Bishop Paul Bayes says “I do not want to die in a Church that will not marry same-sex couples”

On 12 February 2022 the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, gave an interview to the Church Times to mark his retirement. Here is the first part of the interview, in which he speaks about his increasingly open support for equal marriage and calls for the Church of England to treat LGBTQ+ people justly and equally.

‘I do not want to die in a Church that will not marry same-sex couples’ says Bishop Bayes

The Bishop of Liverpool retired on Saturday. He speaks to Madeleine Davies:

AT THE age of 68, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, describes himself as “an old man in a hurry”.

“I do not want to die in a Church that will not marry same-sex couples,” he says. “God willing, I will live for another 20 years, but, at the moment, it doesn’t look like we are going to get there then.”

It was no secret, the Archbishop of York observed, when bidding farewell to Bishop Bayes at last week’s General Synod meeting, that his colleague had been “a great advocate for championing LGBTI+ voices”.

“This has not always made you popular,” he remarked. “Yet it has never deterred you from speaking with passion, conviction, determination, often at personal cost.”

For years, Bishop Bayes has regular attended Liverpool’s annual Pride weekend event, and, until last month, he chaired the Ozanne Foundation, set up to tackle discrimination in religious organisations (News, 22 February 2019). Many will remember the fervour with which he spoke in the General Synod debate on conversion therapy (News, 14 July 2017).

“The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime,” he said then. “If the Church suggests that it is a sickness, then all its statements of welcome and inclusion of the LGBT community are null and void.”

But, while he has advocated for some years that same-sex unions be “recognised and affirmed” in the Church, it is only in the past year that he has gone so far as to call for a gender-neutral marriage canon, and “as a necessary but not sufficient first step . . . conscientious freedom for the Church’s ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise, and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions, whether civil partnerships or civil marriages” (News, 2 July 2021).

A cynic might suggest that the prospect of imminent retirement enables greater boldness. But he denies this. “I’ve been radicalised by the oppression of LGBTI people, not necessarily by the Church, but by the world,” he tells me. “I’ve had it with the Church adding to the pain of this marginalised community by saying that we can’t even discuss the possibility of welcoming and affirming blessing and marrying.”

When the Church in Wales voted to enable the blessing of same-sex civil partnerships and marriages, he welcomed a “creative and gospel-inspired lead” for the Church of England (News, 10 September 2021), and today he points to legislative changes in other parts of the Anglican Communion, “the places that are closest to us culturally”.

“I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and with the Living in Love and Faith process that actually talking about how we talk to each other is important; but, if good disagreement is to mean anything, then we need to begin to disagree,” he says.

“I’m an old man in a hurry. And I do think that questions need to be put sharply, so that people can disagree well rather than have another course on how we can agree better.”

WHILE some colleagues in the House of Bishops have expressed a desire to offer more to same-sex couples seeking to have their union affirmed in a church (News, 17 March 2017), none has been as outspoken.

In 2017, when the General Synod was asked to “take note” of a House of Bishops report on sexuality (News, 17 February 2017), the then Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, warned that there was “very little appetite in the House for any alteration of our doctrine of marriage” (News, 24 February 2017).

It is unclear whether that holds true today. “I don’t believe it’s true that I’m the only person who wants to see a more progressive future for the Church,” Bishop Bayes reports.

“What I fear is that, unless there is some sort of understood conversation happening among bishops in the public square, then, when the moment comes for them to vote, everybody’s going to be surprised by the way they vote. . . If people hide behind processes of so-called good disagreement, then the moment of truth will come as a bit of a shock to people, and that would be a pity.”

He wishes, he says, that the present House could be “a little bit more historical” in its understanding of disagreement.

“The early councils of the Church were composed of bishops who argued with each other and didn’t seem to mind falling out, because they knew that they were in relationship and that they would stand together when decisions were made.”

What impact has his disagreement had on relationships locally? He has mentioned in the past that some have refused to receive communion from him.

“I have just promised everybody in Liverpool that we will not put a piece of paper between what the diocese does and what the agreed policies of the C of E are, and that’s how I understand my role as a symbol of unity,” he says.

“I’m supposed to hold the agreed disciplines of our Church. But I do not see that as preventing me from advocating for those disciplines to be changed. . . I think that fact has won at least the grudging acceptance, if not the trust, of colleagues here who are conservative.”

A VOTE on the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships is still a year away (News, 7 January), but the mood at last week’s Synod meeting suggested tensions. There is, Bishop Bayes says, “a lot of panic and anxiety in the Church at the minute”.

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