning sacrifice of Christ, repentance and faith, regeneration, and the work of the Spirit leading to commitment to obedience and discipleship.

The second problem is pastoral. A policy of unconditional welcome, access to the sacraments and leadership positions to a particular group of people who are not expected to conform to the same gospel requirements as the rest of us, can only be brought about by a strict curtailing of the normal pastoral gatekeeping role of the ministers. Normally, clergy and other church leaders, while warmly welcoming all who come to church, seek to inform those wanting to find faith and grow in it of the contours of Christian faith regarding doctrine and behaviour. All would agree that “nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity…nobody should be told that their sexual orientation… in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.” Responsible evangelism and disciple-making would want to ensure that such orientation was not leading to sub-Christian ideologies, or relationships which as the Bishops admit, cannot be blessed.

But the second of the Bishops’ five principles specifically excludes such careful pastoral work in relation to those who identify as LGBT. Bishop Rod Thomas publicly questioned whether this can be consistent with Anglican canons in his open letter of May this year.

Some godly leaders in the church may now find themselves seriously conflicted: obeying the Bishops’ guidance in these matters may involve going against their understanding of Scripture and their conscience.

Thirdly, in terms of global relationships: the Dioceses of Singapore and Sabah broke off their relationship with the Diocese of Lichfield because of concerns about a departure from orthodoxy seen in the Lichfield ad clerum on “welcoming and honouring LGBT+ people”.

Given that the letter draws so overtly on the Lichfield model which tore another strand of the fabric of the Anglican Communion, and that the stance of C of E Bishops is causing alarm among overseas partners, serious questions need to be asked about whether the Bishops of Oxford Diocese have any commitment to the preserving of full fellowship with the majority of Anglicans in the global South.

The letter continues with the announcement of a new chaplaincy team for LGBTI+ people and their families, to “advise local clergy…in our welcome and support”, and an informal group of LGBTI+ people to advise the Diocesan Bishop. Although they suggest that this will include “a variety of perspectives”, and will operate “within the Bishops’ guidelines”, it is difficult to see this as anything other than the privileging of LGBT advocacy rather than gospel perspectives at the heart of Diocesan ministry. One wonder, for example, what the results might be if as much energy went into planting churches in urban council estates as has gone into the campaign for LGBT inclusion.

The Bishops’ letter begins with a verse from Colossians (3:12). It’s worth noting that a few verses earlier (3:5), the apostle warns his readers:

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming”.

In other words, our sexual desires should not be trusted as a basis for our identity as human beings, or given free expression outside the boundaries that God has graciously given, because this leads to judgement, and alienation from God. Sadly, though, the Bishops appear to pay no heed to this and many other injunctions in Scripture about the need for holiness in the area of sexual morality. Similarly, in the previous chapter of Colossians (2:8), the apostle warns the church against being taken captive “through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental forces of this world, rather than Christ”. The LGBT ideology is such a philosophy; directly opposing the bible’s vision for gender, sex, marriage and family through a combination of ancient pagan tradition and unseen spiritual forces. It is sadly unsurprising that the Bishops of Oxford Diocese have seen fit to open the door of the church to this “hollow and deceptive philosophy”, less than a fortnight after they approved the invitation given to a Muslim cleric to preach at a Holy Communion service in an Oxford church.


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