At Thursday night's Gloucester Diocesan Synod, The Bishop of Gloucester – the Rt Rev Michael Perham – addressed the Church of England's attitude to homosexual people. In his presidential sermon he reflected on the House of Bishops' statement in January on Same-sex Marriage and on the Pilling Report, the report of the Working Party on human sexuality, for which he was a member
We are where we are. Same-sex marriage is here, here to stay. It will fast become part of the fabric of our society. The weekend of the first such marriages I wanted to rejoice with those who were rejoicing, recognising what a wonderful moment it was for them, and to weep with those who wept, recognising how for them a deeply held belief about marriage was being undermined.
The House of Bishops' January statement, when the first same-sex marriages were taking place, did recognise that there needed to be room for conscience, that some gay or lesbian Christians would enter such a marriage and that the Church would continue to honour and accept them as members of the body of Christ. What it also said was that it could not extend that freedom to its authorised ministers or allow those who had contracted such a marriage to become one of its authorised ministers.
There were those who, taking a more conservative position, felt that the statement went too far in its accommodation to same-sex marriage. But there were rather more who felt the statement struck an unnecessarily harsh and negative tone. The House of Bishops, producing a statement under some pressure, underestimated how uncompromising and hurtful the statement felt to some. The tone was harsh – there was not much sense of welcome to all as children of God. I am sorry for that and for the hurt I know it has engendered. I have tried to have pastoral conversations and correspondence with a number of people most affected by the Statement.
My own view is that what is needed in the Church at present is gracious restraint. We need a cool and calm period in which to explore the issues. To those among clergy and ordinands contemplating entering a same-sex marriage I would say, "Might you hold back while the Church reflects?" Gracious restraint. To those who might make a complaint against a priest who, despite that, does enter such a marriage I would say, "Might you hold back while the Church reflects?" Gracious restraint. To those who contemplate leaving the Church of England because of its perceived position I would say, "Might you hold back while the Church reflects?" Gracious restraint. To those who condemn the Church of England from other parts of the Anglican Communion I would say, "Might you hold back while the Church of England reflects?" Gracious restraint to give us space.
The next steps for the Church of England are to have facilitated conversations at a national and diocesan level. This should involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture. The outcomes that are hoped for, certainly what I will pray for are of two sorts.
One sort is that we seek to listen together with sufficient commitment that we lift the issue out of its present situation where people of entrenched views fail to hear one another or respect one another's integrity. We need to listen very carefully to the beliefs and opinions that come out of a profound change of attitudes in our society to gender, sexuality and marriage.
We need to listen very carefully to the experience of gay and lesbian people, both those who are celibate and those who are in sexual relationships, including gay and lesbian clergy. We need to listen, in some cases, to their pain, and we need also to listen to their sense of joy, love and blessing in a faithful partnership. We need to listen very carefully to what the world and medicine and science can tell us about homosexuality. We need to listen very carefully to those who believe we are sitting light to the teaching of Jesus and the authority of the scriptures. We need to listen to one another and we need to listen to what the Spirit may be saying to the churches. And each and every one of us needs to participate, in that listening with a humility that recognises that we have things to learn and may have some opinions to revise and that the Church's teaching in this area of life may need to be expressed in a new language. I say "may", for we must also allow for the possibility that what emerges, at the end of profound reflection, is a clear restatement of a traditional view.
The other sort of outcome is that we learn afresh how to live in a broad church where there is a variety of understanding on matters that people hold to be important. To that extent, a facilitated conversation is a version of what we have called the indaba process.
We know a lot about that in the Diocese of Gloucester, for we have participated in it with our partners in Western Tanganyika and El Camino Real for the last five years. What I have learned from that indaba process is that its purpose is not so much to change minds (though that can happen) and not even to fully understand one another's opinion or belief (though that can happen too), but to be able to say, "Though you have not changed my mind and though I still do not understand how you come to the view you hold, still I recognise you as a Christian brother or sister, with whom I want to go on walking and talking, enjoying communion and determined not to break it, even though what divides us is painful to us both."
Of course in that process some people may discover that they cannot say that. They have to walk away and the outcome of the proposed facilitated conversations could be that some recognise the view they hold is simply incompatible with continuing to be in communion. But, for most, I hope that it will be a process that confirms a deep unity that even a highly contentious issue cannot destroy.
I commend the Pilling Report to you and ask you to pray that the process it has initiated will bear good fruit. My hope and prayer is that the conversations, when they come, will be theological, respectful and compassionate, always remembering that every man and woman, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is made in the image of a God who loves all he has made and knows it to be good.