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Editorial: A Very Long Conversation…

30 June 2021

Bernard Levin was one of the most remarkable journalists of his day. He was intelligent, entertaining, perceptive and compassionate. Interestingly too, as a secular Jew, albeit with a continuing sense of spiritual quest, Levin showed a particular sympathy with Christianity and indeed the Church of England. Never perhaps was this more clearly manifested than in his Times article responding to the General Synod debate of 1987 focusing on Tony Higton’s Private Member’s Motion on human sexuaity. Levin’s article concluded:

‘I emerged with a wondering but intense admiration for this amazing body. The Church of England, facing for once a real problem, predictably and inevitably fudged it. But in the very act of fudging, it spoke with tongues. It will be denounced from within and without its ranks, for both cowardice and brutality; but the result was a victory for all the best qualities of this country. The Church is as puzzled, worried and uncertain as the rest of us; but in a strange way it gave us all a lead, if only that by telling us to be puzzled, worried and uncertain is the lot all thinking people, and it is no shame to confess as much. The Church of England - loving, muddled, holy, generous, wise, humble, well-meaning, daft, forgetful, brave, honest and absurd – is certainly not all right. But it is emphatically All Right.’1

Even this extract does not do justice to the power and richness of the complete article, which captures something of how Britain felt at that time. Of course, we now live in a very different world: that was thirty-five years ago. But what is easily forgotten is the protracted process through which, not only the Church, but the nation itself has been engaged in, in responding to changes in attitude to sexuality: indeed, the recent material from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church (spurning any blessing of Civil Partnerships), suggests that some still stand some way back along that process.

This extraordinary conversation goes back a very long way. It was Winston Churchill’s Conservative government who, in 1954, set up the Wolfenden Commission which finally published its report during Harold Macmillan’s administration in September 1957. Chaired by Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden, a former Oxford don and ViceChancellor of the university of Reading, the commission’s brief was to report and make recommendations on the two very different subjects of homosexual behaviour and prostitution. Vigo Demant, then Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford was a member of the commission. The report’s recommendations were in favour of liberalising the legal framework in both areas. So, it recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’. Much debate followed, including a famous exchange of views between Lord Devlin, a leading judge, and H L A Hart, Professor of Jurisprudence in the University of Oxford; their disagreement reached down to the crucial relationship between law and morality. In the light of these profound differences of opinion, the conversation continued to be protracted. Indeed, it was not until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (applying to England and Wales only), this time under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, that ‘homosexual acts’, on the condition that they were consensual, in private and between two men who had attained the age of 21, would no longer be a criminal act. (Remarkably, ‘homosexual acts’ between women had never been declared illegal.)

In that same year, Norman Pittenger, a retired don, resident then at King’s College, Cambridge, published his book titled Time for Consent,2 which argued for a new and open attitude to homosexuality, from a Christian point of view. The first significant move in this direction came with the establishment of a commission under the chairmanship of John Yates, then Bishop of Gloucester; the commission’s report published in 1979 was titled Homosexual Relationship: A Contribution to Discussion.3 The Board for Social Responsibility was deeply divided in its response to the report which some saw as far too liberal and others as not liberal enough; the published report thus include some of the criticisms by board members.

Despite the less than enthusiastic response to the ‘Gloucester Report’, in the summer of 1986, the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a working party to advise the House of Bishops on ‘questions concerning homosexuality and lesbianism’. The working party was not to repeat the work of the Gloucester Report but instead to see where the Church of England was on this issue and to advise the bishops as they sought to bring healing and unity. Completed in 1989, under the chairmanship of The Revd June Osborne, then Team Vicar of the Old Ford group of parishes in east London, and a member of the General Synod. This report was suppressed by the House of Bishops and only became available for public consumption some twenty-three years later, when it was published in the Church Times.4 The Higton Debate had taken place in 1987, two years before the completion of the Osborne Report.

The next key moment in the Church of England’s marathon conversation came in 1991, with the publication of the report Issues in Human Sexuality. This came in response to the request by the 1988 Lambeth Conference that all bishops of the Anglican Communion undertake ‘a deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality.’5 Issues was both a response to that request and a reflection on the pastoral situation then facing the Church of England. The report was accepting of same-sex relationships among the laity, assuming they were within a continuing relationship, but clergy, living with a partner, were effectively called to abstain from any sexual relationship.6 In 2003, a subsequent discussion document was published.7 This followed a polarised debate, provoked by Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference,8 which, ‘while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture…..called on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation.’

This most recent project follows the most unusual occurrence of the General Synod having ‘refused to take note’ of a report from the House of Bishops titled Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. (GS 2055)

This sketch of the terrain over the past sixty years indicates how difficult the debates have been both within secular society and within the Church of England. The landscape, however, has changed radically. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was the first step. Following that, attitudes and opinions within British society have shifted significantly, albeit on occasion slowly, within the past two generations. Civil partnerships were introduced, legally recognising same-sex and heterosexual partnerships alongside the existing relating to marriage. More recently still, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act of 2013 did as the Act’s title suggests. Alongside this, the fact of gender re-alignment (often with the support of National Health Service treatment) and thus a broadening acceptance of this phenomenon has led to a further revolution in our understanding of human sexuality and gender norms. Terms including ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ in relation to sexuality would not have held currency in the 1960s and 1970s. British society has changed as have attitudes more generally.

Following the failure to ‘take note’ in the 2017 General Synod debate, a further response from the bishops to this complete set of issues was required. As Robert Song indicates in his response to Living in Loving in Faith (LLF),9 the project to which this edition of Crucible is responding is not a report in the same sense of the Gloucester Report or Issues in Human Sexuality, although it does share some resonances with the ill-fated Osborne Report of the late 1980s. Instead, LLF is a teaching document offering resources for the entire Church of England – ‘all of us’ as Rachel Mann describes it in her response. It is designed to engage with the issues such that, at the very least, we may disagree ‘agreeably’ and, with an intelligent background to the conversation. Resources include biblical studies, doctrinal reflection, some understanding of the ‘tradition’, societal attitudes and the scientific background. This may then lead, at the very best, to increased levels of agreement, acceptance and most crucially to a proper valuing of all, whatever our sexual orientation and gender might be.10

We cannot underestimate the cost of this process intellectually, theologically, emotionally and politically. In editing this issue, it has been clear that in such debates, power dynamics need to be acknowledged. There are long held positions and not living in accordance with them is still a matter of discipline. To enter the debate openly will make some more vulnerable than others. On a personal note, I reflect on this as the only bishop present in the House of Lords chamber, late in the afternoon of Thursday 27th February 2014 for a debate on Certain Statutory Instruments in relation to the Same -Sex Marriage Act which had recently received the Royal Assent. This was not an acrimonious debate – all the crucial work had passed through both houses. Nonetheless, the Church of England understandably came in for criticism and notable in relation to marriage in church. Note was made by the Baroness Barker of a particularly discordant note relating to the House of Bishops’ Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage. I had not intended to speak, but it was clear that silence would have been misunderstood. I noted that: ‘For a Church that has a tradition that now goes back 450 years in what its has been saying about marriage, to move in a significantly different direction indicates a profound shift. There will be a variety of opinions, but that is an issue of great consequence.”11

My point implicitly was that for a church whose doctrine is enshrined in its liturgy, her teaching on marriage has been declared every time the prologue to the marriage service is read. In less than two years, the Church of England was faced with an entirely changed situation.

On the broader issue of homosexual relations, relationships within the Anglican Communion have brought difficult unresolved challenges to unity.

These challenges relate to issues of cultural difference and cultural accommodation. In the 1988 Lambeth Conference a different challenge was presented by the practice of polygamy and particularly within some African provinces within the Communion. Ultimately, it was agreed that in the face of highly complex issues in certain countries and notably those with large Muslim populations, a hard line on this issue could have catastrophic implications both in terms of mission and of harmony within society. The conference voted for a position which allowed for cultural accommodation. Thus far, the Communion has been incapable of achieving a different sort of cultural accommodation on issues of sexuality. This remains an urgent and unresolved conversation. It is something to which Jennie Hogan alludes in her comment:

‘If we enter this listening project spellbound by fear of the Anglican Communion’s reactions there will never be any genuine liberation for LGBTQ+ people in the Church of England.”

At the heart of Bernard Levin’s piece from The Times, with which this editorial began was the realisation of a double dilemma. First was the issue of polarised starting points within the Church of England. How could a compassionate and just response be achieved? In the debate to which Levin was responding, Graham Leonard, then Bishop of London, spoke for the House of Bishops. Levin reflected that

‘…. it would take a powerful grip to wrest the debate (from Higton’s hands); the Bishop of London was not a likely candidate for the attempt, but to everybody’s astonishment, it was he who….doused Mr Higton’s fire and cooled his brimstone.’

The second key point in Levin’s article related to Church and Nation:

‘….it (the Church) gave us all a lead, if only by telling us that to be puzzled, worried and uncertain is the lot of all thinking people, and it is no shame to confess as much.’

Fudge, in other words, was more subtly an indication of such uncertainties.

Yet again, the Church of England has returned to issues of sexuality in what has undoubtedly been a very long conversation. Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church’s greatest teachers, seemed to be equally obsessed; it is after all one of the key elements which defines our humanity - maybe this time we are being offered a real opportunity through this very different project, once again, to demonstrate to wider society (which continues to have its own uncertainties) a proper acknowledgement of puzzlements and worries, and to seek a profound understanding which avoids trivial short-term responses.

Rachel Mann generously notes: ‘…..for the first time, I sense theological promise in what the Church of England ….is up to regarding human identity.’

Robin Gill also notes: ‘The contributors have listened carefully to a wide range of experts and lay people, and the whole report (sic) is written with commendable tact and humility.’

Levin commented at one point: ‘Yet as a record of a Church wrestling with its conscience, its teaching, its founders, its history and its place in Britain today, the debate could hardly be improved upon.’

Can we do similarly? Part of this process is continuous engagement. We would be very pleased to hear from you as the Church seeks to take this forward. Why not write to the editor so that we might publish further contributions to a conversation ‘that could hardly be improved upon’?

Stephen Platten was the Bishop of Wakefield and chairs the Crucible Editorial Board

 

Notes

1. ‘Synod and the Sinners’, Bernard Levin. The Times. 12th November 1987. P.16.

2. W N Pittenger, Time for Consent. SCM Press, London.1967.

3. Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion. Church Information Office, London.1979.

4. Church Times. London. January 20th 2012.

5. Lambeth Conference. 1988. Resolution.64.

6. Issues in Human Sexuality. Church House Publishing, London. See paragraph 5.22.

7. Some Issues in Human Sexuality; A Guide to the Debate. Church House Publishing .2003.

8. Lambeth Conference.1998. Resolution. 1.10.

9. Living and Loving in Faith. Church House Publishing, London. 2020.

10. See particularly LLF. p.x.

11. House of Lords’ Hansard. Thursday 27th February 2014.