The following letter was written by Bishop Rachel on her return from the recent gathering of the Bishops of the Church of England and was offered as a reflection on the process, not as a letter stating a personal position at this point in the process:
Dear sisters and brothers,
This week I have spent three days with the Bishops of the Church of England as we now move towards this final part of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ journey and reach a decision about what is brought to General Synod in February 2023 regarding same-sex relationships. (Bishop Robert was unable to be present this time but will be attending the next two gatherings in December and January.)
I have been encouraged by the number of people who have participated in the Living in Love and Faith discussion groups across the diocese. That material continues to be available for people to explore, whether individually or in a group, and I hope people will continue to engage with it because this is not simply about a decision in 2023 but about how we hear one another’s stories and perspectives and continue to reflect on our understanding of scripture and what it means to be the Church.
The Church of England press release about the meeting of the College of Bishops can be found at churchofengland.org/living-love-and-faith-college-bishops
It is important to stress that the conversations and issues around human identity and relationships are much broader than same-sex relationships, and this was repeatedly named and reflected in our episcopal conversations. However, the main focus of our current decision-making is around the questions relating to same-sex marriage and civil partnerships.
Having been part of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality which resulted in the report published in 2013 (The Pilling Report), I am very aware of the deep frustration and hurt felt by many people that we are still in a place of conversation, whilst other people still think we are pushing for decision too quickly, or even wish we were not having these conversations. Yet we need to recognise that for many people this is not primarily about decisions regarding church ecclesiology or sexual ethics, but it is about the daily lived reality of identity, including experiences of feeling hidden, unwelcomed, judged and discussed. And to those who say we should be focusing on mission, I want to respond by saying this is a missional issue and resonates with LIFE Together.
Our time together as the College of Bishops was rooted in worship, scripture, and prayer as we continue to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There was a lot of discussion in small groups as we listened to one another, reflected and shaped possible options, and continued to discern the direction of travel and the nature of the path we will be forging. In all of this, we spoke not only about the content of what is proposed but also about how things are communicated (although none of us can prevent the sound bites or vociferous reactive comment on social media).
We also began reflecting on the processes and legal issues the various options raise, not only regarding General Synod, but also Parliament and our place as the established Church.
During our days together as the College of Bishops I was particularly struck by the deep and poignant commitment to the unity of the Church amid the painful truth that there is no path which will delight everyone in our worshipping communities and beyond. I am also clear that it is not acceptable to opt for the lowest common denominator. This underpinned the disastrous ‘Take Note’ debate in General Synod In 2017, which then led to the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process.
Please be assured that amid the range of different perspectives Bishop Robert and I remain committed to our Church unity in this diocese, and are clear that all views and life experiences are to be treated with care and respect. No one will be excluded from our belonging together as the body of Christ, and we will do our utmost to ensure that all can be heard without fear of being ostracized.
One of the Bible passages we reflected on during our worship this week was Isaiah 55 and in the small group of which I was part, we shared our trust and belief that by God’s grace, the beauty and scent of the myrtle and cypress can emerge and flourish in those places where people are expecting thorns and briers:
‘Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle…’ (Isaiah 55:13)
This requires expectant hearts, rooted in prayer and the soil of God’s love.
Towards the close of our final session, we were invited to share one word relating to how we were feeling at the end of our time together. The words included expressions of pain yet the words I heard most frequently included hope.
In my Bulletin letter last Tuesday (All Saints’ Day) I wrote about unity and vision, and I ended with those words of Paul’s prayer in his letter to the saints in Ephesus. May they be a prayer we pray for one another in these coming months:
‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power’. (Ephesians 1:17-19).
With my continued thanks and prayers,