A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: A Reprise

by William Lamb

The Revd Dr William Lamb is Vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, and an Associate Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford. In this article, first published in ViaMedia.news, he calls for the Church of England and its bishops to show courage, stop talking and start making some decisions.

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: A Reprise

In 2005, Marilyn McCord Adams, the then Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, preached a University Sermon at St Mary’s entitled A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.1

Taking as her text Leviticus 19.2, ‘You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy’, Adams lamented the Church of England’s ‘record of foot-dragging equivocation’ in its treatment of LGBTQ+ persons: ‘in my judgment, the stubborn refusal of our Church to engage in imaginative thinking about human sexuality has not only cemented some illogical ideas and bad theology. It has produced patterns of institutional abuse towards gay and lesbian Christian generally and coupled homosexual clergy in particular’.

Adams was writing in the context of the introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples and the decision of the House of Bishops that ‘clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership’.

She drew some intriguing parallels with a significant innovation in the Western church at the time of the English Reformation when clergy were allowed to marry. She pointed out that when clerical marriage was introduced in the sixteenth century, this innovation proceeded slowly. Henry VIII was particularly resistant to the idea of clerical marriage. He ordered bishops to conduct secret investigations to identify married clergy to deprive them of their benefices. In 1539, clerical marriage was criminalized. Only gradually did it become more accepted in the Church of England. Adams observed: ‘Given its dicey theological and legal history, you might expect present-day champions of heterosexual marriage to show more sympathy for those whose partnerships now face like challenges.’

With the introduction of equal marriage in 2013, the House of Bishops issued guidance (which was rather insensitively published on Valentine’s Day 2014), stating that ‘it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in Holy Orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives’. A number of clergy, who have married, have faced various forms of disciplinary action – many have been deprived of a licence or permission to officiate. Recent press coverage of the plight of the Revd Mpho Tutu, who was refused permission to officiate at her godfather’s funeral, provides a ready example of the kind of intimidation and harassment suffered by LGBTQ+ clergy.

In the course of recent decades, the bishops have continued to adopt a strategy of ‘foot-dragging equivocation’. Noting that the subject of sexuality, with its deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by a series of Shared Conversations, these discussions led to the publication of a report in January 2017 which recommended no change in the Church’s policy. General Synod refused to take note of this report. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of a need for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ and suggested a new teaching document about marriage and sexuality. This led to an extended process of further discussion under the title of Living in Love and Faith.

A substantial report was published, but it made no recommendations at all. While the previous report recommended no change, this report set out to make no recommendations. Of course, the real question is whether there has been any real movement in generating a consensus about where the Spirit of God might be leading the church at this time, but a significant consequence of this detailed and extensive work is that the House of Bishops can no longer claim that there is a need for ‘further study’. That has happened, and now the problem for them is that they have nowhere left to hide.

My own view is that three things need to happen in the course of the next twelve months: first, the House of Bishops need to accept that their 1991 report, Issues in Human Sexuality, no longer expresses the mind of the church. Although this ‘study document’, produced by the House of Bishops, was quickly advertised as ‘the Church’s teaching’, it was never approved by the General Synod. More recently, Synod has invited the House of Bishops to reflect on the fact that this report alludes positively to forms of conversion therapy, even though Synod has explicitly rejected conversion therapy. The document was drafted before the development of civil partnerships and equal marriage – about which it therefore has absolutely nothing to say. One can no longer take seriously the demand of the House of Bishops that those presented for ordination in the Church of England should abide by Issues. More importantly, casuistical interpretations of this text, sometimes with the encouragement of DDOs and the collusion of bishops, have not served to create healthy and open discussions around sexuality and ministry. In my view, based on 20 years of working in theological education, this has not served the task of formation well. It has generated a culture of fear and anxiety for LGBTQ+ clergy and lay ministers. We can do better than this.

Secondly, it is now evident that the bishops’ current policy of disciplining clergy who have married their same-sex partners is received with a combination of puzzlement and increasing alarm by the general public, including Members of Parliament. At the recent Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury recognised that there were profoundly different perspectives within the Anglican Communion about equal marriage, each the fruit of patient and faithful wrestling with scripture:

For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence

For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

The Archbishop underlined that all had an honoured place in the life of the Communion. Nevertheless, the measured tone of these words is hard to reconcile with the way in which clergy who have married their same-sex partners have been treated. There is a more general principle at stake here. We need to address the fact that the number of marriages in church has declined significantly over the last fifty years. At a time when more children are born outside marriage than within it in the United Kingdom, how might we reverse that decline? It seems extraordinary that the bishops believe that they can promote the gift of marriage by investing time and energy in an undignified campaign against a small number of clergy simply for getting married to their same sex partner. The bishops’ policy is unedifying, unjust and completely counter-productive.

Finally, although some of its members tell me that the numbers in General Synod will not add up in order to change the marriage canons of the Church of England at this stage, it may be possible to chart a way forward by offering prayers of dedication after a civil marriage. A change in the marriage canons would require legislation and the consent not only of General Synod but also Parliament. The existing form of prayers of dedication after a civil marriage are commended for use by the House of Bishops.

The bishops might issue a revised form of prayers. They might even choose to test the mind of Synod in February (although the risk of another public and rancorous argument will hardly be edifying). Personally, I believe in equal marriage, not because I am a liberal, but because I take seriously the traditional teaching of the Church. I believe that faithfulness and commitment matter. They make a difference. In learning to love in the context of a faithful and committed relationship, we learn to love as God loves us: ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health …’.

In the course of the twentieth century, questions of sexual ethics in the life of the Church were dominated by the issue of divorce and remarriage. The Church has made some accommodation for the remarriage of divorcees in recent decades, initially producing An Order of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage. At the same time, the bishops insisted that there was no change to the Church’s official teaching that marriage was a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Although this provision has been characterised by a gentle, if untidy, pastoral pragmatism, I suspect that the bishops might fruitfully adopt a similar strategy within the next twelve months to acknowledge the recent changes to civil marriage.

This would be a relatively modest development and I am conscious that the overwhelming majority of people in my congregation would expect much more. Practically speaking, so long as the process was freed from the shackles of ecclesiastical lawyers (who occasionally need to be reminded that they are the servants of the church and not its masters), this could probably be achieved with a commendation from the House of Bishops. Such a development has already been adopted in the Church in Wales (in this case with the approval of its Governing Body) without generating much controversy.

Just as ‘conscience’ clauses exist for ministers and parishes who might object to the remarriage of divorcees, similar clauses could be introduced for ministers and parishes who might object to equal marriage. As the bishops discern the way forward, I have little doubt that ‘conscience’ will play a vital role in the process of discernment. One of my predecessors as Vicar of the University Church, John Henry Newman (1801–1890), wrote extensively about the importance of conscience. He regarded conscience as the voice of God speaking in the depths of our soul. Famously, in his later years, in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he wrote about those ‘extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope’. Newman wrote, ‘if I am obliged to bring religion into after dinner social toasts, I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards’. Whatever his views about same-sex relationships might have been (and I have no doubt that they would have differed from mine), Newman understood that the conscience imposes an obligation – that personal integrity dictates a fundamental human duty to hear the interior voice of our conscience and to follow its demands. He learned this insight from one of the great moral theologians of the Anglican tradition, Bishop Butler (1692–1752). As the Church finds a way of negotiating the pastoral provision for the blessing of same sex relationships, it will be important for us to keep in view the role of conscience (on both sides of the argument) and to ensure that no-one is made to act against their conscience.

The bishops have an unenviable task as they meet over the next few months – and I shall certainly keep them in my prayers. But I will pray that they might begin to show a little courage. At some stage, the Church of England needs to stop talking and start making some decisions. When Professor Adams ended her sermon at St Mary’s almost twenty years ago, she made no bones about her Christian commitment or her love of the Church. My hope is that we can continue to recognise the commitment and faithfulness of one another, even though at times we may disagree:

I voice these challenges as an insider, who loves the Church because Jesus loves her, because she is the home of the sacraments, and because she is one of the few remaining institutions devoted to rearing people in the knowledge and love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. I intend my critique to be constructive, pressed in the conviction that repentance and reform are good for the body politic as well as the individual soul. I do it also with thanksgiving for those gay and lesbian Christians whose courage, love and commitment is already shaping – without much help and with considerable institutional hindrance – patterns of holy living. Like truth in all its forms, the witness of their integrity will eventually prevail.

Marilyn McCord Adams, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 17 October 2022 and is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher. The original article is to be found here: https://viamedia.news/2022/10/17/a-serious-call-to-a-devout-and-holy-life-a-reprise/.


  1. The title A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life was first used by the Revd William Law, an 18th-century priest in the Church of England. His book, published in 1729, became a classic of Christian devotional writing. []