The Church of England and gay bishops – has sexuality policy shifted?

By Savi Hensman
January 5, 2013

Clergy in civil partnerships can become bishops provided they are celibate, the Church of England House of Bishops agreed. Though this falls far short of full equality, some have labelled it a major shift in church policy.

For instance, according to Rod Thomas of Reform, who opposes the move, it would be “a major change in church doctrine and therefore not something that can be slipped out in the news, it is something that has got to be considered by the general synod."

Yet it is broadly in line with the official church position, while reflecting a shift from the harsher stance of recent years. It may also open the door to fuller inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, among whom (as with heterosexual people) the calling to celibacy is uncommon.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was much debate in the Church of England about whether same-sex relationships could be morally acceptable. In 1979 a working party led by the Bishop of Gloucester argued that they could, though at the time this was too radical a conclusion for the Church of England as a whole. In the family of churches that made up the worldwide Anglican Communion, bishops agreed that they should enter into dialogue with lesbian and gay people, uphold their human rights and study the issues theologically, taking into account scientific evidence.

In 1991 the Church of England House of Bishops produced Issues in Human Sexuality, which was not intended to be “the last word on the subject”. This recognised that, according to expert opinion, sexual orientation “is in most instances strongly resistant to modification”. It also praised those lesbians and gays “whose partnerships are a blessing to the world around them, and who achieve great, even heroic sacrifice and devotion”, while taking the view that sex should only take place between heterosexual couples.

However the bishops wanted the church to be “open and welcoming” to gays and lesbians, both whose who “follow the way of abstinence, giving themselves to friendship for many rather than intimacy with one, and also those who are conscientiously convinced that a faithful, sexually active relationship with one person, aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship, is the way of life God wills for them”. Lesbian and gay clergy, however, were expected to be celibate.

A few years later one of the main authors of Issues, former Bishop of Salisbury John Austin-Baker, changed his mind, stating that “Persons living in faithful heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, can through sharing sexual love be ‘the grace of God to each other’. The fruit of the Spirit can grow in that soil.” But the Anglican Communion was increasingly dominated by those fiercely opposed even to thinking seriously about treating LGBT people equally.

In 2003, when Jeffrey John, a partnered but celibate gay priest, was chosen as bishop of Reading, there was such an outcry that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, dropped him. In 2005 it was agreed that clergy could be in civil partnerships but should abstain from sex, though the position on bishops was unclear. Since then, Church of England leaders have been fearful of upsetting those churchgoers most strongly opposed to inclusion, both at home and abroad, even if this resulted in injustice. This has seriously undermined the church’s credibility in sharing the good news of God’s love.

But in 2011 the House of Bishops agreed to review its stance on civil partnerships and, more broadly, sexuality. Working parties have been gathering and studying evidence. One of the points made by pro-inclusion campaigners was that a recent ban on partnered bishops could be ended, even within existing church policy, and that this should happen. Some more radical changes will require General Synod to agree.

Allowing LGBT people who pledge to be celibate to be bishops even if they are in civil partnerships is a small step towards repenting of the “prejudice, ignorance and oppression” criticised in Issues in Human Sexuality. It remains to be seen whether the bishops will now be bold enough to recognise publicly the strong theological case for celebrating loving, committed, physically intimate partnerships, whether the partners are of the opposite or same sex.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular commentator on politics, religion, social affairs and theological issues. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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