Bishop Jill Duff on the Church of England's 'high-stakes debate'
"May I apologise, on behalf of the Church of England." The gathered audience laughed, presuming that Jill Duff, the Bishop of Lancaster, was simply joining in the workplace banter about the lack of snacks in the Press Room at the Church of England General Synod. But it seems she was serious, as an hour or so later we were informed she had been in touch with the Secretary General and biscuits would be forthcoming.
And this is typical of the Bishop of Lancaster – she clearly cares about people. In the space of half an hour's conversation during a gap in Synod proceedings, she had expressed concern for the persecuted Church, Muslims in Lancashire, and a group of journalists.
It is her compassion that drives her willingness to question the wisdom of her fellow bishops' response to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process, going as far as to say she will vote against the motion that they have placed in front of General Synod.
"What we have got is not workable," she says, "which is why I will vote against it. It means leaving the decision to the local level, whereas until now, people have been able to say, 'These are the rules.' Changing that will impact work with LGBTQI people; it impacts pastoral work on the ground."
Last month, Bishop Jill was one of 14 bishops to write a defence of the traditional view of marriage. How does she think the questions of sexuality will be worked out going forward in the Anglican Communion and in the debates in the Church of England?
"I think we need to take a breath. This is a major point in the history of the Anglican Communion. I had a number of conversations at the Lambeth Conference last year, literally people saying, 'I came to faith because my grandfather came to faith when the Anglican missionaries came across - please don't throw it away, please keep carrying the torch of the gospel.'
"So, I feel it quite keenly. Quite a lot of our brothers and sisters around the world are not in our discussions and some of these guys are incredible people of the gospel and it is possible that [blessing same-sex relationships] will have major impacts on persecution in Asia and parts of Africa. They are already facing persecution. I might get some kickback on Twitter if I put out a conservative view but that isn't really anything compared to what might be happening in other places.
"And here, there may be threats of disestablishment but that is quite a journey. I think the Church of England can be helpful in defending religious freedom. The view of marriage being between one man and one woman, and sex being within marriage, is held by quite a lot of Christians in our country and quite a lot of other religions. Where I come from in Lancashire there are many Muslims who feel frustrated that just because a Muslim might think that marriage is between a man and a woman, it doesn't make them homophobic. That is a massive accusation – and we see what happens when people are called that.
"So, if the government has issues about the Church of England being selective with who we marry, well, I think we should give up the right to marry people as part of the law and that would get round that quite easily. That's not asking very much of me, if I can protect other Christian denominations and those from other religions."
And for today, with Synod preparing to vote on same-sex blessings? Bishop Jill is pinning her hope on God's mercy.
"It is a high stakes debate. There is unease in the mainstream parts of the Church. We want to see mutual flourishing but it is sometimes hard to see a clear way through that – we haven't really travelled this way before. It is a different issue to women bishops and a different issue to divorce, but the Church is always fragile. May God find a way through that.
"One of the callings of a bishop is to be a pastor to the flock, spending time with them, finding out how they are but it is also about being a teacher of the faith and I've made some pretty big promises."
Earlier in our interview, Bishop Jill quoted her episcopal colleague, Bishop Philip North who she said had prayed, "Would this time of testing grow our faith."
"I thought, what a beautiful thing to pray – and when we look at the New Testament that is what we see, isn't it? Here in the West we don't like pain, we love the NHS and we take a painkiller at the slightest headache! And pain has been wiped out of our theology too. But if you look at the New Testament there seems a repeated call to share in the sufferings of Christ. My favourite verse is from 1 Peter, 'Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.'
As Bishop Jill leaves us to return to General Synod, it seems the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are at a crossroads, and bishops who are prepared to teach truth and protect their flocks from error may well face fiery trials. May God have mercy on us all.