Why the bishops have an option

In the past few days, the attention of those interested in the Church of England’s position on human sexuality has been focused on the arguments in favour of the Church’s acceptance of same-sex marriage put forward by the Bishop of Oxford in his paper Together in Love and Faith[1] and the subsequent support for his position offered by six other bishops.

Because excellent responses to the Bishop of Oxford’s paper have been made by Vaughan Roberts[2]and Ian Paul,[3] I am not going to discuss it in this article. What I am going to discuss instead is the article in the Church Times which preceded the publication of the Bishop of Oxford’s paper, and which has not received the examination it deserves.

The article was concerned with the discussion about the way forward for the Church of England on the issue of human sexuality that took place at the College of Bishops meeting from 31 October to 2 November. The headline for the article, which was published on 2 November, was ‘ Church of England bishops edge closer to a decision on sexuality’[4] and the key point made in the article is the one made in the second paragraph:

‘Although no decision has been made about what formal proposals will be presented to the General Synod in February 2023 — these will be finalised at the next College of Bishops meeting, 12-14 December — it is understood that the bishops acknowledge that simply to restate the existing ban on same-sex blessings or marriage in church is not an option.’[5]

The words ‘it is understood’ in this paragraph, like the words ‘it is said’ in the following paragraph, indicate that although the proceedings of the College of Bishops meeting were meant to be confidential, bishops have nevertheless been briefing the Church Times with their view of what took place. Furthermore, it would be naive to think that this briefing of the Church Times was not connected with the release of the Bishop of Oxford’s paper. Those who want the Church of England to change its position are seeking to create a public narrative in which change is seen as inevitable, and both the briefings and the Bishop of Oxford’s paper are part of this attempt.

In the paragraph quoted above, the idea of the inevitability of change is conveyed by the final clause ‘it is understood that the bishops acknowledge that simply to restate the existing ban on same-sex blessings or marriage in church is not an option.’  Change, this clause tells us, is inevitable because the bishops have realised that simply restating the existing position ‘is not an option.’

A moment’s thought shows that the claim made in the final clause is untrue. According to the dictionary an option is something ‘that is, or may be chosen.’ For it to be true that restating the Church’s current position ‘is not an option’ this would be something that the bishops were literally unable to choose, and this cannot be the case.

The reason it cannot be the case is that there is nothing to stop the bishops choosing to restate the current position. Each of them individually can decide to exercise their God given free will by deciding in favour of restatement. Short of all the current bishops dying before the next meeting of the College of Bishops in December, or their being subject to some form of mind control, that choice will remain open to them.  

This being the case, the bishops will remain accountable to God at the last judgement for the choice that they individually make. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:10 ‘For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.’ For the bishops this means that they will one day receive the judgement of Christ regarding the choices that they now have to make about the Church’s position on same-sex blessings or marriage. On that day they will not be able to say to Christ ‘I had no choice.’ They did.

If, then, the bishops have a choice and will be accountable for that choice to God, what choice should they make? The answer is simple, they must re-affirm the Church’s current ban on same-sex blessings and same-sex marriage. This is because both the witness of nature in terms of human biology, and the witness of Scripture, tell us that God created human beings to have sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, and because the biblical account of the origins of marriage in Genesis 2:18-25 (reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12) likewise tells us that God created marriage to be a relationship between two people of the opposite sex. Banning same-sex blessings and same-sex marriages is simply a reflection of this truth. It is the Church saying we cannot bless what God has not blessed or celebrate a different form of marriage from the one that God has created.

Blessing same-sex sexual relationships and celebrating same-sex marriages as a consequence of removing the current ban would thus involve a rejection of God’s creative activity. It would involve telling God that we know better than he does how the world should be and how humans should behave and that is something that the Church has no right to do.

When the Church confesses in the first article of the Creed ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’ to believe means more than mere intellectual assent. To believe means putting our trust in the God who created us and all the world and accepting his Lordship over us.

To rescind its current ban on same-sex blessings and same-sex marriages would mean, by contrast, the Church effectively saying that it had ceased to trust in God as the creator and was repudiating his Lordship. This is because the Church cannot both trust in God and accept his Lordship and simultaneously reject the pattern for sexual intercourse and marriage that he has ordained. It can do one or the other, but it cannot do both.

Finally, it should be noted that producing a fresh argument for the Church of England’s current position, which the Church Times report says that ‘those who wish to see no change in the C of E’s policy’ accept is necessary, is not at odds with restating ‘the existing ban of same-sex blessings and marriage in church.’ It is perfectly possible to restate the existing ban while giving a fresh statement of why such a ban is necessary. Indeed, the very idea of restatement implies putting forward the case for a ban in a new way.


[1] Steven Croft, Together in Love and Faith, available at https://www.oxford.anglican.org/send-to-kindle-documents.php.

[2] Vaughan Roberts, Together in Love and Faith? (Latimer Trust, 2022).

[3] Ian Paul. ‘What is the Bishop of Oxford Thinking?’ at https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/what-is-the-

bishop-of-oxford-thinking/.

[4][4] Paul Handley, ‘Church of England bishops edge closer to a decision on sexuality,’ Church Times, 2 November 2022.  

[5] Although the paragraph itself is ambiguous, ‘marriage in church’ must mean the marriage of same-sex couples. Marriage in church per se is, of course, not banned!

3 thoughts on “Why the bishops have an option

  1. They’re creating a metaphorical earthquake, a mighty wind, a wildfire. And you wait for a lull in those you hope will be sufficient to be heard above the racket, when you state the obvious, in a still, small, calm voice? Do you really expect that to work? Yeah, me too. It’ll work to accomplish something, for God’s word never returns to him void.

    But contemplating what your still, small voice might “work” to accomplish is what makes me tremble, and should make them tremble even more, unless what you contemplated might happen literally (“all the current bishops dying before the next meeting of the College of Bishops in December”) has happened already, or happens soon, metaphorically speaking. For this movement is toxic, lethally so, and to embrace it is tantamount to spiritual suicide, or else the automatic involuntary movements of spiritual zombies, who are already dead, but just won’t lie down.

  2. Pingback: Same sex marriage: responses to the Bishop of Oxford | Thinking Anglicans
  3. I agree that the distinction between reporting and campaigning is not observed in the Church Times article but if one understands “no option” as colloquial for “not feasible” and emphasises the adverb, it is true that “simply to restate the existing ban on same-sex blessings or marriage in church is not an option”. What is needed is a fresh statement of why the church teaches what it does about marriage and sexual intimacy. If the House of Bishops were “simply” to re-state current teaching without offering a fuller rationale, it would lose further credibility.

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