Bishop Alan Wilson writes to his clergy to “clarify some of the issues they have raised”

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(RNS1-march31) Alan Wilson, bishop of Buckingham, said the time has come for gay bishops to make themselves known. For use with RNS-GAY-ANGLICAN, transmitted on March 31, 2014, Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Oxford.

I’ve been sent a copy of a letter that Bishop Alan Wilson has written in response to the growing crisis over his leadership in the Oxford Diocese. As I write this piece, I’m hearing of a number of parishes that even before the current crisis have refused to present candidates for confirmation by Wilson, insisting that another bishop preside.

The letter from Wilson, sighted on 21 June 2015, is dated 25 June 2015. It’s well worth reading through, after which I’ll address the key argument made.

Now there’s a lot that could be responded to here, but let me focus in on what I think is the heart of Wilson’s argument while briefly stopping by another matter. First this snippet:

I am baffled by any suggestion that I am somehow living outside the way of life laid down in Canon B30. I have been happily married for over 30 years and am entirely compliant.

If you’re having flashes of deja vu then you’d not be wrong. This is exactly the same shifting of the goalposts that occurred over Jeffrey Johns (an issue over which Wilson still plays the same canard card). No-one has suggested that Wilson’s own life is not lived according to B30 (just as no-one made that charge about Johns). The complaint (as with Johns)  is that Wilson persistently teaches against the long-held doctrine of the church as expressed in Canon B30. This has been pointed out many many times to Wilson, yet he still flies this flag. Make of that what you will.

Now to the key paragraphs,

I do not, in fact, advocate any change to canon B30. For the Employment Tribunal the essence of the alleged discrimination was that it had been applied differently to Canon Pemberton as a married gay man to the way it would have been applied to him as a divorcee. I was arguing that the canon should be applied equally and consistently to gay and straight people. Canons are usually the last thing to change as the Church’s thinking has evolved. We have managed with divorcees since 1978 by interpreting C30 as historically descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The doctrinal aspect of marriage turns for me on the statement of the Doctrine Commission, that “Marriage is an institution of the natural order which is taken into and sanctified by the Christian Church.” It follows from this foundational concept that the Church’s starting point for any definition of marriage is the natural order. Christians, including Evangelicals, hold a wide range of different opinions about same-sex marriage because some of them see being gay as against nature, and others as a variant within the order of nature.

In order to assess Wilson’s argument, one needs to look at the full text of Canon B30.

B 30 Of Holy Matrimony

1. The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.

3. It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.

Note:The House of Bishops issued advice to clergy in respect of further marriage in church after divorce in November 2002. This advice is reproduced here).

Wilson’s argument does not refer directly to the text of this canon nor to the 2013 Church of England Faith and Order Commission report on “Men and Women in Marriage” (GS Misc 1046) [pdf] but to the 1938 Doctrine Commission Report “Doctrine in the Church of England”[pdf]! In particular he has in mind this section (II.C.5 – on page 200 of the original document):

Marriage stands in a special position because, both as a rite and as a state of life, it is not something peculiarly Christian, but rather is an institution of the natural order which is taken into and sanctified by the Christian Church.

Put simply, Wilson’s argument is that we now recognise homosexual relationships as “of the natural order”. Wilson is thus arguing that the 1938 report does not ever explicitly state that marriage is between a man and a woman, only assuming that it does as the contemporary understanding of natural order. Our understanding has changed today and so our rite may also change.

What Wilson doesn’t quote from the 1938 report, however, is the very next sentence (my emphasis).

The teaching of the New Testament, which clearly has its basis in the teaching of our Lord Himself, implies that Marriage is in its own principle a lifelong and intimate union, and that anything short of this falls short of the purpose of God.

This is key to isolating the very obvious setting aside by Wilson of anything that does not suit his argument. Has he represented the 1938 report fairly? Of course not! While the report does not explicitly speak of heterosexuality, it does not need to. It is assumed, but not on the basis that Wilson suggests. Heterosexuality, along with all aspects of marriage, is not simply “of the natural (and, according to Wilson, contemporaneously understood) order” but “clearly has its basis in the teaching of our Lord Himself”. At the time that was so obviously referring to heterosexual union that it did not need to be stated.

However, in contemporary debates it does need to be stated – which is exactly what the 2013 Church of England Faith and Order Commission report on “Men and Women in Marriage” (GS Misc 1046) [pdf] does!

3. What follows is intended to enlarge on that summary, drawing on what has been said by the Church of England historically and more recently, and especially on how the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God, who ‘created humankind in his image… male and female he created them’. It is on male and female that God gives his blessing, which is to be seen not only in procreation but in human culture, too (Genesis 1.27-8).

5. The Church of England’s Common Worship Marriage Service declares, ‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation’. The teaching of Jesus on marriage began with creation: ‘he who created them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”’ (Matthew 19.4-5 (ESV)).

Now consider what is being argued here. When the very recent report addresses what the 1938 report referred to as “natural order” it gives the classical and millenia-understood argument from the Scriptures, and not least from Jesus’ lips, that God created humanity as male and female and that marriage is an expression of this. Wilson, who repeatedly reminds us in Sunday’s interviews that he spent 8 years writing a phd on related matters and was called to testify as an expert, nowhere acknowledges this simple and clearly-understood link. What is more, in the face of a public debate over “nature” that has been raging for well over a decade now in our wider society, he does not acknowledge that the Church, which he represents and in which he ought to be a figure of unity, has reaffirmed that “of nature” in the question of marriage means something akin to, “God made us male and female, just like Jesus said” which is, of course, exactly what Canon B30 affirms.

Put another way, Wilson claims “I do not, in fact, advocate any change to Canon B30” but it is Canon B30 which directly states that his understanding of “of nature” is entirely incorrect. It never was “what the people around thought was natural”. Not in 2013. Not in 1938 (since the 1938 Report refers to “the teaching of our Lord Himself“) and not, in fact at any time since we have existed as “The Church of England” (note Canon B30’s reference to “2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.”) Do I really need to dig out my 1549 BCP to prove this? At some point piling on the evidence just gets embarassing.

For an 8-year-phd-writing expert on this topic, Wilson’s letter is remarkably light on even acknowledging this fundamental counter-argument to his position, let alone addressing it.

Here is the reason that so many of his clergy are now so frustrated with him that they are refusing to allow him to carry out episcopal ministry in their parishes (despite, I hear, his attempt to insist that many of them should do so) and now openly calling for his resignation (an unprecedented situation).

This letter is simply more evidence of Wilson’s open defiance and repudiation of the Church of England’s (let alone the wider Christian church’s) position on marriage and it’s leadership (both earthly and spiritual) more generally. As Vaughan Roberts put it so clearly in yesterday’s interview:

In any line of work if you as a leader of that organisation find yourself in a fundamental disagreement with that organisation and then you publicly speak against it, the only sensible option is to resign.

With Wilson’s letter, all we really have is an example of him once again publicly speaking against the Church of England on a matter which the church catholic has never wavered. There is only one sensible response, and more and more Oxford clergy are asking for it.

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  1. Revd Dr Thomas Renz

    Alan Wilson’s 1988 Oxford PhD is not about marriage. “The authority of church and party among London Anglo-Catholics, 1880-1914, with special reference to the Church Crisis, 1898-1904” pays particular attention “to the ways in which the authorities tried to establish control over ritualists, and to the different reactions to the crisis within the Catholic party” ( In his own words, he was called, maybe primarily, as “an expert witness on the way faith, doctrine and law relate to one another in the Church” who in addition has an interest in questions relating to marriage as demonstrated in his most recent book and experience with HR issues.

    As far as I know, it can be said that the anti-ritualists won the legal battles, while the ritualists won the war which maybe suggests that law and faith can diverge significantly within the Church and this is presumably Alan Wilson’s point. The abstract of his PhD says, “Some sought security in formally reactionary postures which they hoped would make their position impregnable. Others saw the crisis as an opportunity for all involved to re-think their perceptions of their own positions and of the nature of authority.” He would probably say that we see this re-played today. Some take refuge in canon law, believing tradition makes their position impregnable, while others take the opportunity to re-think their perceptions.

    This issue may be similar to the question of the status of the Thirty-Nine Articles. In the past, those entering Holy Orders had to make an oath of subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Today, it seems, all that is expected of clergy is that they affirm that the Thirty-Nine Articles reflect what the Church of England once (in good faith) believed. Alan Wilson appears to argue that the same goes for canon law. In the past, clergy were expected to abide by the prescriptions of canon law. Today we interpret B30 as “historically descriptive rather than prescriptive” and presumably could do so, and maybe already do so, with other canons. This is why he sees no need to change canon law. We have not changed the Thirty-Nine Articles but we tolerate clergy affirming doctrines contrary to the Articles. In the same way, we do not need to change canon law in order to tolerate clergy arguing and acting contrary to them.

    If it can be said, as some do, that having a confession does not yet make the Church of England a “confessional” church, maybe in the same way it can be said that having bishops does not yet make the Church of England an “Episcopal” church. We have a confession, laws and bishops but whether any of these are more than historically descriptive may be the real question here.

  2. Revd Dr Thomas Renz

    As for marriage, the opening comments of the treatise “A concise view of the Doctrine and Practice of the Ecclesiastical Courts in Doctors’ Commons, on various Points relative to the subject of Marriage and Divorce” (published in vol. 13 of The Law Library, 1836) by Thomas Poynter, Proctor in Doctors’ Commons, may be interesting:

    “Marriage in its origin is a Contract of Natural law, founded on mutual consent, which is the essence of all contracts; and entered into with a view to one undivided state or society for life, by two individuals of different sexes, capable of performing the duties presumed to be stipulated in their agreement.
    Thus it was, a perfect marriage existed between the common ancestors of mankind without the intervention of a third person; for there was mutual competency, and a unity of intention and consent.
    With the progress of society, marriage became a Civil contract, regulated by laws, varying among nations, correspondently with the different motives of their policy; on the observance of which, peculiar privileges were made to depend.”

    The use of the language of Natural Law apparently allows Poynter to distinguish between the essence of marriage and its various expressions in different societies. It is not clear to me whether Alan Wilson would allow for such a distinction, while, presumably, arguing that our understanding of the Natural Law aspect of marriage has now changed or whether he would adopt a more relativistic view which claims that “marriage” is whatever relevant law says it is in any given time and place.

    Poynter continues woith a discussion of concubinages and further on in his treatise makes claims for the existence of a wider variety of marital arrangements in England than recent research suggests is warranted. See Rebecca Prober, Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (Cambridge: CUP, 2009) who argues that “marriage in the Church of England (if not always in the right church) was the accepted and (outside London) almost universal mode of marrying both before and after 1754.” The Marriage Act of 1836 “introduced, for the first time, a number of equally legitimate routes to a valid marriage.”

    Changes in the law do not necessarily imply a change in the understanding of what marriage essentially is, even signficant changes. It seems to me obvious that laws on marital rape change what is lawful within marriage but do not change what is or is not a lawful marriage. In the same way the various Married Women’s Property Acts changed the legal position of married women; they did not change who was married and who wasn’t. Nothing in the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for the Solemnization of Matrimony needed changing as a result of these legal developments. They are therefore not of the same order as recent changes to the law.

    Other legislative changes, e.g. to the role of parental consent or to prohibited degrees of marriage, are more relevant for re-defining what constitutes lawful marriage in a given society but the extension of marriage to partners of the same sex is not an extension along similar lines; it changes what it is you enter into more than the conditions under which someone can enter into marriage. Unlike these other changes, blessing this recent change would seem to assume a new understanding of the esse of marriage as per Natural Law and would necessitate a change in the church’s liturgy and canon law.

    1. Dan Young

      Thank you Dr Renz, this is illuminating

    2. David Ould

      Changes in the law do not necessarily imply a change in the understanding of what marriage essentially is, even signficant changes. It seems to me obvious that laws on marital rape change what is lawful within marriage but do not change what is or is not a lawful marriage. In the same way the various Married Women’s Property Acts changed the legal position of married women; they did not change who was married and who wasn’t. Nothing in the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for the Solemnization of Matrimony needed changing as a result of these legal developments. They are therefore not of the same order as recent changes to the law.

      well, exactly! And then added to this is the unequivocal statements in the Scriptures, not least from Jesus Himself, about who the parties to marriage are.

      Wilson’s arguments deliberately sidestep this most central point.

      1. Revd Dr Thomas Renz

        Alan Wilson would probably say that Jesus merely reflects the practices of his time. Wilson broadly argues that the church did not get involved with marriage rites until the twelfth century or so, leaving society at large to decide what does or does not constitute marriage, and in this respect he would rather like the church to get back to this (imagined) past. But his writing about marriage lacks the precision and analysis one might expect of a scholar. This is why I felt it important to point out that he claims academic expertise not with regard to the development of the institution of marriage or its doctrine but with regard to the interrelationship between faith, doctrine and law.

        My area of academic expertise is different again and I do not claim to know more about the history of marriage than Alan Wilson does but I would want to distinguish between the church holding and promoting a certain understanding of marriage and the church claiming jurisdiction over marriage formation, maintenance, and dissolution. The former can and did happen long before the latter happened.

        In Jesus research it was once fashionable to attribute to Jesus only those things for which we find no parallel in either Jewish or Roman-Hellenistic thought of the time. I can just about see how such a process of subtraction appeals to a certain mindset but it is not the way to discover the “real” Jesus. The same goes for the church. Church teaching about marriage developed from the teaching of the Bible and wider theological considerations (e.g., favouring a stronger emphasis on contract than consummation once the church was committed to affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary, while wanting to state that Joseph and Mary were really married). The extent to which the teaching of the church overlapped with a given society’s understanding of marriage was not perceived to be a problem, as far as I am aware, and it would be methodologically wrong-headed to discount those aspects of the church’s teaching about marriage that were shared with wider society as non-essential on those grounds alone.

  3. Richard Brown

    It seems to me fairly obvious that Bishop Alan wants to change canon B30, especially the line about one man and one woman, whatever he might aver to the contrary. ‘Does he think we’re all stupid?’ is the phrase that comes to mind.

    I have to say I am not particularly a studier of Canon Law – in the same way I don’t study secular law, but for either I feel rather comforted that such things exist. They can be appealed to when injustice appears to rear its ugly head, and I would hope therefore that the law (when consulted) would be on the side of rightness and truth. However, the rather lackadaisical approach that Dr Renz ( and a good few bishops as well) appears to have to Canon Law suggests otherwise. How come that Canon Law has now reached the stage of being “historically descriptive rather than prescriptive”? Just as well that Criminal Law hasn’t reached the same status.

    Let’s suppose that cabinet ministers went around fliing their own pockets at our expense and imprisoning and despatching their rivals – oh well, the law that applies to us is “historically descriptive rather than prescriptive”. That wouldn’t give me much comfort that I lived in a stable society – likewise the ignoring of Canon Law, especially by those who we assume know better, doesn’t give me much comfort about the security of the C of E.

    If Bishop Alan wants to have a church that is not about revealed truth – the usual revealed truth of Scriptures, the 39 articles, and the derived one of Canon Law – but is about something else of his own definition, then he is free to do so. But not in the C of E.

  4. Revd Dr Thomas Renz

    I can assure you that my approach to Canon Law is far from lackadaisical. I was reflecting on what it is to which Alan Wilson seems to have testified. A church whose confession reflects what was once believed but does not express what its clergy confess today, whose laws describe what was historically the case rather than define the space in which the church moves in our days, and whose bishops are managers without great ability or willingness to explain, promote and defend sound doctrine does not present an attractive picture. I am waiting for the transcript of proceedings. Once we know what exactly Alan Wilson argues should be our attitude to Canon Law, I may have reason to write to my bishops to clarify whether this is their understanding too. Then, maybe, my own approach to Canon Law will change.

    1. Richard Brown

      I thought Alan Wilson had made his approach to canon Law, at least B30, very plain. He doesn’t want it to change, but he thinks it is wrong. I don’t understand how he could hold two such divergent views, unless he really doesn’t believe anybody thinks it is important. However, I can agree with the picture you paint of a church that nobody really wants, but I do find many clergy confessing the historical basis of the C of E and even the 39 articles, and, it appears there are a good few more of them in Oxford diocese. As I have posted elsewhere, the orthodox view in Oxford is the one that pays the bills, so expect Bishop Alan to have a hard time.

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