Whatever else the bishops said in their report on same-sex relationships, they didn’t use the phrase ‘good disagreement’. Is this significant?

Their report, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS 2055), outlines ‘the approach being advocated by the House of Bishops and some of the reasoning behind it’ (paragraph 67). Although tentative in its conclusions (‘provisional approach’, 26), it comes across as an attempt to lead and to resolve, rather than as an invitation for ongoing discussion and debate. The shared conversations have taken place, people have had ample opportunity to put forward their views and to share their experiences, and now – the bishops seem to be saying – we need to draw a line under that process, and move forwards in a particular direction.

So what is the ‘approach being advocated’, and what is the rationale for that approach?

The approach is:

  • to uphold the existing doctrine of marriage (26a)
  • to uphold the expectation that clergy will live ‘exemplary’ lives in conformity with this doctrine (50)
  • to uphold the prohibition on public worship that indicates a departure from this doctrine (43, Annex 8c & d, 9)

Then, within those parameters, the plan is:

  • to seek to establish a ‘fresh tone and culture of welcome and support’ for those who experience same-sex attraction
  • to bring clarity to the whole issue through a new teaching document
  • to give guidance about appropriate pastoral provision
  • to broaden the examination of ordinands and clergy, no longer singling out certain people based on their (homo)sexuality

What is most striking about this approach is what it is not. It is not ‘good disagreement’. There is no move towards a ‘diverse church’. There is no attempt to accommodate a ‘dual integrity’ or a ‘mixed economy’. No space is made for ‘mutual flourishing’. Instead, the bishops would like the Church of England to continue to have (and to hold) a clear and shared understanding of the nature of marriage.

It could easily have been otherwise. The bishops could have pointed to the need for continuing reflection on the issue, and called for a relaxation of discipline with regard to same-sex relationships until a conclusion had been reached. They could have pushed for ‘good disagreement’: for us to continue to learn to live together well, even when we disagree profoundly over this issue. This wouldn’t have even required a change in ecclesiastical law – after all, there are plenty of canons that are openly flouted all the time, and it’s up to the bishops whether or not they take disciplinary action in any given case. They could have sent us on the same trajectory followed with vestments: toleration of open violation of the rules for decades, followed by a relatively painless revision of canon law to fit with the reality on the ground. But this is not what they have done at all.

So what is the rationale for this approach? Why do the bishops not want to loosen the church’s commitment to its existing doctrine? Why are they not prepared to relax the standards for ‘exemplary’ conduct? Why can’t we ‘agree to disagree’ on this particular issue, and allow a diversity of practice within the same church?

Scanning the document with this specific question in mind, I think the answer runs along these lines:

  1. The Christian faith as we have received it. This kind of language pops up throughout the report (preamble, 1, 3, 5, 46, 47, 48, 61). But what does this ‘received deposit of belief’ tell us about marriage? The report doesn’t tell us, but it does allow us to infer what the bishops think about that question. We are told that, among the bishops, ‘there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage’ as being between a man and a woman (18). Presumably this was because the majority of the bishops are firmly of the view that the Christian faith as we have received it is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman (see 34).
  2. Unity. Even if the majority of bishops hold to the traditional view of marriage, this doesn’t rule out ‘good disagreement’ as a way forward. There are other denominations in which deeply divergent views on this issue exist side-by-side: each congregation has the freedom to decide its own approach, and the denomination as a whole has no ‘party line’. Why isn’t that an option for the Church of England? The answer in the report seems to be the church’s unity (including ‘within the Anglican Communion and the worldwide church’, 3). This also pops up all over the report (preamble, 3, 4, 5, 8, 59, 60, 61, 65). Again, we need to join some dots. Presumably the bishops felt that it was not within their gift to devolve this kind of doctrinal decision to a local level. Inherent to the nature of Anglicanism, it seems, is a commitment to ‘walk together’ in a deeper way than that.

The end goal of good disagreement is, of course, not disagreement at all, but agreement. Are we heading in that direction?