- What is GS 2055?
It is a report to the General Synod from the House of Bishops outlining a proposed way forward for the Church of England on the issues of marriage and same sex relationships following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality.
- Who produced the report?
The report was produced by the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS), a group of ten bishops chaired by the Bishop of Norwich, but was agreed by the House of Bishops as a whole.
- What is in the report?
The report consists of an Introduction and three main sections with an additional annex setting out what is and is not possible within the Church of England’s current legal framework.
The introduction starts off by affirming that ‘for Christians, it is being in Christ that secures our identity and transforms all our human relationships’ and that it ‘is in this light that the Church of England ‘has to consider the difficulties over human sexuality that have been a source of tension and division for many years.’ (Para 1)
It then identifies the key issue facing the Church of England as being the fact that it is living at a time when ‘our teachings can be perceived through the prism of much in contemporary Western cultures as undermining, even contradicting, our Lord’s command that we should love one another as ourselves.’ (Para 2) This is a serious problem because . ‘If we are heard as lacking in love, our ability to proclaim the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ is damaged or negated.’ (Para 2)
According to the introduction ‘it is in the nature of a Church like the Church of England that the way through this is profoundly contested’ (Para 2) and this is not just because there are conflicting approaches within the Church of England itself, but because it is part of the Anglican Communion and the worldwide Church and this means that ‘the question of proclaiming the gospel within culture must take account of the widely differing cultures around the world, where human sexuality is often a touchstone issue, but in contradictory ways.’ (Para 3)
However in spite of these difficulties ‘our Anglican inheritance has something particular to offer.’ If we ask what this is, the answer the report gives is that the Church will have served the world well if it can ‘find tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community.’ (Para 7)
The introduction then goes on to say that in this situation the responsibility of the bishops of the Church of England is to ‘identify the next steps’ towards ‘greater clarity about what is at stake and how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively.’ (Para 9) In order to prevent this witness being damaged by the differences within the Church leading to fragmentation, the purpose of the bishops’ report is to ‘seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency.’ (Para 11)
Section 1, ‘Beyond the Shared Conversations- the process to date,’ explains the process of reflection and consultation that led to the publication of the report and in two key paragraphs explains that as a result of this process there was:
‘…a clear (although not unanimous) weight of opinion in favour of the option framed in the following terms:
- Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.
In practical terms this would mean:
(a) establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church; (b) the preferred option should be backed up by a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships, replacing (or expanding upon) the House’s teaching document of 1999 on marriage and the 1991 document Issues; (c) there should be guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and (d) there should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.‘(Paras 22-23)
Section 2, ‘Emerging elements,’ notes that the process outlined in the previous section has resulted in the emergence of ‘a provisional approach regarding how the Church of England should move forward.’ The two ‘key elements’ of this would be:
‘(a) proposing no change to ecclesiastical law or to the Church of England’s existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships; and (b) initiating fresh work in the four key areas identified in paragraph 23 above.’ (Para 26)
The section then goes on to look at each of these four elements in turn.
On ‘Establishing a Fresh Tone and Culture’ the section suggests that a new teaching document would be ‘an obvious opportunity to seek to set a tone that can communicate welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and for those who experience same-sex attraction, and also promote mutual understanding across the Church as a whole.’ (Para 29)
It also suggests that ‘careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with Scripture’ is ‘a vital part of establishing a fresh tone, culture and mutual understanding for the future.’ (Para 31)
On a ‘New Teaching Document on Marriage and Relationships’ the section outlines the possible contents of such a document. It says that it should:
- ‘Affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church, making their voices heard both within the document and in the life of the Church. There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church.
- Consider the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing, especially in the context of modern manifestations of individualism.
- Affirm the role of single people and solitaries, as well as those in committed relationships (including marriage) within the life of the Christian community.
- Include a theological exploration of friendship, including the possibility of covenanted friendships, and not just sexual relationships, affirming what is good about friendships.
- Explore the meaning of marriage within society, the family, and the Church and consider marriage in terms of vocation.
- Reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life.
- Explore the distinction that has opened up between the state’s conception of ‘equal marriage’ and the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony, and consider the implications of this.’ (Para 35)
On ‘Guidance for Clergy in their Ministry,’ the section states that there is no proposal to change the current prohibition of clergy solemnising marriages between two people of the same sex or Civil Partnership being registered in a Church of England place of worship. What is proposed instead is neither an authorised nor a commended form of liturgy for praying with same sex couples, but ‘guidance to help them shape these prayers’ (Para 39) that would strike a balance between ‘specifying what may not take place and offering advice about what may.’ (Para 43)
On ‘Guidance on questions to clergy and ordinands’ the section declares that it is clear that ‘there are good grounds in law for holding the clergy to an exemplary standard of behaviour consistent with the Church of England’s doctrine where the laity are not bound in the same way, and that the clergy open themselves to discipline if they contravene the guidance of the bishops on such matters.’ (Para 50) However, it also notes that balance of view within the College and House of Bishops was that what was laid down in Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 about the questioning of clergy and ordinands ‘was not working well’ (Para 54). The College and House instead ‘inclined to the view’ that:
‘…any questioning about sexual conduct should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form – establishing that the person concerned understood the Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage and that they understood the principles of clerical obedience to the Church’s teaching.’ (Para 54)
The final paragraphs of the section sets out the ‘Theological Rationale’ for what is said in the previous paragraphs. These paragraphs note:
- That there needs to be ‘constant and prayerful attention both to the truth of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and to what is happening in the particular culture in which we live.’ (Para 57)
- That there is a need to draw on insights from pastoral theology, ecclesiology and moral theology. (Para 58)
- That there is a desire for those in the Church of England to ‘walk together’ in ‘a way that is based on a common commitment to biblical truths but recognises our continuing disagreement with each other.’ (Para 59)
- That the Church of England needs ‘to listen and learn with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion’ and to take account ‘of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those Churches subscribe to the traditional teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching.’ (Para 60)
- That maintaining the unity of the Church of England will involve continuing to affirm the teaching of Canon B.30 on marriage, expounding it ‘with confidence’ as the Church’s teaching and making sure that ‘what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching.’ (Para 61)
- That thought needs to be given to the implications for ethics and pastoral practice of the fact that same-sex sexual relationships and heterosexual relationships other than marriage can ‘embody crucial social virtues of mutuality and fidelity.’ (Para 63)
- That it is important to ‘maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine [about marriage and sexuality]…while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it.’ (Para 65)
- That what the bishops are trying to do is ‘discern the next steps, not be sure about the end of the road.’(Para 66)
Section 3, ‘Consultation with the General Synod in February’, explains how in General Synod in February there will be group discussions and a ‘take note’ debate on the report. (Paras 67-71)
Annex 1, which is an extract from a note from the Church of England’s legal office, explores the implications of Canon B1.2, 5.2. 5.3 and 30 and Canon C 26.2 for the issues of what services Church of England clergy may lawfully conduct and whether they are free to marry someone of the same sex.
The conclusion reached in the annex is that there would need to be a revision of the Church of England’s Canons or current doctrine in order for it to be lawful for clergy to conduct a service ‘which either explicitly or implicitly treats or recognises the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’ or for it to be possible to tolerate a member of the clergy marrying someone of the same sex. Without such revision these things would remain unlawful and intolerable.
It also notes that if the Church of England’s teaching remains that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, any service which implied that a sexual relationship outside marriage was approved by God would also be against the Canons:
‘…a service which sanctioned or condoned such a sexual relationship would not meet the requirement that a service must ‘edify the people’ and would probably also be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter.’
- How should we respond to this report?
4.1 We should accept the truth of what the report says about the situation the Church of England is facing.
It is true that the teachings of the Church of England about marriage and human sexuality in general are widely perceived as being in conflict with Jesus’ command to love our neighbours. We live in a culture in which love is understood in terms of acceptance and affirmation and in which therefore the refusal of the Church of England to give full and unconditional affirmation to the relationships of gay and lesbian people or to solemnise such relationships in church is necessarily seen as unloving.
It is also true that this perception of the traditional teaching and practice of the Church of England as unloving is a barrier to mission. For many people, particularly younger people, the fact that the Church of England is seen as unloving in its attitude to gay and lesbian people is a barrier to their listening to what the Church of England has to say about the gospel.
It is further true that the way forward for the Church of England in this situation is ‘profoundly contested’ (Para 2) not only because there are different approaches within the Church of England itself, but because the Church of England is part of a worldwide Church in which people take different approaches to the best way to proclaim the gospel faithfully in a range of widely differing cultural settings.
4.2 There is much in what the report says about how to address this situation that we should welcome.
- We should welcome the fact the report says not only that those in the Church of England need to act together, but that they need to do so with doctrinal consistency. This puts pay to any idea that we can solve the conflict over marriage and human sexuality by simply learning to embrace doctrinal diversity however doctrinally inconsistent this might cause the Church of England to be.
- We should welcome the fact that the report proposes that there should be no changes to the law or doctrine of the Church of England on either marriage or sexual relationships. This would mean the Church of England continuing to uphold that marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman entered into for life, that Christians are called to either sexual faithfulness within marriage or sexual abstinence and that clergy are not free to enter into same-sex sexual relationships or same-sex marriages.
- We should welcome the opportunity for fresh thinking about how to offer welcome and support to those in same sex relationships, those with same sex attraction and their families. This is an important aspect of mission and pastoral care and it is important to think how we might be able to do it better.
- We should welcome the opportunity that a new Teaching Document will provide to both re-affirm the teaching of the Church of England about marriage and sexuality and to show its relevance for the twenty first century.
- We should welcome the suggestion that guidance should be given to clergy as to how they may and may not respond pastorally to same sex couples who ask for prayer. There is a lack of clarity about what the clergy may or may not do in this area and it would good if this lack of clarity was rectified.
- We should welcome the fact that the report does not back away from the idea that clergy and ordinands may be asked questions about sexual conduct and that such questions should be asked of everyone regardless of their sexual attraction. The requirement for faithfulness within marriage and abstinence outside it apply to everyone so it is right that everyone should face the same questions.
- We should welcome the acknowledgement in the report that we need to listen to and learn from other churches and its recognition that ‘the overwhelming majority’ of churches ‘subscribe to the teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching.’
4.3 There are number of weaknesses that need to be pointed out in discussions of the report
Having noted what is welcome in the report, it is also important to note some weaknesses in the report that need to be pointed out when it is discussed both in General Synod and elsewhere.
The first and major weakness of the report is that it does not give any justification for the direction of travel it proposes for the Church of England. Having noted, like the Pilling report before it, that there is deep division within the Church of England about the best way forward on the issues of marriage and sexuality, it then opts for a way forward which maintains the Church of England’s current position on these issues. However, it does not say why this is the right way forward. All it says it that this was the approach supported by the ‘weight of opinion’ in the House of Bishops.
This begs the obvious response ‘what reason do we have for thinking that the weight of opinion in the House of Bishops on this matter is correct?’ As Martin Luther said on another occasion, what is needed is an argument based on ‘Scripture and right reason’ and this the report fails to give us. Saying how the bishops reached their decision (which is what the report does) is no substitute for explaining why that decision was right.
We can surely do better than to say that the best the Church of England can offer a needy world is ‘tentative ways forward which continue to point towards a better way of living and loving as persons in community.’ What Christians have to offer the world that no one else can is the fulfilment of all our deepest needs and desires through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and marriage and singleness as forms of Christian discipleship that point us to that relationship and enable us to live rightly in the light of it as men and women made in God’s image and likeness.
No reason is given why we should accept the claim made in paragraph 8 that ‘in some way perhaps hidden from us’ those with whom we theologically disagree ‘still have something to teach us about the Kingdom of God.’ Unless some evidence can be given that would support this claim, it is just empty rhetoric.
There needs to be clarity about the meaning of the term ‘maximum freedom’ in paragraph 22. The problem with this paragraph, and with what is said in paragraph 65 about ‘a generous freedom for pastoral practice’ that does not ‘directly or publicly’ undermine the Church’s doctrine, is that there seems to be an emphasis on people being able to push the boundaries of pastoral practice providing they don’t directly or publicly go against Church teaching. Would it not be better to emphasize that the reason for allowing people a degree of freedom of action is in order to allow them to creatively apply Church teaching in ways that will best enable people to live godly lives according to the teaching of Holy Scripture?
There needs to be clarity about what is meant by a ‘fresh tone of welcome and support’ for gay and lesbian people, those with same sex attraction, and their families.’ As noted above, the idea of engaging in fresh thinking about how to welcome and support such people is to be welcomed. However, it needs to be made clear that welcome and support is not the same as affirming same sex sexual activity or desire. Jesus welcomed everyone, regardless of their behaviour, but he also called them to repent and live lives that were in accordance with God’s will (Matthew 9:9-13 Luke 5:27-32, Luke 15:1-32) and we have to do the same. This does not, of course, mean that the first thing that we say to people is that they are sinners who need to repent, but it does mean that we make clear to them the implications for their sexual conduct of being followers of Jesus Christ.
A similar point needs to be made about the suggestion that the proposed teaching document should ‘affirm the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.’ As the report distinguishes elsewhere between gay and lesbian people and those with same-sex attraction this would seem to apply the affirmation of those in sexually active same sex relationships. It needs to be made clear that in order to be consistent with the Church’s teaching such affirmation does not mean acceptance of their sexual conduct as being in accordance with God’s will. A good example of what it might legitimately mean is provided by Rosaria Butterfield’s autobiographical account The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert in which she recounts how she was welcomed and affirmed as a person by the Pastor and members of a conservative Reformed church while she was still in a lesbian relationship, without them compromising their belief that her way of life was contrary to God’s will and would eventually need to change. It is that sort of approach that we need to be commending.
Overall the teaching document, as proposed, lacks a clear theological basis. What is missing is the sort of important theological points made by Glynn Harrison in his new book A Better Story. He notes that:
- ‘The Christian vision for sex and relationships is grounded in the foundational truth that human beings are creatures made in the image of God. Our identity is defined by this reality. It isn’t something that we have to discover within ourselves or constructed for ourselves – our Creator revealed it to us.
- Although sin has disfigured and distorted the image of God in human beings, Christ’s death and resurrection have made possible its full restoration. As we trust in him, and live and work towards the final restoration of all things in him, the process of renovation is already well under way.
- Living out our God-given identity as divine image-bearers puts us on the road to a flourishing that involves fruitful creative endeavour and a transformation of our relationships – including our sexual relationships…..
- As divine image-bearers, we are called to love in the same way that God loves. Because God’s intimate love for us is bound up with faithfulness and fruitfulness that is how we express our most intimate level of love for each other as well – in a relationship of faithfulness and fruitfulness called marriage. This form of bodily expression of our sexuality also puts the story of God’s love on display for the world.
- Marriage is a gift from God – a sacred covenant between one man and one woman that paints a vivid picture of Christ’s love for his church. Both the married (by their faithfulness) and the unmarried (by their chastity) play their different roles in upholding the biblical concept of marriage as the only God-given context for intimate sexual love.
- For Christians true human flourishing isn’t found in the pursuit of self-fulfilment, but in living in harmony with out true identity. It involves playing our part in the bigger story of the break-in of God’s rule; we flourish when we look outwards, serving others and working for a good greater than ourselves.
- Two God given institutions – the family and the local church – play a central role in nourishing this big inclusive vision of human flourishing, and strong marriages have an integral part in both. These relational networks provide mutual support, help build and develop character and ensure stable and protective environments for children.
- All Christians, regardless of age marital state gender or sexuality, by living faithfully in harmony with their identity in Christ, are called to play their part in supporting these two life-giving institutions. The biblical vision for sex is a holistic one in which everybody lives sacrificially for the common good.’
It is this sort of big picture theological account, backed up with references to specific biblical teaching, which needs to provide the framework for considering the collection of issues which the report says the proposed teaching document needs to include.
Any exploration of the implications of the fact that same sex relationships and non-marital heterosexual relationships can embody ‘crucial social virtues of mutuality and fidelity’ needs to bear in mind the obvious point that the fact that a way of life displays certain virtuous characteristics does not mean that it is not sinful. Thus a gang of robbers could exhibit a range of virtues such as friendship, fortitude, ingenuity, and courage, but that does not mean that robbery is not sinful. Similarly two people in an adulterous relationship could display a range of virtues in their relationship with one another, but this would not mean that their adultery was not sin.
Taking seriously what is said in the annex would mean that if the law and doctrine of the Church of England do not change the guidance to clergy that the report proposes would have to be (a) that they could not conduct any form of liturgy that implied that two people of the same sex were married and (b) that they could could not conduct any form of liturgy ‘which sanctioned or condoned’ a same sex sexual relationship. The question would then arise as to what would happen if clergy decided to ignore this guidance. Would the Church of England take action against them? If so, what kind of action and on what basis?
Taking seriously what the annex says also means that the present policy of not allowing a member of the clergy to be married to someone of the same sex would likewise need to continue. The idea floated in paragraph 13 d of the annex that the Church of England could distinguish between civil marriage and holy matrimony and allow clergy to enter into the former but not the latter would not work. It would be predicated on the idea that there can be two kinds of marriage, whereas in fact Scripture and Christian tradition knows of only one kind of marriage, namely that ‘instituted of God’ at creation consisting of a permanent, exclusive relationship between one man and one woman and it would be inconceivable that the Church could accept clergy entering into a form of life that claimed to be marriage, but in fact was not.
If the present prohibition of clergy marrying someone of the same sex is to continue, the question again arises as to whether the Church of England would be willing to enforce this discipline and, if so, how it should be enforced. At the moment there is a panel of bishops who give advice on the matter on a case by case basis. The question that needs to be considered is whether some more permanent and transparent form of discipline does not need to be instituted in order to ensure fairness and consistency.
A further issue that needs to considered, and about which the report is silent, is the issue of authorised lay ministers who are married to someone of the same sex, or who are in a same sex sexual relationship. At the moment there appears to be no agreed basis for refusing them authorisation to minister or disciplining them because of the nature of their relationship. Arguably this is something that needs addressing because as ministers acting on behalf of the Church and with its authorisation they too should be expected to exemplify the Church’s teaching in their personal lives.
The argument in paragraph 48 that in Canon A5 ‘particular’ stands in contrast to ‘exclusive’ is a misreading of the Canon. What the word ‘particular’ actually means is that if we ask where the doctrine of the Church of England based on the Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers that is ‘agreeable’ to Scripture is set out for us, the answer is that it set out for us in the Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. That is where we find the Church of England’s authorised doctrine. Canon A5 is not, as paragraph 49 of the report suggests, concerned with preserving ‘a degree of latitude in how clergy interpret the doctrines of the Church of England.’ What it tells you is the basis of the Church of England’s doctrine and where it is to be found.
The form of the question to be asked of ordinands in paragraph 54 is insufficient in that it only asks whether they have ‘understood’ the Church’s teaching and the principle of clerical obedience and not whether they are willing to obey them. Understanding without subsequent obedience is irrelevant.
A final issue which needs to be addressed, and which is not in the report, is how to handle the whole issue of transgender and intersex people. Just as the Church is perceived as unloving because it will not affirm same sex sexual relationships and marriages so it will increasingly be seen as unloving if it does not affirm gender transition and the belief that some people are either neither male nor female, or are both male and female.
The Church therefore urgently needs to address the issue of why it thinks human beings are male or female and what it means for someone to be male or female (is their biology determinative, or should this be trumped by their own sense of their sexual identity, and what should we say in those rare cases where biology appears to be ambiguous?). It also urgently needs to develop a consistent policy about how to respond pastorally and liturgically to such matters. Any Church of England policy or teaching with regard to issues of sexuality that fails to address these issues will simply be burying its head in the sand and failing to engage with contemporary society.
In conclusion, there are significant weaknesses in the report and these need to be raised and addressed. However, these weaknesses do not negate the fact that the report proposes a direction of travel for the Church of England which has the potential to make the Church of England much more clear, confident and consistent about issues to with human sexuality than is currently the case.
However, in order for this to be the case:
- There needs to be a strong teaching document that sets out clearly and faithfully what the Bible teaches about marriage and human sexuality and why this teaching is good news for everyone regardless of their marital status or sexual attraction.
- The document will need to make it clear that giving welcome and support to gay, lesbian and same sex attracted people and their families cannot mean being silent about the fact that all sexual relations outside marriage are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship. Truly loving people means explaining to them how God says they should live.
- The teaching document needs to cover transgender and intersex issues.
- The proposed guidelines for the clergy need to be consistent with the Church’s doctrine and therefore the ‘maximum freedom’ that is called for cannot mean freedom to conduct forms of service that are contrary to that doctrine.
- The Church needs to be prepared to be more willing to discipline clergy and authorised lay ministers who do conduct services that are contrary to the Church’s teaching or whose personal behaviour is contrary to it. Consistent and enforced discipline is crucial.
A final and crucial point that needs to be made is that the change that is needed in the Church of England will require not just a change at the institutional level, but a change in the behaviour of the Church as a whole.
As Christopher Roberts notes in his book Creation and Covenant, traditional, Bible based, Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality involves a call to an ascetic lifestyle. That is to say it, involves renouncing things that we desire to do for the sake of God and his kingdom. As Roberts goes on to say:
‘If the church wants to commend such asceticism as regards sex, it will be credible if the church is a community wherein a life of celibacy and singleness is plausible and attractive. If sexual difference is to be an occasion of freedom, an arena in which men and women seek together a social ecology to mock and rival the ways of concupiscence, then very few aspects of contemporary church life will remain unscathed. The early patristic confidence that ecclesial social life should be visibly different from pagan life, in particular at the sexual level, would need to be reclaimed. How would the church respond to youth culture if it genuinely believed that the dynamic of the sexes is grounded in the imago Dei and not in romance? How might courtship habits and living arrangements need to be reconfigured if lay celibacy were a bona fide response to sexuality? What new tone of voice would need to be adopted if Christians realized that everyone who has ever lusted selfishly is judged by the tradition’s teleology for sexual difference and not just the homosexually inclined? Reclaiming the theological tradition about sexual difference would entail not only a chastening word to the revisionist theologians but also a thoroughgoing revolution for almost all Christians.’ 
This being the case, the key question we have to face is are we up for this revolution?
M B Davie 31.1.17
 Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2016, Chapter 1. ’
 Glynn Harrison, A Better Story, London, Inter Varsity Press, 2016, Ch. 16.
 Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer marriage service.
 Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant, London and New York: T &T Clark, 2007, pp.245-246.