Back in the days of black and white television, one of the staples of light entertainment was the plate-spinning juggler. The act was simple, but compelling: a juggler would balance a series of plates on top of polls by spinning them. The real entertainment came when the plates started to wobble. Would the juggler spot them in time? Would he be able to prevent one of them falling off before the row was completed?
Today, though it is by no means as entertaining the same is beginning to happen to our bishops over homosexuality. Since 1991, the episcopal ‘line’ in the Church of England has been held by a small document produced by the then House of Bishops, titled Issues in Human Sexuality. Whenever a bishop was questioned on the subject, the stock response was, “I abide by the position set out in Issues in Human Sexuality,” whether the bishop agreed with the conclusions of that document or not. Thus unity was maintained and, equally in keeping with ‘company policy’, controversy was avoided.
Interestingly, when a much more substantial follow-up report, Some Issues in Human Sexuality: a Guide to the Debate, was again produced by the House of Bishops in 2003, it actually took a theologically very conservative line, reinforcing rather than questioning the traditional position largely (though not entirely) reflect in the 1991 report.
This makes it all the more important to understand what is happening now. When a system — or a person — is under stress, collapse may be a long time coming, but when it comes, it tends to be abrupt rather than gradual. What we are now seeing in the House of Bishops on the matter of homosexuality is an increasing number of ‘wobbling plates’. When they fall, though, I predict they will do so both dramatically and abruptly.
In this respect, Archbishop Rowan Williams definitely belongs in the ‘old school’. His personal views were made quite clear in his essay The Body’s Grace, and have never been repudiated. He has, however, been faithful in his own way to his commitment to uphold the church’s present teaching. Fundamental to his international approach has been the conviction that if the mind of the Communion is divided, then his responsibility as an instrument of unity is to recognize that, not to try to pre-empt the outcome in favour of his own views.
The same, however, is not true for our diocesan and suffragan bishops, and it is here that we see the wobble developing.
One of the early indications of this was the declared change of heart by the Bishop of Liverpool. This was then greeted with approving noises from the Bishop of Gloucester and the Bishop-elect of Chelmsford. Just recently the Bishop of Manchester has welcomed a LGBT ‘celebration’ at his cathedral.
Meanwhile, as an indication of the changing climate, the views of Geoffrey Annas, the new the suffragan Bishop of Stafford, have passed almost unremarked:
My feelings about openly gay clergy — I personally have no issues with that at all, but I think again like the ordination of women to the episcopate it’s something where there needs to be enormous sensitivity. I’m not somebody who will overthrow rules and regulations for the sake of it, because I think if you do that you get chaos and anarchy, but I am somebody who will work to build a consensus to change rules and regulations and I would hope that in the future at some point people could be allowed to be true to themselves. (Interview, Church of England Newspaper, 11 June 2010, p7)
This is, of course, a long way from ‘collapse’ — on the contrary, it is nuanced and careful to recognize the existing ‘rules and regulations’. But precisely for that reason, it is in fact more deadly than the pronouncements of the Bishop of Liverpool. What we see here, once again, is what Richard John Neuhaus wrote about when he warned of ‘The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy’.
As Neuhaus observed, the crucial damage is done not when orthodoxy is overthrown, but when it is included as an option. And that is precisely what Annas advocates — all in the nicest possible way and the best possible taste. As he says earlier,
We sometimes make the mistake [of thinking] that everyone wants something new but there’s a lot that’s good about the traditional ways we’ve always done things and it’s just about bringing the two together really, which is what I meant by the consensual thing.
Thus traditionalists must be held together with revisionists until, as he says, such time as he can “build a consensus to change rules and regulations”.
Of course, the traditionalists will never be rubbed out or ruled out — not until there are too few of them for anyone to care any longer — but the very act of establishing the consensus between orthodoxy and change establishes that only those who accept the consensus will henceforth be allowed centre place in the institution. Indeed, the headline to the article says it all: ‘New bishop holds firm to incremental reform in Church’.
The tragedy in all this, however, is not the views of Mr Annas, but those of the existing Diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd John Gledhill, whom I have hitherto admired as an evangelical. In the present circumstances, it would have been a dereliction of his duties not to ask his suffragan’s views on sexuality, and a dereliction of honesty for his suffragan not to have volunteered them. One can only conclude, therefore, that Bishop Gledhill was aware of, but unfazed by, the compromises being urged by his new episcopal colleague.
Our list of ‘wobblers’ thus runs to Liverpool, Gloucester, Chelmsford, Manchester, Lichfield and Stafford, but doubtless more could be included.
What will happen when the ‘tipping point’ is reached? And what should happen if one’s own bishop moves from ‘wobble’ down to floor level?
It cannot be long before the situation becomes intolerable on both sides. Indeed, the interviewer of Geoffrey Annas poses an interesting, though sadly rhetorical, question:
Traditionalists are asking why, if he feels women are entitled to be bishops and people who are gay entitled to physical relationships without being excluded, he doesn’t take a stand and openly challenge the Church, instead of sneakily undermining it.
The answer, I would have thought, is obvious. He is biding his time — as are many on the episcopal bench, some known, others unknown. But the time will certainly come.
When it does, and it cannot be far off, there is only one possible way that traditionalists can respond effectively — the way that has always most affected and changed the Church of England — and that will be radical principled action. In short, as the bishops topple, the traditionalists will have to find their own bishops.
A friend of mine who works in finance once said of the global recession that he could understand everything except why people were surprised it happened. To him, predicting it was like predicting that if it is spring, summer cannot be far off. The collapse of the bishops on human sexuality is in the same category. The only question is whether traditionalists will be ready when it comes and will act when they should.
John P Richardson
26 June 2010

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