An open letter to the Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council

Revd David Holloway

To: Mr William Nye, Secretary General, Archbishops’ Council, Church House, Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3AZ

From: Revd David Holloway, Vicar of Jesmond, Jesmond Parish Church, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4DJ

27 November 2016

Dear Mr Nye,

I write this open letter to you following your open letter to Revd Canon Andrew Lines, the chairman of the GAFCON UK Task Force. Your letter alleged that a GAFCON briefing paper is “significantly misleading”. The briefing was regarding irregular homosexual activities in the Church of England. In support of its criticism of named Church of England bishops and clergy, the briefing referred to a resolution of a former Lambeth Conference. You wrote to “correct some of the erroneous assertions” in the paper. However, the supposed correction included the following statement:

“The teaching of the Church of England on matters relating to same-sex practice and unions is, and remains, as set out in the document issued by the Church's House of Bishops in 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality. That document pre-dates the Lambeth Conference of 1998, and is consistent with the resolution 1:10 of the Conference.” 

This was to correct any assumption that the Lambeth Conference 1998 Resolution 1:10 could be said to determine the teaching of the Church of England. You are quite right. It has no binding force on the Church of England. Its effect is institutional, moral and spiritual. But the briefing paper never claimed this was “the teaching of the Church of England”. It was claimed to be “the authoritative teaching of the Anglican Communion on sexuality”. Certainly that particular resolution, 1:10, would reflect the view of the majority of Anglicans in the Communion, and not just in the GAFCON provinces but also in the “Global South”. Be that as it may, I fear you are wrong to suggest that “the teaching of the Church of England” in this matter of sexuality is that set out in the Bishops’ 1991 document. 

The teaching of the Church of England as such, without much doubt, remains that of the General Synod resolution following a debate in 1987. This was initiated by the Revd Tony Higton. However, the Synod rejected Mr Higton’s motion. Instead, it passed by 403 votes to 8 the Bishops’ motion, introduced by the then Bishop of Chester, amending Mr Higton’s. The Bishops’ motion read as follows: 

“That this Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms: 

1. that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;

2. that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

3. that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

4. that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality; and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.”

It is true that General Councils, and therefore, subordinate Councils and Synods, and so General Synods “may err” (Article 21 of the 39). But as that 1987 Bishops’ motion was fully consistent with Canon A5, the criterion for doctrine according to the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974, it provides for the Church of England its doctrine, or teaching, on sexuality. According to a motion passed in the July 1997 General Synod, the 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality has the support of the Synod as an aid to “prayerful study”: it is “not the last word on the subject”. Indeed, being just that was the original intention of the 1991 document (see its Preface). It cannot, therefore, be said to be “the teaching of the Church of England on matters relating to same-sex practice and unions” as the Bishops’ 1987 motion can. 

It also needs to be noted that the doctrinal primacy of the Bishops’ 1987 motion was subsequently announced by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had signed off the 1991 document; and that was the legal advice. Of course, the 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality, while being uneven as many such statements are, contains most helpful material. For example, Section 2.29 is a brilliant summary of the biblical teaching on sexual relationships: 

“There is … in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable.” 

It is a fact that every bishop and priest/presbyter in the Church of England is bound “with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word” (BCP Ordinal). Surely, therefore, Canon Andy Lines and the GAFCON UK Task Force should be thanked, rather than opposed, in all their efforts to help the Church at large be true to its apostolic faith, and its clergy true to their canonical duty. 

Yours sincerely