House of Bishops at General Synod

The former General Secretary of Modern Church has called on the House of Bishops to offer an alternative way forward on marriage and sexuality as it gathers for General Synod next week to debate its latest report on the ‘apparently never-ending’ issue of same-sex relationships.

In a blog on the Modern Church website, Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, who has also edited Modern Believing, the Modern Church journal of liberal theology, asks:

‘why the Church of England’s leadership time after time comes out with statements like this, making no real changes while knowing perfectly well that the pantomime will have to end one day.’

The report admits that the bishops’ views ‘covered a very wide spectrum. No position or approach commanded complete unanimity’, except for a desire to revisit ‘existing resources, guidance and tone’, and no change to ‘the Church of England’s teaching on marriage’. It claims that, to be constructive, this compromise between the differing views of bishops

‘needs to have a theological coherence which those with different perspectives may all recognize’.

Jonathan Clatworthy argues that

‘there is no such theological coherence. The bishops have completely misread the theological situation.’

He condemns the misuse of the Bible in rhetoric against same sex partnerships:

‘When we are told that these partnerships are wrong because the Bible condemns them, and when the people telling us are men who shave their beards off contrary to Leviticus 19:27, or women contrary to 1 Corinthians 34-35, we smell a rat. These are but examples: there are many hundreds of biblical commands which even the most biblically-committed Christians ignore in Britain today. Absolutely nobody is making a serious effort to live as though all the commands in the Bible are binding. Their decision to make a song and dance about the anti-gay passages must come from some source outside the Bible.’

He traces the source to power struggles over the last 20 years, since the 1997 Global South conference at Kuala Lumpur agreed to combine forces to oppose same-sex partnerships, which was confirmed by the Dallas Statement from the Anglican Life and Witness Conference later that year. Clatworthy claims:

‘We really do not need to fall out over same-sex partnerships. Nobody needs to police the domestic arrangements of other adults. We can agree to disagree. What causes the falling-out is that same-sex morality was chosen as the battle-ground over conflicting theologies.’

The campaign to threaten schism gained momentum in 2002 as the ‘liberal’ Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, and persisted for ten years until diocesan synods in England rejected the proposal of an Anglican Covenant to ‘discipline’ Anglican provinces which refused to condemn same-sex partnerships, but did not resolve the conflict.

Jonathan sums up the two conflicting theologies:

  • One side finds it adequate simply to repeat that the Bible forbids same-sex partnerships and nothing can take precedence over a biblical command, as God’s Word, directly revealed, is more reliable than human reason. Christians should just accept it. As soon as it is allowed that some biblical texts are unclear or contradictory, this position collapses, so this tradition invests heavily in interpreting the Bible as though it were a seamless whole. For those who accept this view, there is no reason why Christians should disagree about any matter of faith: on principle, there must be a biblical answer.
  • The other side takes a historical view: The Bible was written by 30-odd authors or groups of authors over around 1,000 years. Each text got into the Bible because later generations judged it worthy. There was plenty of scope for divine inspiration, but the story is one of continual change within a developing tradition. Since then Christians have accepted the Bible as a canon out of which the Christian tradition has grown, and have used their reason to develop the tradition over the centuries. Thus scripture, reason and tradition all have their place in a flourishing movement. As none is infallible, we need them all to balance each other.

As these two theologies contradict each other, they cannot both be right. The bishops, Jonathan says, ‘duck the issue’ and stress the need for unity:

‘We… seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency’.

He argues:

‘It is logically impossible. One side is willing to discuss, learn and change their minds if convinced. The other side is not. When the disagreement is of this type the only possible resolution would be for those who are willing to change to capitulate to those who are not.’

As the bishops’ desire to retain unity can only be achieved through capitulation, Jonathan says:

‘If the whole Church of England ever follows the lead of the bishops, it will have been taken over by a narrow exclusive sect.’

He argues that this does not preserve unity as people who long for an accepting church, whether LGBT or not, ‘have left in droves’:

‘The bishops have noticed the decline in church numbers and have spent a lot of time agonising about it, but are yet to realise that they themselves are largely to blame by producing documents like this’.

By ignoring the need to choose between these two conflicting theologies, Clatworthy argues, ‘the bishops have made the wrong choice.’ He calls for a reaffirmation of the theological method known as Classic Anglicanism:

‘They should have insisted that Christianity is not, and never has been, an unchanging monolith… In every age we bring the resources available to bear on the issues we face. Our understanding is always limited and uncertain. The only people who are certainly wrong are the ones who claim to be certainly right. Such people become intolerant and deaf.’

Jonathan notes that the forthcoming General Synod meets on the 20th anniversary of the Global South conference at Kuala Lumpur:

‘For 20 years, intolerant exclusivists have threatened the Church of England with a takeover bid by threatening schism unless we all do as they say. For 20 years, the Church’s leadership has in effect capitulated to them. During this time many churchgoers have turned away, disgusted by the leadership’s discriminatory policies. Nevertheless, even today the overwhelming majority of churchgoers still want the Church to be open, inclusive and tolerant of different opinions.’

If the bishops continue to capitulate, he argues,

‘the intolerant dogmatists will be in a majority, left with the buildings and the capital assets to run a mausoleum.’

He calls for the bishops to stand with those who:

‘are prepared to stay and struggle to defend the best of Anglicanism. We would like to share our church with people who think same-sex partnerships are wrong. They are welcome, even though we disagree with them. But when they demand the right to take over, forbid our openness and oblige the rest of us to accept their intolerance, we will stop them.’

Click here to read Jonathan Clatworthy’s blog in full (1800 words).
To contact the author, Revd Jonathan Clatworthy, former General Secretary of Modern Church, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..