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England and Wales bishops voice radical hopes for family synod

13 March 2014 | by Christopher Lamb and James Macintyre

Two bishops of England and Wales have broken ranks with their confreres with one calling for developments in church teaching on human sexuality and the other criticising the collective decision not to publish the findings of a Vatican survey.

The Bishop of Middlesbrough, Terence Drainey, called for a “radical re-examination of human sexuality” that could lead to a development in church teaching in areas such as contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage and cohabitation and the role of women in the Church.  

Bishop Tom Burns of Menevia says that in the interests of transparency the bishops should publish the findings of a Vatican survey which asked questions on cohabitation, contraception and same-sex marriage. In an article for The Tablet, Bishop Burns notes “the height and depth and width of the intense pleas made by God’s people for urgent attention to their pastoral needs”.

“Publish and be delighted!” writes Bishop Burns in defiance of the bishops’ conference’s insistence that it would not be publishing the results of the survey at the request of the Vatican. He says they should follow the lead of the bishops in Germany and Switzerland who have published the survey’s findings.

In an indication that he is in favour of communion for remarried divorcees – a key issue to be considered by the synod – Bishop Burns speaks out in favour of “good remarriages”.

The two bishops were among those who made their views known in response to questions The Tablet posed to all members of the English and Welsh hierarchy about Pope Francis’ first year in office and their hopes for this year's Vatican synod on Marriage and Family Life.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols told The Tablet that it was important to understand the continuity between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. To understand the former “you had to look carefully at what he wrote”, while to understand Pope Francis “you have to watch attentively what he does”. Cardinal Nichols said that a new confidence among Catholics generated by the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010 is growing “as we seek to answer the call [of Francis] to be missionary disciples of Christ”.

Bishop Drainey said that a radical re-examination of human sexuality should take place in light of modern psychological and anthropological insights and the lived experience of lay people, a point that was made by respondents in his diocese to the questionnaire.

He told The Tablet that the Church has to hold in tension its imperative to proclaim “high Christian ideals” while at the same time to “welcome with love and compassion those whose lives are complicated and messy”.

Bishop Drainey explained: “a careful discussion of this dichotomy could yield pastoral solutions in the areas of family life where many are struggling, enabling the Church more readily to welcome and include these people.”

At the same time, however, he said that the Church’s teaching on marriage contains an “enormous fund of wisdom to its people and the world” and these positive aspects should be promoted to everyone.

Bishop Burns writes that he has arrived at his conclusions after reading a 29-page report prepared by the bishops’ conference on responses to the synod survey which has been sent to Rome.

All the bishops who responded to The Tablet’s questions expressed a high level of satisfaction with Francis’ time in office.

The Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley said that many are investing hopes in the forthcoming synod explaining: “I have been particularly struck and personally challenged by the Holy Father’s call to go out to the peripheries and serve. He has reminded us that we can all make a difference in our own families and neighbourhoods, in our communities and the wider world - if we use our God-given courage to step out of our comfort zones and reach out to others in need.”

And the Bishop of Plymouth, Mark O’Toole, said he found Francis personally "very challenging".

"I do not think that Pope Francis is interested in changing the Lord’s teaching on the permanence of marriage, but I do think that we need to learn from his openness to those who are in difficulty," he said.  

Read the bishops’ replies in full here



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