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16 February 2023
Pastoral Letter from Bishop Pete
Dear friends in Christ,
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Luke 12.32
These words of the Lord Jesus, spoken to his disciples in the course of his public ministry in Galilee, have been a comfort to me in the turbulence of the past week.  We know that fear is an inappropriate motivation in discipleship, and that the exhortation to ‘fear not’ is among the most often repeated in Scripture.  In this instance, I am additionally reassured that our Saviour addressed his followers as a ‘little flock’, showing a tender awareness of their fragility; and I am encouraged by the exhortation to look the coming of God’s kingdom, which is the gift of our Heavenly Father.
I start here in case the meeting of the General Synod last week has left you feeling fearful.  Certainly, I found those few days among the most stressful and exhausting experiences of church life I have known.  I assume it was like that for pretty much everyone present (and even for those joining online) – so do please continue to pray for your remarkable General Synod reps, who have succeeded gloriously in maintaining a high quality of relationship across considerable theological difference: in the House of Clergy, Malcolm, Eleanor and Rick; and in the House of Laity, Jane, Cathy, Michaela and Anna.
I might be wrong, but my own impression is that the outcome of the Living in Love and Faith debate has delivered not new certainty but a further period of uncertainty.  So I want to offer here some reflections on the process, and on the way ahead as I see it.  These days, it is unusual for me to write a pastoral letter alone.  As a general rule, Bishop Sophie and I prefer to communicate with the Diocese together, collegially.  On this occasion, we have agreed that I should write, as the one who was present at General Synod, to offer an account of my impressions, my vote and my thinking.  I hope what I say here will ease and not compound any fears you may have, and will add to, and not subtract from, your assurance that the good will and purpose of God is secure, as we await the coming of his kingdom.
There was of course more to the gathering of the General Synod last week than Living in Love and Faith, although that is chiefly what I want to address here.  There was substantial legislative business, including, thank God, the final approval of a measure I introduced to the Synod, to enable Dioceses with more historic endowment to be more generous to those with less.  The Lord be praised!
But there is no doubt where the centre of gravity was in this group of sessions: we received an hour-long presentation on Living in Love and Faith on Monday, followed by four hours of group-work on Tuesday, followed by a scheduled five hours of debate on Wednesday which overran, resulting in an additional three hours of debate on Thursday.
What follows will provide a more detailed account, but the headlines are:
  1. The draft Prayers of Love and Faith were welcomed, though subject to ‘further refining, commending and issuing’;
  2. The decision of the House of Bishops was welcomed to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance, but with little detail as to how this will be achieved within the hoped for timescale;
  3. It was agreed that a ‘settlement’ will be devised to protect those who will in conscience not be able to accept any future commendation of Prayers of Love and Faith – but with no detail as to the nature of this provision;
  4. One amendment to the main motion was passed (the only one out of 27 tabled).  This added clause g), as set out below
It is important, given the loose reporting of the outcome which has followed, to pay close attention to the actual wording of the motion which was passed at lunchtime on Thursday.  It was as follows:
‘That this Synod, recognising the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other of the Living in Love and Faith process, and desiring with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church:
a)  lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church;
b)  recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person by continuing to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally;
c)  commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage;
d)  welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance;
e)  welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes;
f)  invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time.
g) endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.
There are many good things to be said about the debate itself.  The tone of contributions throughout the 8 hours was almost entirely kind and respectful.  Several speeches, from different perspectives in the debate, were memorable and moving.  The chair was given a standing ovation at the end for his work in navigating a fair way through a challenging process.  There was due space for prayer and reflection.  The final outcome was not received with any triumphalism, but with a sober recognition of the pain and division in the Synod Chamber.
But there were frustrations too.  I’m not sure our democratic processes served us particularly well.  A total of 27 amendments were tabled, 11 of them by one individual.  Of the 27, 9 were ultimately not moved, or lapsed.  But the remaining 18 were debated; and in almost every case there followed a point of order, requesting a counted vote by Houses – and that meant a time-consuming process of electronic voting, rather than a simple show of hands.  I estimate that of the 8 hours of the debate, almost 2 were spent responding to ‘points of order’.  I do wish those 2 hours had permitted more contributions to the substance of the debate.
In the end, I voted in favour of the main motion.  But at various points in the debate, I was inclined to vote against it, and I thought it might be helpful to set out my thinking.
I had no difficulty at all voting in favour of the introductory preamble or the first three clauses of the motion.  But item d) gave me pause – not because I doubt that Issues needs to be replaced (it really does!) but because we have not agreed by whom or how the replacement guidance will be written.  I might be wrong, but I anticipate that will be a longer, trickier piece of work than the debate in Synod acknowledged.
Item e) also gave me pause: while I do ‘look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith’, I found myself uncertain about the process for refining them in the light of Synod feedback.  As one who is essentially conservative on matters of doctrine (as my readiness to contribute to a recently issued essay in support of the inherited doctrine of marriage illustrates) I was personally reassured on this point by the ‘Cornes amendment’, item g) above, which makes explicit that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England’.  This enabled me, ultimately, to vote in favour of the main motion.
In addition, though it is invisible in the wording of the motion, one other issue surfaced in the debate which is very significant – and that is the arrangements which will be necessary to ensure that those who in conscience cannot support these developments are fully protected.  Again, while I was glad to see this matter given recognition, not least by the Archbishops, I was not reassured that a clear plan or process are in place.
So, my impression is that the motion passed last week requires three major further pieces of work:
  1. The refining of the draft Prayers of Love and Faith in the light of feedback from Synod, before these are commended and issued for use by the House of Bishops
  2. The drafting of Pastoral Guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality, a process which is not yet underway
  3. The formulation of arrangements to protect the consciences of those who will not be able to accept these steps, a process which is again not yet underway.
In other words: at this point, no Prayers of Love and Faith have been commended or issued for use; no guidance has been issued to replace Issues in Human Sexuality; and no arrangements have been made to protect the consciences of those who might be unable to accept such prayers or guidance.  I do entirely understand the levels of distress and anxiety which this will cause for the time being.  It’s going to be a difficult six months or more, but I would urge you please to continue to pray and to ponder and to seek the mind of Christ.

In closing, I want to acknowledge the cost of this process on many of you.  This is never far from my own thoughts, or those of Bishop Sophie.  A number of you have contacted me in the past few days to let me know that these developments have impacted on you so severely that you no longer feel able in conscience to attend the Bishop’s Annual Lecture next week.  Obviously, Bishop Sophie and I are deeply grieved about that.  We would much rather you were there.  But we respect decisions made on grounds of conscience -- though we very much hope there will be time and space for further conversations and prayer together over the coming weeks.
Bishop Sophie and I remain steadfast in our sense of calling to partner with the Holy Spirit in seeking the revitalisation of the Diocese.  To that end, we are hopeful in Christ.  Perhaps Lent this year will be a God-given opportunity for each of us to ‘remember that we are dust and to dust we will return’ and to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. 
Meanwhile, Bishop Sophie and I wish to make ourselves available to discuss any concerns you may have.  We will be seeking to arrange a series of meetings with Chapter clergy, but are also ready to meet with you individually or in other groups as might be helpful. 
With every blessing,
The Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox
Bishop of Sheffield
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