As Synod meets this week I wanted to assure you of my prayers as representatives of St Albans Diocese as you discuss, deliberate and listen. I know that this week’s business is not about a single issue, but for many within and outside the church, it is.
Having read the Bishops’ Report (GS 2055) myself I am writing to you to ask you not to ‘take note’ of the report in front of you.
I welcome the desire to change the tone of the discussions of which the report speaks but there are a number of matters that cause me - a happily married heterosexual man - to squirm with embarrassment and shame both emotionally and theologically.
Firstly, we are a denomination which has lived with divergent theology before. I am of course referring to women’s ministry within the three-fold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. There are some who, with good conscience, are unable to accept the will of the church regarding their ministry. I pray that a time will come where this will no longer be the case. Yet, either out of pragmatism or out of a sheer need to stop the church ripping itself apart we reached an 'Anglican compromise' offering pastoral care and episcopal oversight to those of a traditionalist position, allowing for a so called mutual flourishing. This is not the only example as the Church of England has allowed it’s clergy to remarry divorcees in church under some clear guidelines. This pastoral accommodation has allowed me to minister to those who thought because of certain circumstances they were unwelcome and unwanted before the God of love, to find themselves welcome before God and for their marriages solemnised in Church. We’ve done it before, we can do this again and allow for differing doctrinal positions to be held and for our theology to grow and enlarge in the light of new Biblical understanding, new experience of God and new appreciations of what it means to be human and made in God’s image.
Secondly, I was not part of the Shared Conversations, but talking with those who were, through that process of attentive listening to one another and God, there seems to have been a move of the Spirit at work. People with differing views have come to see those views not as flags to be waved or drums to be banged, but genuine and heartfelt positions based on a interpretation of scripture, tradition, theology and experience. There seems to have been much gained by the Shared Conversations. Whilst opinions and convictions may not have been changed necessarily - those positions and opinions became people and human stories and it has been this incarnational work that seems to have been transforming. It surprises me therefore to find so little reference to the Shared Conversations or their outcomes in this report. Indeed it feels as one reads it, that the Shared Conversations experience has played none or certainly very little part in the writing of it.
Thirdly, I initially welcomed talk in the report of a new teaching document on marriage and of ‘maximum pastoral freedom' in terms of potential pastoral responses, until I realised that both were couched, not in the language of love, but of concession and therefore of fear. This is also perhaps why the appalling and dehumanising short hand ‘same-sex attraction’ is used throughout the report to describe the emotional life of LGBTI people. These people are people who love and laugh and cry and sing just as I do. They have feelings like I do. They experience the love of God as I do. They are invited into a life of discipleship as I am. In this climate, my fear is that any new teaching document on marriage will continue to perpetrate the myth that marriage is about procreation and property as our liturgy still hints at, rather than celebrating the crowning glory of what it means to be human - to be loved by another - into life. And talk of ‘maximum pastoral freedom’ sounds like ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ As far as the church is concerned marriage is marriage regarding heterosexual couples whether it took place on a beach, in a hotel, on a cruise liner or in a church. 'New pastoral freedom’ makes me as a parish priest feel like I am still having to look over my shoulder to keep an eye out for the Archdeacon or indeed the Bishop. We should be in the business of celebrating love between two people. Anything less, reduces those two lovers, to something sub human and denies the being of God.
Fourthly, LGBTI people continue to be treated by our church as an issue to be solved rather than people that God loves; despite the talk of a new tone in speaking of and relating, GS 2055 fails to model it. I have found myself shocked and breathless at some of the language coming from Trump’s America in these early days of his presidency - partisan language that names people as ‘things' whether they are muslim, Mexican or women. The report before you similarly objectifies LGBTI people but fails to temper that language by doing what the Shared Conversations did, and that is to allow their voices to be heard and their stories of faith and commitment under God to be told. If the Church were to speak of other social or ethnic groups in a report using the tone and language as this one, we would quite rightly be accused of racism or sexism, which as a national church we rightly speak out against. Why is it therefore somehow ok to use language couched in homophobia in relation to the sex lives of some of our servers, choristers, PCC members, cleaners, youth workers, Sunday School teachers and so on? That’s right, it’s not. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Fifthly, we ask the God of love to bless many things - people, pets, homes, ships, even nuclear submarines and yet we can’t bring ourselves to ask Him to bless all loving relationships. Who is making the distinction?
In my opinion GS 2055 fails to model the Church of England ministering well in England to the people of England. It models the very worst of poor compromises and fails to speak to our nation, to our church or for our church as it it actually is - even in a holding position.
I encourage you not to take note of this report and to vote against it tomorrow and instead call on the Synod and indeed the whole church to be bold, prophetic, inclusive and welcoming - to truly be a church in England for England - and not just certain sections of it.
With every blessing
Rev'd. Simon Cutmore