CofE denies changes to 'shared conversations' on sex and scripture

The Church of England has denied strongly that any change has been made to the objectives of the so-called "shared conversations" on sex and Scripture.

The denial follows warnings by conservatives that they would be forced to pull out of the talks because they effectively "excluded" those Anglicans who remained committed to the Church of England's traditional teachings on sexuality.

The war of words between the centre, liberal and conservative wings that is following the recent meeting of the College of Bishops illustrates how intractable the divisions remain.

The Church administration pointed to a media statement earlier this month from the council of the conservative Reform group in which it expressed its dismay that the objectives of the shared conversations "had been changed" at the bishops' meeting. In support of this claim, the council referred to the media statement released after the meeting claiming that it introduced a "new objective".

The Church in its latest missive insisted the objectives of conversations remained the same as those set out in June this year by the Bishop of Sheffield. "These objectives remain unchanged. No new objective has been added."

The Church continued: "The media statement did not report on the contents of the discussions held at the meeting of the College as those conversations were confidential to the groups. It was no more than a general report of the proceedings and should not be over-interpreted."

Earlier this week, Andrew Symes of Anglican Mainstream, the conservative evangelical organisation, warned that the Church of England can no longer play "happy families" over the deep divisions that exist on the gay issue. He was not surprised that the Reform grouping had pulled out of the "shared conversations" on human sexuality.

He accused the Church of England leadership of a "flawed, manipulative and dishonest process where the result appears to have already been decided."

At the bishops' meeting, gay and transgender clergy and laity shared their stories with the bishops who were then split into small groups and urged to open up about their own sexuality.

The Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson subsequently claimed in a new book that as many as one in ten bishops were secretly gay. The campaigner Peter Tatchell has threatened to "out" these bishops if they do not out themselves.

Mr Symes said: "When the facilitated conversations, now known as shared conversations, were first mooted, many Anglicans who take an orthodox and conservative position on sexual morality believed that this would be a good opportunity to express their views clearly, hear opposing views, and tease out the profound theological and philosophical differences underlying the approaches to the Christian faith."

He predicted that some kind of separation might need to occur within the Church of England, but said this could be done with "good disagreement", without the rancour and litigation that marked the process in North America.

He warned that the recognition of all different theological positions as equally valid for Christians was never going to work.

"The Conversations have as a clear aim the establishment of two integrities within the C of E, where those who believe same gender sexual relationships are sinful, and those who believe they are from God and should be celebrated, should learn how to live together in the same church with good disagreement," he said.

"But given the pressure from Government, media and the prevailing culture it is very difficult to see how the conservative view on sexual ethics would continue to be tolerated if the C of E changed its policy to allow the blessing, and perhaps later, marriage of same sex couples in those churches that wanted to accept this."

Mr Symes added: "What we need now is not pretend 'happy families', but an honest, serious discussion about the future of the Church of England given the unresolveable differences that exist."

The Reform council earlier called on its members not to participate in the conversations.

Preb Rod Thomas, the chairman, said: "It is difficult to see how the process of shared conversations can command credibility if those who are most committed to the Church of England's official teaching are in effect excluded.

"If this project is not to collapse, then decisive intervention from the House of Bishops is needed now. The shared conversations must acknowledge that Scripture remains authoritative for the Church of England and that the outcome of the conversations is genuinely open-ended. Unless that is clarified and the recently announced new objective is withdrawn, we cannot see a way forward."

Reform also called for Bishop Wilson to be admonished for "his refusal to uphold the teaching of the church and guidance of the House on matters of sexuality."