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Human Identity: A Thorny Issue for Lambeth?

On 21st October 2001, Revd Tim Thornton was consecrated bishop in the Gothic vastness of Southwark Cathedral. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey asked him,


“Be you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?”


Thornton replied, “I am ready, the Lord being my helper”.


Obviously, this came as no surprise to the soon to be bishop. The laws of the Church of England, in which he has already been ordained for over two decades, say much the same of a bishop,


“…it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions…”


After over 40 years the bishop is now not only a Church of England veteran but until ten months ago had served for four years as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s episcopal chief of staff.


In anticipation of the Lambeth Conference, it was thought desirable for the Anglican Communion to “declare” its mind on Human Sexuality. The issues involved are hotly contested but one thing upon which all sides agree is that they are critical ones, shaping as they do things as fundamental as the proper understanding of both human dignity and the right ordering of society. Debates on these subjects produce much heat, as well as light, purely because the issues are burning for just about everyone on the planet.


Such a task required leadership from someone of the greatest available experience, acuity and wisdom. The man to deal with a topic so thorny was Thornton.


Chairing a carefully recruited group, over many months, Bishop Tim and his colleagues were able to reflect on all that had happened since the Communion last made a statement on the subject in 1998.


Finally, the week before the Lambeth Conference the draft “Call” was published. It read as follows,


“Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. It is the mind of the Communion to uphold “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union” (I.10, 1998).xxviii It is also the mind of the Communion that “all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998) [emphasis added].


That “Declaration” of Christian teaching lasted less than a week before, following a typical Twitter “pile-on”, Right Revd Thornton’s group issued a “revision” reading,


“Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998). Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues. [emphasis added].”


That, of course is not a “revision” it is a wholesale rewriting.


The only “explanation” given for this episcopal volte face says nothing about how declarations of truth on vital matters can change with the weather. A wide variety of opinions were expressed but, without explanation, only some were “carefully and prayerfully” “listened” to.


“We have listened carefully and prayerfully to what bishops and many others have said in response to the draft Calls, especially that on Human Dignity…”


The Bible does not accept 'grey areas' when it comes to truth and it certainly does not accept truth being unimportant. Where scripture asks, “what fellowship has light with darkness?”, it is that rank coward, Pontius Pilate who hides behind, “What is truth?”. The condemnation of the 'forked' tongue that says two 'truths' at the same time is stark.


Regrettably, it is difficult to see how Bishop Thornton has upheld his solemn ordination vow in all this or how he has complied with what he accepted was the responsibility of his office as bishop. Whether with, “all faithful diligence”, or otherwise, it is simply impossible, “to banish and drive away” all that is contrary to God’s Word or uphold “sound and wholesome doctrine” and “openly call upon and encourage others to do the same,” if what he believes is true on fundamental matters changes from week to week. To be able to “drive away all erroneous and strange opinions” is thereafter even harder than “impossible”. And the responsibilities of being a bishop are not diminished by accepting a “political” or “pastoral” role.


Anything but the right man for an issue so thorny was Thornton, but he probably was the best available. No one else in the Church of England would have been any better and therein lies the rub- the brightest and best of the moribund Mother Church is in no way fit to lead the Communion. It is time to give the wondrous bishops of the Global South their long-overdue opportunity.



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