Ever since 1991, the document Issues in Human Sexuality has been the framework for moral teaching about human sexuality in the Church of England. The background work that led to this “discussion” document has never been released until now.
Thinking Anglicans has posted links to a 1989 report to the Church of England called the Osborne Report on homosexuality which written but not published in 1989.The report has now been published by The Church Times.
The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw, who chaired the groups that drafted the report, explains the background and talks about why it was suppressed.
The increasing acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the wider society in the 1970s and ’80s meant that the Church of England had to address the subject. In 1979, a church report, Homosexual Relationships: A contribution to discussion, was published, but was considered too liberal by many in the Church.
So, in 1986, a standing committee of the House of Bishops asked the Board for Social Responsibility to set up a working party to advise the bishops. This resulted in the Osborne report of 1989 (chaired by the Revd June Osborne, a member of the Board), which drew on the direct testimony of gay and lesbian Christians.
The group set itself the task of listening to homosexual people, and gave the results of that listening in its report: “first by a series of personal stories which are rooted in actual life histories”; and, second, by showing “the range of options with which Christian homosexual people are struggling as they seek to make some sense of their lives as Christians”.
The Osborne group was making no judgements, but rather attempting to set out “the experiential facts — the realities which responsible Christian moral reasoning is dealing with”. The group wanted the Church’s discussion to face up to “what actually happens”, and to be based in the reality that “Homosexuality is about homosexual people. We should never lose sight of the painful and stressful journey many homosexual people have to make in the Church and in society — with little understanding from either.”
The Osborne report was an advisory document for bishops, and it reminded them that they had an important part to play both in affirming “the catholicity and inclusiveness of the Church”, and “in helping the Church live with unresolved issues”.
The Osborne report called for inclusion: “The Bishops, as the chief pastors of the Church, have a particular responsibility to set a tone of welcome and acceptance in these matters.”
Indeed, the 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality was supposed to be a discussion document but instead became the law of the land.
By the late 1980s, the Church was not ready to face up to the “facts” presented by the Osborne report. The report was leaked in February 1990, and sparked pressure for an official statement on this increasingly controversial topic. The House of Bishops tried again, this time producing a short booklet, Issues in Human Sexuality, in 1991. This called for further dialogue and education. In the preface, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, wrote: “We do not pretend [this] to be the last word on the subject.”
Issues in Human Sexuality was intended only as a discussion document, but it came to be seen as the Church of England’s definitive statement on homosexuality. Its distinction between laity and clergy was considered of particular significance.
Issues has therefore been treated as a discussion document by some; as the “mind of the Church at this time” by others; and as the “rule” of the Church by yet others.
This has led to a situation where the Church has called for dialogue and exchange on the one hand, but has punished those who have engaged in it (from the liberal side) on the other. At worst, Issues has been used as a litmus test for the soundness of candidates for senior appointments. The true listening process, called for by the Osborne report, has yet to happen.
The full Osborne Report may be found here.