The Church of England’s long-running internal strife over the question of same-sex marriage has boiled over as a number of bishops made the choice to issue public statements following their most recent meeting. The bishops had met as part of the “Living in Love and Faith” process which appears to have satisfied very few of those involved in the debate.
Croft’s argument is not novel, even though it is the most significant such statement by a Church of England bishop. Its timing demonstrates that revisionists in the English House of Bishop no longer consider that there is any need for restraint. The matter will be brought before the General Synod in 2023.
Like many before him, Croft argues that not changing would leave the church “out of step” with society:
This dislocation is about more than an attitude to some forms of partnership or sexual expression, it is a fundamental disagreement about justice and fairness: we are seen to inhabit a different moral universe.
The next decade seems to me to be a cultural crossroads for Church and society, and the Church of England’s own response to the question of same-sex partnerships and marriage is critical. There may still be time (just) for the fissure that has opened up to be healed, or at least for the healing to begin. But if we delay further, I fear that the consequences for the future mission and life of the Church, for our relationship with the nation, and for the future course of the Christian faith in this country, will be severe.
There have been a number of significant responses already to Croft. Ian Paul writes and doesn’t hold back:
I found so many bizarre claims in what Steven has written—and there are more that I have not commented on. His approach appears to be completely at odds with the processes that were agreed in the Church and by the bishops; he repeatedly makes quite implausible claims; he appears to be entirely out of touch with key areas of debate in relation to psychology, culture, and the biblical witness; and he offers the most peculiar interpretation of the relation of the Church to the world.
But, following the article title, I need to ask one final question: what is Steven Croft thinking?
The Church has long been facing a decline in attendance, which is rapidly coming to a crisis point in many dioceses. At the same time, these dioceses were also already facing acute financial pressures, which were then exacerbated by Covid. In response to the missional challenges, there has been proposed from the ‘centre’ a rethinking of the Church’s focus and activities, and this has faced stiff opposition from many quarters for a variety of reasons. Clergy have been increasingly feeling under pressure. And both churches and dioceses are now facing stern challenges with the cost of living increases, including energy prices. At the same time, on a wider scale, the Anglican Communion appears to be in its dying days as a meaningful fellowship.
Into this context, Steven now wants to bring division and disunity. This will have a direct impact on confidence, on mission and growth, and on finance. It feels as if the good ship Church of England is running on one engine, listing to port, holed at or below the waterline—and Captain Croft wants to grab the helm and steer her onto the rocks.
Lord have mercy.
Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbes Church in Oxford, has also published a lengthy response through Latimer Press [pdf download]. Roberts is himself same-sex attracted and has been a respected voice for orthodoxy in the Church of England and Beyond.
Roberts first dissects Croft’s argument and then turns to consider what the future might look like.
Many would feel the need for much more radical differentiation if the Church’s official position was to change. If any believe that the numbers involved would be small, they should learn from what has happened in other provinces of the Anglican Communion, which have already acted to bless same-sex unions.
Some seem to have the naive belief that, in the event of revisionist change, almost all clergy in parishes would accept it, without the need for any radical disruption, even if they personally did not participate. A look across the Atlantic at The Episcopal Church in America should make us think again. In the last few years, as they have made moves to bless gay unions, they have lost 100,000 members, many hundreds of clergy have left or been deposed, and vast sums have been spent in litigation over the ownership of buildings. The cost, of course, has been far more than just financial, and has had an horrific emotional, spiritual and missional impact. I have long feared that we are sleep-walking towards a similar disaster here. We need to learn from the experience of other provinces in the Communion (which is the focus of the video from the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) ‘Learning from Elsewhere’) and urgently seek to find a better way.
The underlying tensions in the Church of England have now clearly been brought fully out into the open. Whether the House of Bishops agreed to this significant change in approach is not yet clear. What is now obvious, however, is that the dam has burst and Croft will surely not be the last. But will conservative bishops in the Church of England speak clearly? And what of Welby? He sought to hold a fractured Lambeth Conference together and failed, being rebuked by bishops representing the vast majority of the Anglican Communion. Now his quest for “unity” has to face a deep division in the Church of England which looks like it will continue to plummet in relevance and numbers like every other western province before it that embraces (as Croft puts it) “a different moral universe”.
image: Steve Croft, Diocese of Oxford