Nye Letter & The Silencing of Debate

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod

Giles Goddard

A windswept, autumnal holiday camp on the east coast. Three hundred clergy and as many lay people are gathered, from the Diocese of Southwark, to reflect on their mission and the love of God. Bishop Jack Spong has been invited to give a keynote address. As a result, vitriol flows through the conference like the incoming tide on the beach outside the camp.

It was 1991: I was there in my role as Director of the Diocesan Housing Association and just beginning to think about ordination. I was still naïve enough to be shocked at the level of nastiness in a supposedly Christian setting. I was therefore present at my very first meeting of Anglicans who believed that the Gospel teaches that all should be fully welcome in the church, regardless of sexual orientation.​

We set up the Southwark Lesbian and Gay Support Network. How different the world was, then. Secretive meetings at private locations. Names gathered by word of mouth, passed on from one to another. A level of anguish and fear which pervaded our meetings, despite their superficial jollity. Apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion within the movement. And extraordinary manoeuvres to engage with us by the then Bishop of Southwark – privately and publicly supportive but trammelled and trapped, like the rest of us, by the church’s public position.

Twenty five years on, what has changed?

On the surface, everything. I would never have imagined, then, openly partnered Bishops and Deans, or an out gay Prolocutor of the Canterbury House of Clergy. I would never have imagined, then, being asked by the Archbishops to serve, as an LGBTI clergyperson in a relationship, on the coordinating body for the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document. Or the clear and open engagement of members of the House of Bishops in the attempts to ensure that the church can, at last, become properly inclusive.

And yet, on another level, nothing has changed. My frustration over the Secretary General’s letter to the Episcopal Church of the USA isn’t so much over the means and authority for its production – although of course that’s serious – but much more because of what the letter seems to be trying to do.

There are many points which I would query within the letter. For example, the focus on the word ‘procreation’ rather than ‘gift’ which seems, at best, odd, given that the Church of England have already moved away from using that word in our own service, where we affirm that marriage is:

given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,
in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.

​The focus on procreation feels reminiscent of the focus on ‘complementarity’ which emanated regularly out of Church House during the church’s opposition to the Equal Marriage Act.

And also the assertion of the majority view of the Church of England on sexual behaviour which is, as many have said, at best questionable and probably (but we don’t know because no one has done the work) simply incorrect.

​But above all my disquiet with the letter is that it seems to be attempting to close down, once again, the recognition that there are a range of views on these issues which can properly be held by loyal Anglicans. While it acknowledges that the Episcopal Church’s processes have been properly followed, there is no sense in which the letter recognises even the possibility that TEC may have something to bring to the table in this conversation.

It proposes an outcome for the Bishops’ Teaching Document, saying that it is intended ‘to express the Church’s teaching clearly, demonstrate the areas where we can count on wide agreement and expose those areas where our disagreements run deepest’. This is certainly not my understanding of the purpose of the document. If it does not express clearly the ways in which proper Christian understandings of human relationships have opened up over the last fifty years, then I will view my participation in the process to have failed.

In the end it’s about a grown-up conversation. I and many others are trying to have a sensible and mature debate, across the divides, about all of this. Very few of us want the vitriol and rage to continue, whether we’re conservative evangelical, traditionalist, revisionist or inclusive. I thought that that was what the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted; otherwise, why talk about ‘radical Christian inclusion’?

But the signals from the centre are deeply unhelpful. The riding roughshod over the expressed desire of Synod for a liturgy for trans people; the warning of a strong slap on the wrist to the Episcopal Church; the apparent intention to supress any debate at Synod until after the Teaching Document has been produced in 2020 – all this seems to me to infantilise the church and demean its members.

That’s why I’m cross. I’ve been having these conversations for over 25 years. When will I, when will we all, be able to move on? When will we be able, as a mature and wise denomination, to acknowledge with joy that God created humankind in God’s image, diverse and wonderful?

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7 Responses to Nye Letter & The Silencing of Debate

  1. Interviewer: ‘Thank you, bishop, for coming on the programme to discuss your views on the recent job loses / decision of the government on / the need for more foreign aid / the growth of poverty here (delete as appropriate). However first I must ask you about your views on the legitimacy of gay sex. Is gay sex ever right?

    Bishop: ‘I’m sorry – the church has been unable to come to a decision about that…’

    Interviewer: ‘So – after 40 years you can’t decide what God is saying about that issue. In which case we really can’t be bothered to waste time on your views about this recent development; off you go!’

    The gay debate has shown that the CofE has no basis on which to make authoratative decisions. Lambeth 1998 and the Higton motion expressed the clear view of the church – and the liberal establishment didn’t take a blind bit of notice, and proponents of gay relationships continued to seek ordination despite knowing that their view had been rejected as clearly as possible.

    If the CofE is unable to express a clear view on this matter after 40 years of chewing at it, it is not really possible to accept it as having any real doctrine, and people who persist in financially supporting it, as opposed to a specific parish, are irresponsible; they have no idea what they are supporting. Individual parishes can provide a good boat to fish from, but in general it has become an incoherent confederation of mostly harmless churches trying to manage their long term decline. How can we carry out the command to ‘teach them to obey all that I have commanded’ when we don’t know what that is?

    • John says:

      Friend, why is it essential for the bishop to make a pronouncement on homosexuality – which is far more than sex, in order for said bishop to be able to comment on the many other very vital aspects of life. I am not sure if you are quoting a real interview or an imagined one, but in either case, I would say that what you are describing there is what is called an ambush, whereby the interviewer springs a question on the interviewee without prior agreement or warning. I believe that would be highly unprofessional.

      Fact:as perfectly illustrated by this article. There is no unequivocal singular view on homosexuality from the within the Church of England , and we do not have a church run by episcopal diktat.

  2. ckatsarelis says:

    Very good article. I empathize strongly and my prayers for you, the LGBTQI members of CoE and around the Anglican Communion, continue from Colorado, USA. TEC did a lot of hard work, in theological scholarship, prayer, and listening. It is clear that Mr. Nye has not done that work, and perhaps that’s true of your leadership. The impression we get (which may be skewed by the blogs) is that some people just want to justify their position and cherry-pick to get the result they want. That is unfortunate. It comes off as intellectually dishonest and/or lazy, indulgent, and shows a willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others, which is simply cruel. The world desperately needs a just, merciful, and compassionate church to meet hate with love. Peace.

  3. Bernard says:

    Thank you for your article. I share your deep frustration, but am supported by articles such as this that help reassure me that I’m not alone in my despair at the signals that the centre is sending out.

  4. brcw2 says:

    Thank you for your article. I share your deep frustration, but am supported by articles such as this that help reassure me that I’m not alone in my despair at the signals that the centre is sending out.

  5. Ronnie Smith says:

    Dear Giles, you will be glad to learn that the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) this day (09/05/18) passed Motion 29, which allows bishops in New Zealand to authorise the Blessing of Same-Sex Civil Marriage and Civil Partnership Couples within their dioceses. WE did not canvass the ABC (or Mr.Nye) about this decision. As a fully-fledged member of the Anglican Communion, but with our own Costitution, we made the decision ourselves. Deo Gratias! As a point of reference, we did the same about our decisions to initiate Tri-Cameral Synods and the Ordination of Women in ACANZP – well before the Church of England – yet we have not withdrawn from Full Communion with ‘Mother Church’, thank God.

  6. Giles, First of all I hope you are both well. And publicly, can I thank you for the times you supported me, invited me for food, and simply included me because it’s the kind thing to do, when I was doing my nurse training in London. May the God of Grace bless you, sweet man.

    Secondly, thank you for giving voice to the disappointment many people feel about William’s letter to the Episcopal Church. There is NO single view on human sexuality in the Church of England. The Church has divided views, and if anything, more and more people in the pews agree with the generosity and acceptance and affirmation that society has increasingly given to people in sexual and gender minorities. To an increasing number of ordinary secular people, the Church of England’s supposed position and views on gay sex are disgusting and alienate them from the gospel. The Church still demands that gay partners remain celibate – deprived of tending, intimate sexuality – which is a terrible edict to impose on decent and caring people, especially if one “claims” one doesn’t know what’s right.

    If the Archbishop, after decades of reflection, doesn’t know whether gay sex is right, then really: how can William’s stark letter of black and white be sent, as if speaking in my name, or your name, or even the Archbishop’s name. If the Archbishop says he simply doesn’t know if gay sex is a sin, is that a just basis for threatening sanctions if other priests have gay sex in relationships? The reality is that we have diverse views in our Church, and we need to find our love and our unity in Christ not in doctrinal uniformity, and we need to prioritise that love and accept we have diverse views. And that reality – about a Church trying to work through the problems – should have been central to William’s letter. If anything, the Episcopal Church should have been affirmed on its journey, and service, and invited to share its own experiences with us. We need to listen to one another.

    Thirdly, thank you for mentioning the trans liturgy (which some of the Bishops seem to want to kick into the long grass). I am very disappointed about that. At the point of starting transition, a trans person is incredibly vulnerable, and often isolated and very lonely. Have they any idea how much a trans person needs – more than tolerance of a problem – affirmation and support? Any idea what it feels like to lose your job or face discrimination finding a new one? Any idea what it feels when old friends and colleagues cut you off? Any idea what it feels like to face abuse on the street (when at the start of transition you are still giving off signals that project your fear – or your incompetence over dress sense)? Any idea what it feels, as a Christian, to feel a Church sees you as a problem? Any idea what it feels like to be cut off from people you deeply love? And the depression? And the terrifying thoughts that maybe it would be best for everyone if you just ended it? Any idea how hard it is to rent accommodation when you show up to view a place and get asked to leave because of… the obvious? And the combination of these factors and others *cascade* at the start of transition, and you’ve burnt your bridges, you’ve finally decided to be true about your identity, and started the hormones, and there is no putting your secret back in the box… and you need God more than other.

    At that outset of transition, when you are in danger of suicide, and often may have suicidal ideation, and feel desperately lonely… how AMAZING it would have been to find a community that wanted to affirm you as a person in your choice, and want your flourishing on your new journey, and want to pray together (and *publicly*) as a community that they recognise the you that you have longed to tell them about… and most of all, to signal, GOD is WITH YOU on all this journey ahead. In the often chaos and emotional despair that transition can bring, for a Church to do that – to radically include like that, would have been profoundly helpful and loving.

    No, not a baptism service. A service specific to your transition. To your gender. To who you are.

    So thank you for mentioning that, Giles. Today I am flourishing by the grace of God and the kindness of good people. But there were other, far darker days which I shudder to recall. Although there was no liturgy back then (which I should have loved) YOU were there for me, and your church community, and as far as I am concerned, like the Episcopal Church, you are like beacons demonstrating acceptance and kindness and generosity.

    Even if we don’t all agree doctrinally, when is our Church going to let priests, PCCs, and individuals live by their consciences, instead of trying to impose a spurious ‘unity’ through the dominating uniformity one faction demands? When are Church leaders going to start to say: there are diverse views, we’re not sure what we think, but we’re not got going to try to dominate the divergent views of half the Church (or over half) any more?

    William was, of course, just doing his job. May God bless him and may he know grace and flourishing. But what he wrote – it was ‘not in my name’, and scarcely in the name of the Church of England, if you view the Church of England as ordinary people who come to church, whose brother may be gay, whose aunt may love a woman, whose colleague or friend is in love with another man, or is bisexual in all honesty, or gender-queer, or trans.

    I fear the Church of England is in denial about the work of grace God sometimes does, beyond the church walls, in the lives of ordinary people. I fear the letter was in denial, really, just pressing a party line. And I question its authority for doing so.

Any thoughts?