Addressing sexuality truthfully in the Church of England

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
4 Jul 2011

The Church of England is to review its policies on sexuality. As in many other churches, there has been heated debate and deep hurt around this issue in the past. How can this controversial subject be tackled in a way that promotes greater understanding of one another and of God’s purposes?

Returning to the sexuality debate

On 1 July 2011, the Church of England’s House of Bishops issued ‘Civil partnerships and same-sex relationships’. By 2012, it will have reviewed its 2005 pastoral statement on civil partnerships. Until then, no clergy in such relationships will be considered as bishops. In 2013, it will issue a consultation document that examines human sexuality, in particular same-sex relationships, more generally.

Such a review is long overdue – the last major Church of England policy document on the subject, Issues in Human Sexuality, appeared two decades ago; and, even then, many thought it inadequate. (Indeed the main author, John Austin Baker, publicly changed his mind afterwards and eloquently made a theological case for accepting gay and lesbian partnerships.)

The Church of Englan is part of the Anglican Communion, an international family of churches some of whose leaders are passionately opposed to greater acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGB&T) people. A number have blocked open discussion in their own churches and threatened schism if others move towards full inclusion. They have some supporters in the Church of England.

Anglican bishops gather every 10 years at a Lambeth Conference. This is advisory – churches can make their own decisions, which frequently disregard the Conference’s advice – but it carries some weight. There has been a drive for greater centralisation, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury has had a leading role.

In recent months, there has been much publicity over leaks revealing that during a selection process for a bishop’s position, the archbishops were desperate to block an outstanding gay candidate, even though he obeyed the Church of England’s guidelines of celibacy for gay clergy. Legal opinion was sought on how to restrict further the possibility of someone openly gay being chosen as a bishop.

According to the Church of England bishops’ announcement, the wider review will take account of a motion of General Synod (the church’s parliament) commending “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.” It will “draw together material from the listening process which has been undertaken within the Church of England over the recent years in the light of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution”, which involved a commitment “to listen to the experience of homosexual persons “ while “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”.

At the same time, many in the Church of England are keen for greater inclusion. I, and numerous others, believe this more faithfully reflects God’s will for a church where all should be valued and encouraged to adopt the same standards of faithful and self-giving love whether in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships. It will also help the church to reach out to non-churchgoers who are drawn to Christ but morally offended by what they regard as unjust treatment of LGBT people. Many theologians, Anglican and from other denominations, have come to believe that same-sex partnerships should be accepted. LGBT people (clergy and lay) play a vital part in the life of the Church of England, but this often goes unacknowledged, leaving many feeling alienated.

How can the bishops – an all-male group in which gays are closeted, and under heavy political pressure not to offend those most passionately opposed to full inclusion – take this matter forward in a constructive way? In this context, what does it mean to “love one another as I have loved you” and be guided by the Spirit of truth (John 15.12, 26)?

Learning from Lambeth and the Anglican Consultative Council

Some of the advice from Lambeth Conferences may be useful in this context.

The 1968 Conference recommended “that no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision.”

Rather than beginning a consultation after the bishops have reached their conclusions, Church of England members could be involved from the outset. As part of this, for instance, sensitively facilitated local gatherings could enable people to share views and experiences of sex and sexuality in their own lives, their families and communities in the context of their faith, and feed this back to the bishops. It is particularly important that a safe atmosphere be created in which LGBT people of diverse opinions and backgrounds can be heard.

This would be a rich source of information for theological reflection, and increase the likelihood that – though not everyone might agree with the conclusions ultimately reached – these would be widely understood and the process seen as just and transparent.

The 1958 Conference had acknowledged with gratitude “our debt to the host of devoted scholars who, worshipping the God of Truth, have enriched and deepened our understanding of the Bible, not least by facing with intellectual integrity the questions raised by modern knowledge and modern criticism” and “the work of scientists in increasing man's knowledge of the universe, wherein is seen the majesty of God in his creative activity. It therefore calls upon Christian people both to learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth, and at the same time to bear witness to the biblical message of a God and Saviour apart from whom no gift can be rightly used”. In other years, too, the valuable work of theologians and scientists was recognised.

This recognition was reflected in the 1978 resolution which affirmed “heterosexuality as the scriptural norm” but called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them.”

In 1988 it was urged that such study and reflection “take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion”. Each province was also encouraged “to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation.”

Over the past forty years, many theologians have made important contributions to discussions on human sexuality and it would be helpful to learn from this work. There has also been extensive scholarly work done by biologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, social scientists and historians, among others, which deserves to be taken into account.

Indeed, there is so much material that there is a risk of getting overwhelmed, or being unable to distinguish widely-held from fringe views (which should not necessarily be dismissed, but treated with some caution if numerous other researchers come up with contrary findings). The Royal Colleges, Royal Society and major academic institutions and professional associations could be asked for help in navigating through the sea of knowledge in specialist areas.

If some of the findings from this process turn out to be controversial with certain overseas provincial leaders and ecumenical partners, Church of England bishops may wish to bear in mind the 1990 Anglican Consultative Council call for each diocese “to consider how through its structures it may encourage its members to see that a true Christian spirituality involves a concern for God's justice in the world, particularly in its own community”.

Deepening understanding

Hence, the House of Bishops should consider involving laypersons and other clergy from the outset, drawing on the expertise of theologians, social and natural scientists and other scholars and being willing to question the status quo where this appears to hinder rather than promote God’s realm of love and peace. If its processes are transparent, supporting material (in text or video form) is made available on the Church of England website and it conclusions are carefully presented, it will at least advance mutual understanding.

I and many others are unhappy at the reluctance to accept fully even those in civil partnerships who have made great sacrifices to follow the church’s guidelines. There will be even greater frustration if its latest work on sexuality appears to be superficial and overly influenced by political considerations.

On the topic of human sexuality, it is time for prayerful and widespread reflection and discussion, thoroughness and openness to the Holy Spirit.

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© Savi Hensman, an Ekklesia associate, works in the care and equalities sector. She is a noted Christian social commentator, and has written widely on issues of sexuality from a theological perspective, and on Anglican affairs.

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