Church of England’s stance on marriage and sexuality still unclear

By Savi Hensman
June 8, 2013

Some people may be understandably confused about the Church of England’s position on same-sex partnerships and equal marriage. Official statements, the publicly-voiced views of senior clergy and broader opinions among church members point in different directions. Part of this is to do with realism, but shifts in understanding also play a part.

At the beginning of the week of a House of Lords debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, proposing marriage equality in England and Wales, it might have seemed that the ‘party line’ was clear. Policy and study documents suggest that, while lay Anglicans may conscientiously believe that physically intimate same-sex partnerships can be right, they are in fact wrong, and lifelong celibacy is preferable for those attracted mainly to the same sex.

Issues in human sexuality, a statement by the House of Bishops in 1991, took this line, and urged that clergy abstain from sexual relationships with members of the same sex, though hostility to lesbians and gays was deplorable and intrusive questioning about private lives was discouraged.

However, this did come after two working parties (led by the late John Yates, then Bishop of Gloucester, and by June Osborne) reached different conclusions, which were too radical for the church leadership at the time.

A House of Bishops pastoral statement on civil partnerships in 2005, took the view that “Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively,” defined as “a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman.” However clergy were allowed to enter civil partnerships, though they were expected to abstain from sex.

A study document, Men and women in marriage, was published in April 2013, though it was widely criticised for being factually weak and poorly argued. This made the case for marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution, to which gender difference and procreation were central. However it did open the door to limited pastoral provision for same-sex couples.

Yet on the ground practice and opinion had shifted. From discussion among academic theologians to views in the pews and even private opinions among senior clergy, many had come to believe that the church should be more positive about faithful, committed same-sex relationships. In practice, those in non-abstinent partnerships were welcomed by many congregations.

By 2013, there was a growing openness to allowing bishops to voice their own opinions rather than repeating an official version in which they did not believe, though most dissenters were hesitant to speak out in public, even those who were gay. A working party chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling was reviewing the Church of England's stance on sexuality.

At the same time, those most vocally opposed to marriage equality, and indeed acceptance of same-sex partnerships (even if celibate), were lobbying for Church of England leaders to resist any change in the law or greater inclusion in the church. While supporters of a more welcoming church also made their views known, bishops have tended to give far greater weight to those opposed to inclusion, whether on grounds of sexual orientation or gender.

Early in a House of Lords debate on the Bill, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby voiced strong opposition to equal marriage, warning that this would be socially damaging. However he appeared to signal that loving and committed same-sex partnerships should be more valued and better supported by the church. He and several bishops voted to reject the Bill, though others abstained.

After the attempt to wreck the Bill was soundly defeated, the Bishop of Leicester (convenor of the bishops in the Lords) issued a very different statement. This accepted that the will of Parliament had been made clear, and pledged to stop fighting the Bill, instead engaging with it constructively.

This was a wise move, not only for the practical reason of not undermining the church’s credibility but also because it indicated a greater openness to continuing to study the theological implications of marriage equality.

If the church is to witness convincingly to the love of God to the people of present-day England, and be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, it should reflect carefully on the potential benefits of greater social and religious acceptance of same-sex partnerships.

Bishops must show their willingness to listen to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans parishioners, and the wider clergy and laity, and to seek the truth with humility and compassion.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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