Same-sex couples in England and Wales will be able to get legally married from the end of March. In response, Church of England diocesan bishops have issued guidance which has been widely condemned as harsh and unjust.
The House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage was published on 15 February, a few days after General Synod received the Pilling report, by a working party on sexuality. However the tone was very different.
The guidance warned clergy that they must not marry same-sex partners. Married lay people however would not be barred from sacraments, and clergy who wished to could offer prayers but not services of blessing for those entering committed partnerships.
There was widespread hurt and anger. Critics of the guidance included the LGB&TI Anglican Coalition, which brings together Accepting Evangelicals, Changing Attitude, the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians, Inclusive Church, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Sibyls and the Two:23 Network.
“The new guidance emphasises the well?known fact that same?sex couples will not be able to marry in Church of England churches even when equal marriage takes effect. Furthermore, despite the recommendation of the Pilling Report, the prohibition on blessing same?sex couples is reinforced. While these iron exclusions are in place it is simply ludicrous to speak of the Church ‘Welcoming’ lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGB&TI) people, or to pretend that this statement is in any sense ‘pastoral’,” according to a Coalition statement.
It continued, “The guidance also excludes people married to members of the same sex from ordination, and forbids LGBT clergy to marry same?sex partners. This is cruel and unjust to clergy who have faithfully served the church, hitherto with the full knowledge and support of their bishops, and it will impoverish the ministry by driving away LGB&TI ordinands. Only those who are prepared to lie will remain.”
The statement’s position was described as being “partly or even mainly driven by fears about the unity of the Anglican Communion... In some large African provinces which are threatening to secede over this issue the Anglican Church helps supply the theology which backs the violent persecution of LGB&TI people. We believe that it is simply immoral for the Church of England to appease these provinces by sacrificing the rights and freedoms of LGB&TI people in this country or any other, or to place the cause of institutional unity above the cause of justice and humanity.”
The Coalition urged that the guidance be withdrawn.
The Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said that “it is a pity that the House of Bishops letter takes such a negative stance, fails to show appreciation for the ministry of LGB&T clergy and seems unaware of the powerful theological and pastoral arguments put forward in recent decades for celebrating committed loving relationships, including marriage.”
Others have criticised it as historically inaccurate in claiming that “there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England”. It has been pointed out that, on issues of remarriage after divorce and marrying a deceased wife’s sister, the church and state has sometimes been at odds.