A Moment in the Tangle

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool


“God made the angels to show Him splendour, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But [human beings] He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of [their] mind.[1]

In this Holy Week it’s good to remember that the Church is “the mystical body of [God’s] Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people[2]” as well as a limping, fractious, all-too-human institution. We live always in the “as well as”, between grace and freedom, between reality believed and reality seen, in the light of the resurrection and in the shadow of the cross.

We receive our salvation freely as God works by grace within us, and we work it out with fear and trembling[3], “in the tangle of the mind” as Thomas More puts it in Robert Bolt’s play, quoted at the beginning of this piece. And this short piece is about a moment, an unfinished moment, in the tangle of this bishop’s mind.

In February the General Synod chose not to take note of a report from the House of Bishops that called for maximum freedom under current law and guidance for those in same-sex relationships[4]. After that debate our Archbishops called for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church[5].

In my own speech in that debate I said this:

“When I go home from here, no matter what the result of this debate, I will seek in Liverpool to ensure maximum freedom under the law for LGBTI people, so that their love as it really exists can be recognised and honoured within the church as it really exists. I have sought to do this since I arrived in Liverpool… And I commit myself to continue to work… to offer maximum freedom within this Church. We will do this in liaison with others. We will not wilfully break the law or flout properly agreed guidance. But our exploration of maximum freedom may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone. And all this will happen anyway.”

So after Synod I went home to keep that commitment, and a couple of weeks later I had a conversation at the back of church after a service, the sort of conversation we have more and more often in this changing England.

It’s all very cheerful and happy, as people gather at the back of church, and I’m shaking hands with people and we’re all laughing and talking, and a woman comes up and shakes my hand and says “My daughter is getting married and you won’t marry her in church will you, because her fiancée is a woman”. She’s stating a fact and she’s clearly exasperated because of this fact. And I agree that it’s a fact. So I say “No, I’m afraid we won’t, we can’t under our laws at the moment”, and then I say this: “But we can give her and her partner such a lovely service of welcome and recognition and affirmation”, and the woman smiles and says “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and I say, “Send me an email and we’ll do what we can”.

In the tangle of the Church’s mind, we are debating what “maximum freedom” might mean, and still more what “radical new Christian inclusion” might mean, and how these meanings might be expressed. Opinions differ on this, to put it mildly.

But I am clear myself that “maximum freedom” does not mean “minimum freedom”, and that “radical new Christian inclusion” does not mean “shallow old unchristian exclusion”.

All the same there’s a tangle. In 2005, speaking only of civil partnerships, eight years before civil same-sex marriage, the House of Bishops had this to say:

”…the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.[6]

And so here I am, at a moment in the tangle, an unfinished moment, working away as a bishop, remembering what this woman said, “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and looking at this word, “blessing”, and at this phrase, “should not provide”, and at this phrase, “radical Christian inclusion”. Here I am, working away, to offer maximum freedom within the current law.

And as I do so I wonder about blessing. And I reach for a recent book, the book called “Blessing” by Andrew Davison[7]. And I note there the deep richness of meaning in the word, and the freedom from fear as the richness of the word is unpacked. I note the unfolding from scripture, and from the traditions of the Church, of blessing “as thankful recognition” for something received[8], of blessing as expressing a calling, a vocation, a commitment, something offered[9].

And I note the distinction (not Andrew Davison’s distinction, but the Church’s distinction) between blessing as constitutive (consecrating or dedicating a thing or a relationship, spoken to confer a status, solemn, you might say formal) and blessing as invocative (asking for God’s favour in relation to a thing, expressing warmth and approval and affirmation and the belief that this thing should flourish under God, solemn, you might say informal). As Davison says: “Most blessings are likely to be invocative” [10].

Among other resources, this book is helping me to scope the wide and diverse understanding that we have of blessing, the wide and diverse response that the Church makes to the wide and diverse world God made. And for me the heart of this response is to identify the good in the world and to speak well of the world, to speak well to the world, to speak God’s “yes”[11] in the moment now, and in the moments to come. As Andrew Davison says:

When we bless something, someone or somewhere, we are in some way pointing to what it can most truly be; we are directing it to its fulfilment in God[12].

As a bishop I find these distinctions and these expressions of richness most helpful. Because they point to the many ways the Church has of “speaking well[13]”. These many ways illuminate the love of God and offer thankful recognition for things, and for places, and for people who love each other. Many ways of speaking well, that might meet the requirements of love, even within the law we have.

And as I read and think I remember the words of the bishops, and of the Archbishops. And I remember that I want to offer radical new Christian inclusion to those who seek the ministry of this Church. I want to offer maximum freedom to this woman and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, who come to the Church despite all they know of us. They come, because they want to discern and acknowledge the presence and the love of God in this relationship. They come, to receive the prayers of the Church on the love that has entered their family.

And I am determined that we will find a way to meet them there, a way that will speak well of love and of the presence of God. To find a way that will point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to the love which never fails, in the mystical body, the blessed company of all faithful people. To point to that love within this limping, fractious, all-too-human institution.

And in the tangle of my mind I remember my Synod speech again, and I stand by it. Because our unity matters deeply to me I remain determined that we shall not flout the law, but keep it, until we change it. But I am determined too, as I said in my speech, that our exploration of radical Christian inclusion “may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone”.

The Church’s missional life takes form in pastoral moments, and this is one of mine. And these moments, these unfinished moments, my moment, this family’s moment – these moments will be added to all the other pastoral moments of today’s Church as we seek to reflect properly the love of Christ crucified and risen.

And in all these moments, and out of all these moments, the future will unfold; the future which is unknown, but which is shaped by these moments of love requested and love shared, of blessing requested and blessing shared.

And what will that future look like? Well, we’ll discover as we go forward, together.

In his fine book “Crazy Christians”, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quotes a spiritual, and I end with it here as we enter the season of the Resurrection, and as we serve God in the tangle of our minds, and as we go forward as a Church. It is a song for me, and for the woman I met, and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, and for all of us who are on the journey, in the tangle:

Got my hands on the gospel plow,

Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now,

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on,

Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on[14].


[1] Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons”, 1960

[2] Book of Common Prayer, Holy Communion service

[3] Philippians 2:12-13

[4] GS2055, para 22

[5] https://staging.churchofengland.org/media/3878263/abc-and-aby-joint-letter.pdf

[6] “Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England” 2005 (https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx)

[7] Andrew Davison, “Blessing”, Canterbury Press 2014. I’m grateful to Dr. Davison for this book, and also for his helpful advice on the writing of this present piece.

[8] “Blessing”, p.8f

[9] “Blessing”, p12ff

[10] “Blessing”, pp125ff

[11] 2 Cor 1:20

[12] “Blessing”, p47

[13] “Speaking well”, Latin “bene dicere”, you might almost say “benediction”, you might almost say “blessing” (see “Blessing”, p)

[14] Michael Curry, “Crazy Christians”, Morehouse Publishing 2013, p84

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9 Responses to A Moment in the Tangle

  1. A very thoughtful article. However, as a Reader whose middle name is Ambivalence, what slightly concerns me is how we ascertain what is actually a loving inclusion, as opposed to just taking on board the secular culture of our times? Are there parts of current secular culture that are being assimilated into the Church purely to make the Church appear “relevant” and “politically correct”? After all, Jesus was a radical who was always calling out the State as hypocritical….:-)

  2. Pete Jermey says:

    I think Paul has put himself in a position of over-promising to this lady. She now believes that a service of blessing or similar will be possible for her daughter, but the house of bishops have said a firm “no” to that. This one of my problems with the phrase “maximum freedom within the law” – it can’t mean any more inclusion than we had already, because prior to this the only constraint was the law and still is the law.

    I admire what Paul is trying to do in his diocese, but this doesn’t help in the rest of the Church of England. Something like four diocesan bishops have signalled a more inclusive direction due to the vote in synod, but most have said nothing and done nothing (at least publicly). If bishops are too scared to address this topic then most of their clergy will be terrified to and the only cofe voice on sexuality will continue to come from extremists.

    Spring Harvest, which is not cofe, but is influential within its mainstream evangelical flacour, have this week been looking at the theme of unity and agreeing-to-disagree (specifically over Christianity), but at the same time their speaker on sexuality was promoting the idea that it is sinful to call yourself gay (NB I wasn’t there, but am going on reports on what others have said). That was a lot of backstory, but how does “maximum freedom” help in churches where merely admitting that you are gay marks you as an unrepentant sinner?

  3. Erika Baker says:

    Bishop Paul is right, as a bishop he could not possibly go against the church rules. The difficulty with maximum freedom is that, in the absence of any authorised liturgy, it is fairly meaningless because it always symbolises “I’m edging as close as I can while accepting that my church considers you not worth blessing”.
    I hope that more and more bishops will explore what maximum freedom means and all come up against the same inherent difficulty.
    The CoE’s concepts of “maximum freedom” and “radical inclusion” are mutually exclusive.

  4. Jenny says:

    Would you offer a man and 2 women all ‘marrying’, if the uk made this legal, a service of welcome, recognition and affirmation?

    • Erika Baker says:

      Jenny, there are two things to say about your question. One is that it is striking that polygamy exists largely in countries that are very homophobic. The correlation, if there is any, appears to be the other way round. Increasing social liberalism leads to less tolerance of polygamy but to more acceptance of same sex relationships.

      The other point to make is that we are not in control of what future generations decide. At present, noone is talking about making polygamy legal. If there was ever such a movement, it would have to undergo the same process that the accetance of of same sex relationships went through. That means literally decades of public discourse and political votes. Followed by more years of discussion in the church.
      It may then be that the arguments developed in the course of that process convince the country and Christians. It may be that they don’t.
      There is absolutely no reason to assume that just because there are good arguments for same sex relationships, there are equally good arguments for polygamous ones.
      Each case stands and falls on its own merits.

  5. Martin Poole says:

    We created a thanksgiving service after a civil partnership which exploits the maximum freedom allowed and I believe is as meaningful, if not more so, than a ‘blessing’

  6. ckatsarelis says:

    Interestingly enough, in TEC one of my priests said that the couples marry each other and receive the Grace and blessing of God to help us fulfill our vows and our flourishing. That seems to resemble the description here of blessing as invocative. We think of marriage as a sacrament, but it really is up to God, the marriage liturgy is the outward sign of God’s inward Grace. Others can explain it better, but that’s essentially it. To me it seems that if we believe it’s all in God’s hands, then it really isn’t so problematic to marry LGBTQI people. For the record, my marriage was beautiful, well supported by our parish, and has brought many blessings, as well as the stamina to help each other through life’s trials and to share in our joys. Only two years into inclusive marriage, it’s already difficult to see what the fuss was about, once one witnesses the joy, health, and flourishing of radical inclusion.

Any thoughts?