The Bishop of Southwark’s Presidential Address – An intial response.

The Presidential Address given by Bishop Christopher Chessun to the Southwark Diocesan Synod last Saturday has now been published online.[1] In his address the bishop sets out his view of what the outcome of the LLF process should be both for the Diocese of Southwark and for the wider Church of England. The purpose of this paper is to give an initial response to what the bishop has said, explaining why it is problematic from the perspective of traditional Anglican theology.

The first thing I want to comment on is his statement:

‘We have journeyed through the pandemic in a costly but resilient way and we have much to give thanks for, but we all know we still have some way to go before we can be confident that the Church is a welcoming and safe place for all, somewhere all can flourish without fear of discrimination or prejudice. Anything less falls short of the abundant life Christ came to bestow (John 10. 10). This is something upon which I venture to suggest we can all agree.’

At first sight this statement would indeed appear to be something on which everyone can agree. However, the problem comes with what the key words in the statement  actually mean. Does the bishop think that the Church can be a ‘welcoming and safe place’ for LGBT+ people in which they can ‘flourish without fear of discrimination or prejudice’ and still be a diocese which upholds the traditional Christian conviction that a person’s sexual identity is determined by their God -given biology and that sexual activity should only take place within marriage between two people of the opposite sex? The reason for asking this question is because there are those in the Church of England who would argue strongly that this is not the case and that only unconditional affirmation of transgender identities and same-sex sexual relationships can make the Church a safe and welcoming place in which LGBT + people can flourish.

Where does the bishop stand on this issue? What he says leaves his position on the matter unclear.

Later in his address the bishop says that:

‘I also have a responsibility to ensure that the Church is safe for everyone -and at present it is not safe for those who are in same-sex unions. But we must also take care that we do not make the Church unsafe for those who in conscience cannot accept same-sex unions – making accommodations with mutual respect and forbearance is a defining characteristic of Anglican identity.’

Here again there is lack of clarity. What the bishop does not explain is why he thinks the Church is not currently safe for those in ‘same-sex unions,’ what would make it a safe place for them, or what safety would then mean for those in the Church who continue to hold that same sex sexual relationships are a form of sin of which people need to repent. What precisely does he think should happen?

While he does not give a precise answer to this question, what he does do is to suggest what he thinks should happen as a result of the LLF process. What he suggests is two things.

First, he suggests that there should be:

‘…a generous pastoral provision that respects freedom of conscience by the provision of a liturgy of affirmation and commitment for same-sex couples and a conscience clause that means no priest is required to officiate at such a service.’

Secondly, ‘on ecumenical and Anglican inter-Provincial grounds’ he suggests:

‘…. the removal of penalties for those clergy who contract a same-sex marriage, either civilly or in one of our sister Churches with whom we are in full communion.’

Presumably this would mean that licensed clergy would be free to be in, and enter into, same-sex civil marriages.

On the first of these suggestions there is again a lack of clarity as to what precisely he is proposing. What is meant by a same-sex couple? Does this mean those in a celibate covenanted friendship, or does it mean those in a same-sex sexual relationship, whether this is an informal union, a Civil Partnership or a same-sex marriage?

If he means the former then there is no problem, but if he means the latter then there is a serious problem because the principle ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’ (‘the law of praying is the law of believing’) means that the ‘liturgy of affirmation and commitment’ that the bishop proposes would involve the Church of England accepting that God approves of the unions in question. It would mean the Church of England declaring liturgically that sexual relationships outside marriage between one man and one woman are acceptable in the sight of God. [2]

This is something that the Church of England simply cannot do because the uniform teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition, rooted in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:3-5 and Mark 10:2-8, is that all sex outside heterosexual marriage is sin,[3] and the Church of England has no authority to say that it is not.

A conscience clause would not address this issue because all it would do would be to allow individual clergy to act in opposition to the Church’s  new position. The analogy of the Church’s provision for those who cannot support re-marriage in church after divorce, to which the bishop refers in his address, supports this point. The Church of England’s position changed from opposing re-marriage in Church after divorce to allowing it because it changed its view of the indissolubility of marriage. The Church as whole moved to a new position while allowing individual clergy to dissent from it. This is also what Bishop Chessun’s proposal would mean.

Allowing clergy to be in same-sex marriages would also involve a change in the Church’s position. In line with the Bible and the Christian tradition the Church of England has always held that clergy need to live lives of visible holiness so as to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ,’  [4] and that this means, among other things, that their sexual conduct must be in line with the biblical principle of either sexual faithfulness within heterosexual marriage or sexual abstinence outside it. What the bishop’s suggestion would mean is either the Church saying that the sexual conduct of the clergy simply does not matter, or that same-sex sexual relationships are acceptable to God, neither of which the Church of England has authority to say.

It is also not something that is required on ‘ecumenical or Anglican inter-provincial grounds.’ There is nothing in the Church of England’s ecumenical commitments or in its membership of the Anglican Communion that means that the Church of England needs to allow clergy to be in same-sex marriages. This is a complete red-herring.

If the Church of England were to adopt either or both of the bishop’s suggestions this would mean that it had ceased to uphold Christian orthodoxy with regard to sexual ethics. At this point orthodox Anglicans would have no choice except to visibly differentiate themselves from the Church of England’s position and the only way this could be done would either be through the formation of a province within the Church of England that continued to uphold orthodox Christian teaching and practice with regard to sexual ethics, or by their leaving the Church of England to join another Anglican jurisdiction that had remained orthodox in this area.[5]

The fundamental problem with the bishop’s address is that he is not acting properly as a bishop. As he rightly says, bishops are called to be ‘principal ministers of word and sacrament’ and ‘chief pastors’ However, as the 1662 Ordinal makes clear is that this means that  bishops are called to ‘teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine’ and ‘banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s word.’ [6]

In his address Bishop Chessun fails to do this. He fails to teach the wholesome doctrine of the Bible and the Christian tradition (which is also still the official position of the Church of England)[7] that Christians are called to either sexual fidelity within heterosexual marriage or sexual abstinence outside it and he takes no steps to ‘banish and drive away’ the idea that the Church of England should abandon this doctrine, suggesting rather that the Church of England should put this idea into practice.


[1] It can be found at https://anglicanmainstream.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Presidential-Address_Diocesan-Synod_November-2022.pdf.

[2] See Martin Davie, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (London: Latimer Trust, 2019).

[3] For this point see  Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh- Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007) and S Donald Fortson III and Rollin Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashvile, B&H Academic, 2016). 

[4] The 1662 Ordinal, services for the ordination of deacons and priests.

[5] See the Church of England Evangelical Council, Visibly Different at https://ceec.info/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/visibly_different_-_dated_26_july_2020.pdf

[6] 1662 Ordinal, service for the consecration of Bishops. For more on the calling of bishops see Martin Davie, Bishops Past, Present and Future (Malton: Gilead Books 2022).

[7] See the motion passed by General Synod in 1987:

This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms;

  • that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship.
  • that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.
  • that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.  
  • that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, and  that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.

(General Synod report of proceedings vol 18 no.3  London: CHP 1987  pp.955-956)

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