Julian Browning gazes at the Bishops’ Reflection Group On Sexuality
I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies
St John of the Cross,
The Dark Night of the Soul
George Bernard Shaw was once asked where he would like to be at the end of the world. “England”, he said. “Why England?”, asked his interlocutor. “Because England is always fifty years behind the rest of the world,” he replied. The same could be said about the Church of England and sex: there’s a lot of catching up to do. Fifty years ago the serious books which introduced sex to young people had much to say about a sweaty activity called “heavy petting”. Heavy petting was the just reward for the blushing boy and girl (don’t even think about it). It was a metaphor for much Anglican moral teaching: thus far (if you must), but no further (or you are damned). It’s the same for the clergy today. Is heavy petting permitted to celibate clerics and their same-sex partners? Can we avoid answering the question? These and many other riddles are now the remit of the 10-strong Bishops’ Reflection Group.
A Reflection Group is nothing new. It’s another committee of middle-management, but their work has already been done for them in a series of well-managed “Shared Conversations” [ND, September 2016, and elsewhere in this issue] over two years up and down the country, thrashed out in stressful hotel sleepovers by reluctant clergy and laity. The bishops just have to pull all these strands together, as you do with strands, and then recommend the next faltering step. The ten bishops are
To assist the Bishops of the Church of England in their reflection on issues relating to human sexuality, in the light of theological, biblical, ecumenical, Anglican Communion, pastoral, missiological [sic], historical and societal considerations bearing on these issues [and] To assist the House of Bishops in identifying questions in relation to human sexuality, with particular reference to same-sex relationships. It will also develop possible answers to those questions for the House to consider, as a contribution to the leadership which the House provides to the Church on such issues. (16 September 2016)
Let us remind ourselves of the key question originally posed in those Shared Conversations: “Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?”
The response is a Bishops’ Reflection Group on same-sex relationships which is all white, all middle-class, and all married. Seven men and three women, if you were wondering. They include our own Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and two prominent evangelicals: the Bishops of Blackburn and Maidstone. They will all do their best, I’m sure; but we must not expect the heady mix of gay repartee and flirtatious teasing that the subject demands.
What might be the worst and best outcomes of this gruesome process? The worst outcome would be for the Church of England’s reflections on sexuality to become yet one more skirmish in the Great Game: fundamentalist versus liberal, Catholic versus Protestant, you against me. If the Bishops’ Reflection Group is going to spend its time haggling over forms of words to keep both sides happy – as if sexuality, any more than doctrine, can be the subject of an “agreed statement” – then all is lost. Would anybody be interested in what they say? I’ve been reading a little classic called The Returns of Love: Letters of a Christian Homosexual, by Alex Davidson (Inter-Varsity Press, 1970, and still available). The date is of interest, because it is books like this which influenced, at an impressionable age, those who are now in senior evangelical positions in the Church. In a series of fictional letters to Peter, whom he loves to bits, young Alex moves from whining self-pity, through unbearable priggishness, to the conclusion that homosexuality (as opposed to “practices”) is not a sin but is evil. You and I would probably send him straight to therapy or to any Anglo-Catholic church in central London. Alex is a mess, but he reflects on his experience and tries to find his way. He and his peers find the Church utterly clueless in helping them with any personal problem; but at one point he stumbles on this piece of wisdom: “In this conflict all the weapons we have discussed come into play: conscience and Scripture, discipline, common sense, fellowship, prayer, love, faith, and hope. And also one I think we have seldom if ever mentioned. I should call it perspective.” Unless sexuality is seen in a right perspective – as one aspect of God’s creation, as a help and not a hindrance, and certainly not as an immense problem blocking the light from everything else and causing a fight – all those conversations have little value.
The best outcome would be for the bishops to tear up their dull agenda and scrap the committee verbiage. They could ditch those stale predictable chapter headings, theology, ecumenism, Anglican Communion, mission, history, and all that, and start again. They could come up with something new, looking outwards and not inwards – just for once. They could start with sexuality itself – eros in the real world outside, the sexual imagery in Christian spirituality and other religions, the human need to overcome separateness, the mystery of sexual attraction – and we might come to see that the last thing we need is some sort of Anglican sharia trampling through other people’s lives. Goodness is not sameness. In sexuality – as in religion – we are saved not by guidelines, but by developing personal and corporate responsibility, informed by a Christian theology of the body: a knowledge hard won through personal experience. Even Alex knew that.
If the bishops recommend another committee “to take things forward”, I shall scream. Enough is enough. We and Alex seek in Christianity a freedom from that new and toxic obsession with ourselves and each other so clearly expressed in all those anxious “Shared Conversations” in provincial hotels, however helpful they might have been to some.
There is already one dire result of all that chattering: the end of the private life. The conflation of private life and public office is a strain none can bear for long. Sex is private. Could the bishops assert an individual’s right to privacy? Does everything have to be defined, codified, signed off by all? Will the invasive probes of our sinister safeguarding industry and its network of “officers” keep us all in line? Fear is never a good starting point. “As Christians, we must incarnate our sexuality into the world in such a way that it constantly shows that love and the heart are the central realities of life and the kingdom.” (Ronald Rolheiser, Forgotten Among The Lilies, 1990) There’s a new beginning, news of the Kingdom, something the world can understand. Bishops, be brave. Give us back fire, passion, and romance – and let us be, because these are our flickering reflections of the Gospel Fire within us, given to all by God so that we can witness to His eternal life.
But we all with unveiled face,
Beholding and reflecting like a mirror
The glory of the Lord, are being transformed
Into the same image
From glory to glory.
2 Cor 3.18
The Revd Julian Browning is Hon. Assistant Priest of All Saints’, Margaret Street, London.