The Church of England's Oxford diocese is facing an uncertain future after a large group of its serving clergy publicly rejected their bishops' views on sexuality.
A letter to the bishops signed by a wide grouping of more than 100 church ministers says that 'the situation [in the diocese] is serious. If not addressed, we would all struggle to support the leadership of our bishops in this matter and a number of our churches may want to seek alternative means of receiving episcopal ministry, in recognition that your position is seriously differentiated from theirs. This would be a tragedy.'
The warning comes in response to the Oxford bishops' offer of 'interim LGBT guidance and support' in their diocese last October, in a move seen by many as pre-empting the outcome of the official Church of England 'Living in Love and Faith' discussions on sexuality, which will not conclude until 2020.
The letter to the bishops was sent before Christmas, and in turn the bishops have responded to the signatories with a statement of their own. Christian Today understands both letters are to be circulated to all clergy in the Oxford diocesan email news today, Wednesday. They are now also in the public domain on the website of the Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship.
Clergy signatories include conservative evangelical Canon Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe's Oxford, who has openly spoken of his celibacy despite same-sex attraction, and the leading charismatic churchman Canon Charlie Cleverly, Rector of St Aldate's, Oxford. Their two congregations are among the largest in the diocese. There are also signatories who are lay people and retired clergy, including the distinguished author, evangelist and lecturer Dr Michael Green.
The letter says: 'Our overriding concern is with the direction of travel which the Diocese is taking as revealed by this letter. In its desire for new expressions of "inclusion", it could end up excluding those who hold to the traditional teaching of Scripture and doing a great disservice to those of us who experience same-sex attraction. We are not here simply stating an aversion to change; we are, however, convinced that failing to hold the Bible's teaching out to everyone, including those who identify as LGBTI+, is to show a lack of that very love the letter urges us to exhibit.'
They continue: 'As Bishop William Love of the Diocese of Albany in the Episcopal Church of the USA said last month in relation to the introduction of "blessings" for same-sex couples, it 'does a great disservice and injustice to our gay and lesbian Brothers and Sisters in Christ, by leading them to believe that God gives his blessing to the sharing of sexual intimacy within a same-sex relationship, when in fact He has reserved the gift of sexual intimacy for men and women within the confines of marriage between a man and woman.'
In response, Bishop Steven Croft, Colin Fletcher, Alan Wilson and Andrew Proud, write: 'There is no desire on our part to diminish support for those who are seeking to uphold and to live within the Church of England's current teaching. We have specifically included a commitment to undertake some further listening here.'
They add: 'There is no intention either to exclude in any way those who hold to the traditional teaching of Scripture now or in the future... If the Church discerns that some further development in polity is needed at this point on human sexuality, we will need to take equal care both locally and nationally to honour and respect those who continue to hold the traditional view.' However, such reassurances are likely to be greeted with scepticism by traditionalists, as similar promises about the ongoing place of 'two integrities' in relation to the issue of women's ministry have not been honoured by the Church of England.
Oxford diocese is the largest in the Church of England, with 626 parishes. The population is 2.2 million, but only 55,000 attend Anglican churches regularly. There are 816 churches and around 400 paid clergy.
Last week the Church Times reported that the Living in Love and Faith group 'will not pronounce on the rights or wrongs of same-sex marriage'. Some interpreted this as an indication the existing conservative position of the church would effectively be ongoing, whereas others argued the decision not to make a pronouncement was itself a de facto change in teaching.
The report also quoted the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the group, as saying the project would be 'as much to do with heterosexuality' since he believed people generally were 'in need of wisdom to order their loving and sexing well'.