Joint Evangelical response to Bishops' Letter
Dear Archbishops and Bishops,
Thank you for your most recent Pastoral Letter to clergy of the Church of Ireland. We welcome its publication and thank you for the time spent with one another wrestling with the issues involved. Further, we look forward to the planned Spring conference of 2012 and wish to assure you of our prayers throughout this process.
The Pastoral letter states that the purpose of the Conference will be threefold. First, to discuss the content of the letter itself. Second, to assist the church in becoming more fully informed. Third, to explore wider issues in relation to human sexuality. Further, the letter commends study in biblical, theological and legal issues before and after the Conference, confirms that members of Synod and ‘some others’ will be invited to attend, and envisages that the Conference will not be an end in itself. We wish to assist this process by addressing each of these areas in as constructive a manner as possible, making observations, suggestions, and raising some questions.
Purpose 1: To discuss the Pastoral Letter
We wish to reiterate our gratitude for the prayerful time and deliberations that informed the composition and publication of the Pastoral Letter. We recognise the difficulties in exercising leadership, yet we commend your own observation on the seriousness of your collective responsibility to act in a way that will help further the unity of the church in truth and love. We also commit ourselves to the same.
We find your affirmation of our Church’s traditional teaching on marriage/Holy Matrimony particularly helpful at this time. We believe with you that ‘the church’s teaching has been faithfulness within marriage as the normative context for sexual expression’. This is in keeping with our Lord’s call to holiness of life, a holiness that extends to every area of our existence, including our sexuality. In many ways all we ask is that life and order within our Church continue to be in keeping with your description of sexual activity being reserved for expression within the ideal of the monogamous union of man and woman. We recognise the factual distinction drawn between marriage and civil partnerships in both jurisdictions, and welcome the honest and helpful acknowledgement that the perception of such partnerships is that they are equivalent to, or an imitation of, marriage.
However, we have a number of concerns. The letter states the following
‘the recent debate in the Church of Ireland on issues of sexuality has given added impetus to the bishop’s process of reflection’, and ‘recent well-publicised events…concerning the issue of serving clergy…’, and ‘we as bishops take very seriously our responsibility at this time to act in a way that will help to further the unity of the church in truth and love’.
All three statements could convey the impression that the bishops are simply responding to issues that are not, in part, of their own making. The debate is in ‘the wider church’ or the actions are those of ‘serving clergy’ (clergy, in our synodical structure, being distinct from bishops). It would be more helpful to acknowledge the role of the bishops in allowing the debate to unravel as it has.
There has been a failure to engage in any process following the 2003 statement. Further, the perception is that the actions of serving clergy were undertaken with the foreknowledge and/or approval of a serving bishop or bishops. We wish to state that this is, at present, a perception but until such time as the role of the bishop or bishops is clarified, conclusions or inferences may be drawn that are not conducive to facilitating constructive dialogue. Until this is clarified it is genuinely difficult to see how responsibilities have been, up to this point, exercised in order to further the unity of the church. We feel it is very important to have clarity in order that the stated intent of the Conference to assist the church in becoming ‘more fully informed’ is realised. We would seek a greater acknowledgment by the bishops of their own role in not building upon the letter of 2003 and, either individually or collegially, overseeing the present situation that has caused considerable hurt and confusion to many.
Purpose 2: To assist the church in becoming more fully informed
We have stated above our desire for greater clarification on matters of oversight and process. We feel it would be helpful for the bishops to clarify what is meant by becoming ‘more fully informed’. We most certainly need to share information relating to the present situation, as well as engaging with the biblical, theological and legal issues that arise. However, in a situation such as this, in which one group is agitating for change and the other seeking to maintain the status quo, it could be implied that it is the latter position that needs to become ‘more fully informed’. The pastoral letter of 2003 refers to those who seek a change in favour of same-sex relationships on the grounds of ‘a developing understanding of the nature of humanity and sexuality’. We would reject any implication, explicit or implied, by default or by design, that somehow those who hold to and affirm the teaching and doctrine of the church are somehow ‘less informed’ or have a ‘less developed understanding’. Whilst none of us see all things clearly, there are matters on which it is possible, on mature and informed reflection, to be clear. We welcome the inclusion of, and opportunity to engage with, all shades of opinion on the presenting issues.
Purpose 3: To explore wider issues related to human sexuality
We welcome this purpose and hope and pray we can conduct ourselves and our conversations with sensitivity, honesty, truth and grace. We would observe however that it is not just issues ‘related to’ human sexuality that need to be addressed, but rather issues ‘within which’ the current issue of human sexuality presents itself. We recognise the need to establish clear parameters that will enable us to deal specifically with the issue of sexuality. However, the framework in which we must think is indeed, as you have asserted, biblical, theological, and legal, to name but three. These are issues of how we interpret scripture, how faith engages with and critiques culture, of what it means to have a unity of mind and purpose, of what our mission is. The presenting issue is human sexuality but it is not the defining issue. We must not make the mistake of allowing human sexuality to become the lens through which we look at and understand wider issues.
The defining issue is our vision of God, and what it means for His people to represent Him in His mission of love to redeem His world. If we start with the ethics of human sexuality the danger is that we will end up with rather legalistic and regulated forms of wording as to what is or is not acceptable, with potentially some very hurtful and divisive dialogue along the way. If we start with our vision of God we might just end up with a renewed confidence in what it means to be a redeemed and transformed people, a new creation, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Perhaps in so doing the Word of God made flesh may well redeem our words that they might speak truth in love, seasoned with grace. Language, and how we use it, will be very important as we proceed. We would respectfully suggest that the third purpose be stated as being ‘to explore issues that include and may be related to human sexuality’.
Further study in biblical, theological, and legal issues
We welcome the encouragement to undertake study in these areas, with the addition that there are ecclesiastical and liturgical issues that also need to be addressed. We shall indeed commit ourselves and the groups we represent to such undertakings. However, we seek clarification as to how the bishops envisage such work being carried out in order to serve the Conference. Are the bishops intending to facilitate such work? Who might be involved in this and how are they appointed or invited? Is there a plan to facilitate such work being done in order that it might assist the conduct and content of the Conference? Will this work be organised in such a way that it might observe, collate information, reflect and perhaps even seek to articulate a common mind arising out of the Conference?
It would be very helpful if the bishops would provide further detail as to how these matters will be progressed. Further, we seek to place on record the willingness of our respective groups to be represented in whatever process is established to enable such further study to take place.
The Conference – attendees
With regard to ‘some other guests’ we would simply enquire as to who might be considered for invitation. Although many of the members of our respective organisations are members of synod, are organisations such as our own to be invited in a representative capacity? Further, will the bishops be seeking suggestions as to who might make formal contributions to the Conference?
We note that 2012 being a triennial year that membership of Synod will change. Will both outgoing and incoming members of General Synod be invited to the Spring conference to ensure a breadth of opinion is sought and to provide continuity with regard to decision making? We would be grateful is this could be clarified.
The Conference – not an end in itself
We recognise that the Conference has no decision making powers. Yet, being open to members of General Synod it will no doubt inform the mind of Synod. Whilst the Conference will not be an end in itself, it must point to and lead towards a definitive end. We believe the ongoing life and witness of the church will be harmed by protracted uncertainty as to the position of the church. This is especially the case in this instance as we are no longer participants in a theoretical discussion about changes which, if provided for, could then be enacted. Rather, the situation now is such that the teaching of the church has not changed but some have chosen to act contrary to the position of the church. This changes the context in which constructive dialogue can take place, and necessitates a considered but swift resolution. The public nature of a Civil Partnership requires a public response, according to the life, teaching and rule of the church in practice at the time of Dean Gordon’s action and the inaction of Bishop Burrows. This precipitous act must not become a precedent to which others appeal.
Unfortunately we who wish to uphold the life and teaching of the church on holy matrimony are often caricatured as only ever being heard on the topic of human sexuality. This is far from true. If we are heard on this issue it is only as and when the actions or instigations of others seek to move the church away from what we believe to be true. We are passionately committed to outreach and mission, to the needs of the two-thirds world and the many Christian agencies that seek to support the needs of others. These issues form the bread and butter of the daily life and witness of our churches and congregations. We do not issue joint letters on such matters as, to the best of our knowledge, within the Church of Ireland we are agreed that issues of mission and outreach to the poor and broken are vital and no-one is seeking to change the teaching of the church with regard to these. We have been, however, challenged individually and collectively to reflect upon how we are heard (or not as the case may be) on the outreach and mission, entrusted to us by God, of the people of God within the Church of Ireland.
We ask for a swift resolution to the position of the church on human sexuality in 2012 in order that we might begin to be more vocal as a church on mission. Perhaps future spring conferences, even in 2013, might then be able to focus on growth, and unity and service.
We recognise that as those in leadership within our Church you face many problems and difficulties. They are not yours to bear alone. We all shoulder the burden of responsibility as God’s people. We assure you of our prayers, and the prayers of worshipping congregations for yourselves and our Church, that this situation with all its potential for division and bitterness will bring glory to God and hope and peace to his people.
We look forward to your response to the issues and questions raised.
Church of Ireland Evangelical Fellowship
Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy
New Wine Ireland
29th Nov 2011