by Richard Lewis
from Signs of the Times No. 12 - January 2004

The Rt Revd Richard Lewis, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, was one of the eight bishops who signed the letter to The Times supporting the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. He received a large amount of correspondence on the matter, both supportive and critical.

On 8th November 2003 he addressed his Diocesan Synod, and received a standing ovation. This is the text of his address.

The issue of homosexuality continues to occupy the foreground in church politics at the moment and one or two questions have been submitted to be answered at this session of Diocesan Synod. It therefore seems sensible to address them as part of this presidential address, though the theme I want to pursue is how we handle differences and I want to use the experience of the present debate about homosexuality as an example rather than the exclusive subject matter. Some people have been pressing for a debate but the time is not yet and it is not even entirely clear what a debate would be about.

More importantly - before we enter into anything which can properly be called a debate - we need to be clearer about how we behave towards each other - and that applies to all parties. In this address I will cover some of the issues arising for us from the process of the last few months and will draw out some ground rules for the way in which Christians might engage in discussion.

First of all I need to clarify my role in events since it triggered some comments here in the Diocese. Following the nomination of Canon Jeffrey John to be Bishop of Reading I received seventy letters and emails and in addition there were a number of phone calls. Some of the letters referred to my signing of the second letter to The Times supporting the appointment process and of those roughly a third were critical and two thirds were supportive. Other letters addressed the overarching issues and a variety of opinions were expressed.

At the time I made my position clear that in my opinion an appointment had been properly made within the parameters which had been set by the Church of England as far back at 1991 and published in the House of Bishops document Issues in Human Sexuality, a report which had been debated in General Synod. It seemed to me that if a group of bishops had a problem with this appointment then the proper course of action was to raise it with the Archbishop of Canterbury directly rather than indirectly via a letter to a newspaper. The chosen course of action caused embarrassment to the Archbishop, hurt to Canon John who was not even given the courtesy of a copy of the letter before publication as well as widespread dismay. It was also particularly hurtful to the gay community and their friends and relations and much of that hurt has been shared with me including by some of you who are here today.

But it is important to understand that the widespread dismay was of more than one kind. There were those who disapproved of the appointment on the basis of what had been said in the first letter to The Times. There were those who were not wholly disapproving on that basis but were concerned about implications for the Anglican Communion. There were those who approved of the appointment on the basis that it had been properly made. There were those who approved of the appointment because they felt that it carried an important implicit message. So it was not simply a matter of people being for or against. It was more complex than that and in learning how we handle our differences we need to understand something of that complexity. Otherwise the debate just becomes a fracas in the playground and in the end it is the loudest voices which tend to prevail.

At this stage I want to make one point absolutely clear to those who have questioned me. My actions in this matter have been precisely within the agreed parameters set by the Church of England and I have sought to support agreed policy and not to undermine it or subvert it. As regards the future I have no intention of acting other than within the agreed policies and guidelines of the Church of England and if I intended otherwise then I would simply not be able continue as a bishop, given the oaths which I have sworn and the allegiances which I have undertaken. Turning to the discussion of the last few months, what have we discovered ? I have divided this address into about half a dozen sections in order to deal with a number of different aspects of the debate.

Language

It is important to recognise the way in which debates like the one of the last few months affects our understanding of language. Part of the problem is that good words are given exclusive meanings and so their meaning is hijacked. The words in question are ones like, evangelical, liberal, traditionalist, orthodox and communion. All these words are too important to allow them to become slogans, and therefore we need to note what is happening when they are misused.

Some people have tried to portray the debate as being evangelical versus liberal. Even if you accept these as general titles for two broad groupings, which personally I would challenge, they still don't work in this particular context. There are clearly people who call themselves evangelicals who do not necessarily agree with others who also call themselves evangelical.

A word like 'evangelical' is far too important and valuable to be allowed to become a rallying point for any particular viewpoint. I wonder if we can commit ourselves to making sure that we never use it as such ?

I would want to make the same plea for words like 'traditionalist' and 'orthodox'. Sometimes people write and say they are of course 'traditionalists' or they represent 'orthodoxy'. Sometimes they make the exclusive assumption by the way that they express themselves that they alone know what the tradition is and that they are therefore the judges of orthodoxy.

'Orthodoxy' is a word which has been stripped of its original meaning by abuse. The roots of the word mean 'right glorification' of God. Far from being a narrow reference book against which you can check whether someone is right or wrong in what they believe or say, it actually means a huge reservoir from which we can draw to glorify God and worship him in all his fullness. Orthodoxy is a very big and rich word and it simply must not be allowed to become a slogan of limitation. Finally the word 'communion' has been endlessly bandied about and seems to have been twisted to represent the opposite of its original meaning. Far from describing those who are together within the same body, it now seems to be most used as defining those whom we are excluding from our fellowship. Some people seem more concerned about declaring those with whom they are out of communion than those with whom they are in communion!

I would like to think that we can pledge ourselves not to misuse any of these words. It is a question of thinking before speaking and giving true worth to our language.

Blessed are those who appreciate the richness of language, For they will not turn it into slogans.

Majorities and Minorities

One of the features of recent months is the way in which some people have presented themselves as speaking on behalf of others, and usually on the assumption that they represent a majority view. Interestingly others have written on the assumption that they are part of a minority view. The point here is not about majorities for or against a particular action because we have already seen that it is more complex than that. The issue is to do with whether people perceive themselves to be part of a majority or minority.

Many of those who have argued against the nomination of Canon John assumed that they were in a majority, while many of those who were either in favour of his appointment or concerned about the effect of his withdrawal, assumed that they were in a minority. We need to ask what is happening here and why people perceive themselves and their opinions in this way. There is a phenomenon here which comes probably from the realms of political psychology and relates to the way in which minorities are perceived and the way in which they perceive themselves. In point of fact the written communications which I received which were critical of Canon John's nomination were outnumbered two to one by those who expressed a different view. I do not draw the neat conclusion that this is a census of opinion, but in the normal course of events those who are against an action are three times more likely to write and express an opinion. I am normally left in no doubt about the level of disapproval when it is expressed! In this case, whatever the numbers may mean, the main thrust of the response was one which expressed a mixture of regret about how things had been handled and a strong desire to move on into open discussion of the issues of sexuality, without the issuing of threats either financial or schismatic. I have to say that the evidence of what has been expressed to me in writing and on the phone is that this is where most Suffolk people stand. It does not mean that everyone agrees about the issues or how the Church should proceed in the future, but there is a significant groundswell in support of mature debate in an open atmosphere based on trust and mutual respect. This is Suffolk at its best and it makes me glad to be here.

Blessed are those who defend minorities who are vulnerable, For such the People of God have always been.

The Bible

At the heart of much of the debate is the issue of biblical authority and interpretation and there needs to be further discussion and debate. Unless a debate is allowed to take place it is difficult to see that there will be much progress on other issues. The basic issue is between those who see the biblical material as explicit and applicable to all time without further discussion and those who do not. I can understand that many people have been brought up in a particular view of the Bible which excludes it from critical study and interpretation, but this is not the view of the Anglican Communion. Since the Lambeth Conference is used as a guide to the outlook of the Anglican Communion it may be helpful to quote from the report of the 1998 Conference:

It is taken for granted that we do not start from scratch. As members of this Conference most of us have studied the Bible over many years, we are aware of various academic approaches to it, and, most crucially, we have also lived it, inhabited it, through worship, preaching, teaching and meditation.
Since the canon of scripture was fixed it has been translated and retranslated, and it has been interpreted generation after generation and all around the world. Those interpretations are not only in sermons, commentaries, teaching, creeds and academic studies. They are also in liturgies, prayers, hymns, music, art, architecture, poetry, novels, film, drama and the Panamanian dancing at our Opening Service in Canterbury Cathedral. The Bible lives in many ways, and is inevitably often immersed in contention and quarrelling.
[The Bible, the World & The Church: Introduction to the Study Passage for the Lambeth Conference 1998 by Dr David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge.]

Some of my correspondents have told me what they believe the scriptures to be saying and I can respect that, but I do not accept the premise that sometimes follows, that no one else is allowed to have a different view or even to engage in discussion. The fact is that we are continually faced with new situations and we seek guidance from scripture, tradition and experience. However the Lambeth experience also taught the participants that such study needs to be done within an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Power

One of the saddest aspects of recent weeks has been the use of threats to back up arguments. It is difficult to see the justification for beginning a debate with threats to withdraw finance or be out of communion before there has been any opportunity to talk. I was interested that Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria said that he had made his original protest about the appointment of Canon John despite the repercussions which might follow with withdrawal of finance from the church in Nigeria.

I think this was the saddest comment of the whole sad episode. I hope that we would never consider withdrawing one penny from the support of any churches in Nigeria just because the Archbishop has made a critical statement. If we were to do that I would feel that we had come to the end of any understanding of being part of a Christian family and I would vehemently argue against such an action, despite being appalled by some aspects of the Archbishop's statement.

I hope that the Church of England will not rush into a decision about being in or out of communion with anyone else. I also hope that provinces will not talk carelessly about whether they are going to be in or out of communion with any province which stays in communion with the Americans, if they themselves do not.

Blessed are those who, although they are angry, resist threatening their brothers and sisters in Christ. For all are guests at the feast and only the host has the right to judge the worthiness of those who have been invited.
Blessed are those who refuse to make threats to support their arguments, For power should be treated as a gift not a gun.

Knowledge and Knowing

I was interested that most of the critical letters which I received were written from the standpoint of knowing a truth of which the writer felt I was unaware. 'If you had consulted with the diocese, you would know that you were wrong to sign the letter'. 'If you read Leviticus you would know that there is no discussion of the issue of homosexuality'.

I reflected on such letters and noted with interest that there were two noticeable gaps in the knowledge of those who had written in this vein. First of all, only one writer had any understanding of what had been agreed at Lambeth 1998 and only two had an understanding of the guidelines in the House of Bishop's statement Issues in Human Sexuality. The other gap in knowledge was that not one single writer had met Canon John or knew him, or even knew anyone who knew him. In the light of these revelations it is interesting that quite so many people felt able to pass detailed judgement on a person and a situation about which they actually knew so little. It also means that they were drawing most if not all their information from what had been presented in the media, whose limitations need to be recognised. All my responses had to begin by detailing what has actually been agreed in the Church of England and accepted as guidelines for action.

Blessed are those who look before they speak, For others may have been there before them and already addressed the questions with grace.
Blessed are those who recognise that they may not always be right, For they will not usurp the place of God.

Listening

It may have escaped some people's notice, but the Lambeth resolutions on human sexuality give a firm commitment to a continuing listening process through which we may be able to understand better the issues of human sexuality and particularly homosexuality. The correspondence which I received showed little or no evidence of any listening at all. In fact there is disturbing evidence that many people are too frightened to talk at all in case their opinions rebound upon them, and they have good reason to take care. My own chaplain has been excluded with only limited explanation from a parish which he has assisted through various difficult times and through at least one interregnum. His crime was to express an opinion, that was all. He did not advocate action and he certainly did not seek to express his opinions within the parish itself, but was told not to turn up to lead a group one Tuesday evening, and continues to be unwelcome.

I have talked with a number of gay people, particularly young ones, who know that if they raise any question about their sexuality they will either be asked to leave their church or it will be made too difficult to stay. Some have already had this humiliating experience.

Just as serious is the issue for those people who have sons or daughters or other relations, including a parent, who are gay and who are very concerned indeed that no one in their church should know about it in case they find themselves excluded. These are not isolated instances; there are many people who find themselves in this situation - one letter alone was signed by eighteen young gay people who are struggling to hold on to their church membership despite the odds. There simply is no justification for this situation. It is both scandalous and extremely serious.

There are two issues here which need to be addressed and they are to do with how we know each other as members of the Body of Christ and how we treat each other. The first issue is to do with people speaking about others whom they do not know and with whom they have not talked, and yet about whom they clearly feel very free to make judgements. The clue lies in the way people will speak of gay people as 'them' and never 'us'. It is as if gay people are some unknown group just out of sight, but they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and some of us here are gay. Even the most extreme views in the Lambeth Conference of '98 could not dare to exclude anyone from being a creature in God's Creation, loved and accepted by God. I try hard to respond reasonably to those who have written to me, but I cannot help asking 'How dare you speak so carelessly about those with whom you do not even deign to speak face to face ?'

Blessed are those who talk with those who do not necessarily share their view. For God's world is full of variety and it would be a pity to miss it.
Blessed are those who rejoice in the variety of God's creation, For they will enjoy God's surprises.

The second issue is related to the first and is to do with human feelings. There will always be gay people present unless a church has really managed to get rid of them all, but there are also many friends and relations who carry the hurts and wounds when they are inflicted without thought or care. A number of people have shared their pain with me and I am deeply ashamed that it is fellow Christians who have inflicted these wounds.

Blessed are those who avoid the careless use of verbal labels, For behind every label is a person of flesh and blood made in the image of God.

There is an urgent need for the Church to address the experience of long term committed same sex relationships. The experience of seeing people caring for a partner through AIDS and death cannot just be written off as of no account because the people are of the same sex.

The Media

Obviously the media has been a major player in the last few months and the story of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion in trouble has been a gift. The issue for us is not how we judge the media but how we make use of the media. The danger is that people get lazy and are content to rely on the bones of a story as it is presented by journalists who have to try and make some sort of coherent story out of a bizarre collection of views and events not to mention the internal politicking and spin which is not just confined to politicians.

The issue for us, which I have mentioned more than once in the past few years, is that we need to look for truth within the Church rather than rely too easily on what we pick up from the papers. In the correspondence which I received there was a high dependency on news reporting coupled with an almost total ignorance of the Church's own statements and policy documents.

Blessed are those who look for the truth in real life, For the media version inevitably lacks fullness.

New Hampshire Consecration

Canon Gene Robinson has been consecrated bishop in New Hampshire and the only comment I wish to make is about the relationship between provinces of the Anglican Communion. To quote Archbishop Rowan,

The autonomy of Anglican provinces is an important principle. But precisely because we rely on relations more than rules, consultation and interdependence are essential for our health.
The Primates' Meeting last month expressed its desire to continue as 'a communion where what we hold in common is much greater than that which divides use'. We need now to work very hard to giving new substance to this, and to pray for wisdom, patience and courage as we move forward.' (Statement 3 Nov 03)

My purpose today has been to try and move the discussion of sexuality on by looking at how we handle our differences and how we treat each other in the process. Most of the Epistles deal with the same process and I hope and pray that we can learn from each other and St Paul.

Blessed are those who appreciate the richness of language, For they will not turn it into slogans.
Blessed are those who defend minorities who are vulnerable, For such the People of God have always been.
Blessed are those who, although they are angry, resist threatening their brothers and sisters in Christ. For all are guests at the feast and only the host has the right to judge the worthiness of those who have been invited.
Blessed are those who refuse to make threats to support their arguments, For power should be treated as a gift not a gun.
Blessed are those who look before they speak, For others may have been there before them and already addressed the questions with grace.
Blessed are those who recognise that they may not always be right, For they will not usurp the place of God.
Blessed are those who talk with those who do not necessarily share their view. For God's world is full of variety and it would be a pity to miss it.
Blessed are those who rejoice in the variety of God's creation, For they will enjoy God's surprises.
Blessed are those who avoid the careless use of verbal labels, For behind every label is a person of flesh and blood made in the image of God.
Blessed are those who look for the truth in real life For the media version inevitably lacks fullness.

Rt Revd Richard Lewis retired in 2007 after 10 years as Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.