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Church of England bishops, and later general synod members, are to discuss sexuality in early 2014. For some of us who are middle-aged or older, there is a sense of déjà vu.
A formal listening process on this issue has been going on for three-and-a-half decades in the Anglican Communion and, specifically, in the Church of England.
“It is too soon to expect clear and final answers, not least in matters of pastoral practice. We need, and may hope for, a period of responsible and increasingly informed study and discussion, during which the differing convictions and opinions of concerned groups and individuals will be taken seriously and regarded sympathetically by all concerned,” a working party report urged, back in 1979.
Subsequent reports have again called for study and dialogue. This has been patchy, but – as encouraged by church leaders – numerous Church of England members have indeed talked, thought and prayed about sexual ethics.
Indeed an informal process of study and dialogue has been going on for over twice as long, since at least 1940 when an Anglican theologian put forward a case for applying similar ethical standards to same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships. At that time it was an unusual and highly controversial perspective.
However, due in part to such attempts to develop greater understanding of this issue, among theological scholars and ordinary churchgoers there has been a sizeable shift. A survey in early 2013 found that over half the Anglicans in Britain were in favour of equal marriage (and this does not take account of others supportive of civil partnerships). In various other churches too, in countries where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are not criminalised and discussion of this kind is relatively safe, a similar transformation has taken place.
Yet Church of England leaders sometimes give the impression that they are far less interested in the views and feelings of those who have conscientiously listened and learned, in line with the church’s call and wider Anglican tradition, than of those within the Communion flatly opposed to greater inclusion who have refused to engage. This is particularly hard for LGBT people and their family members who, as clergy or laity, have faithfully carried on serving a church which marginalises them.
The Pilling report on sexuality, despite many weaknesses, offers the hope of a modest move forward. It is time to acknowledge the range of views that exists, and the difficulty of continuing to insist officially that same-sex relationships are certainly wrong.
Christians may hope that greater consensus will achieved in time through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Until then clergy – in consultation with their congregations – should be free to celebrate, or not celebrate, the formation of committed partnerships.
If Church of England leaders fail to take this opportunity, the effect on morale will be devastating.
There is also a younger generation to consider, not yet born when the formal listening process began. The report quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement that “the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked”, and admits that, given low church attendance in this age-group, this is a problem.
What the report fails to recognise is that, by and large, this is a generation which embraces the ideal of fidelity within marriage and disapproves of promiscuity. It is not surprising if young people who see the church as undermining, rather than supporting, loving faithfulness walk away.
Many congregations in today’s Britain are trying to witness to God’s love for all, including LGBT people, and promote constancy in committed relationships. Church of England and other church leaders should take care not to hinder their efforts.
Editorial note: Savitri Hensman has written a detailed examination and constructive critique of the Church of England Pilling report on sexuality, which can be read and downloaded at the link below.
* Edging towards accepting diversity: the Pilling Report on sexuality: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/pilling
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet