Church of England faction urges punishment of partnered parishioners

By Savi Hensman
March 11, 2014

A group opposed to inclusion has praised Church of England bishops for being negative towards clergy wanting to marry same-sex partners, and urged them to go further. The Evangelical Group of the General Synod (EGGS) committee wants laypeople in same-sex relationships to be disciplined too.

Bishops are highly unlikely to act on this call, which would hugely damage the church’s mission and ministry. The Church of England must already amend its website, which proclaims, under the heading ‘Thinking of a church wedding?’, “Congratulations! You're welcome to marry in church whatever your beliefs, whether or not you are christened and whether or not you regularly go to church.”

If it were to add, “That does not apply to same-sex couples though – in fact we might excommunicate you if you get married”, this would leave large numbers of people angry and baffled, including many who are not lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) themselves.

To numerous Church of England members, it makes no moral sense to support loving, committed, self-giving relationships for heterosexuals yet condemn such partnerships among the minority who are not. Many theologians agree.

The most passionate opponents of greater inclusion are influential in the church. Senior clergy have mostly been reluctant to admit the extent of uncertainty about sexual ethics, and publicly accept diversity of practice while seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance towards greater clarity. However, as a compromise, the House of Bishops recognised in 1991 that laity may, in good conscience, enter same-sex partnerships. Some adopt a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' approach to LGBTI clergy.

As equal marriage comes into force in England, ‘pastoral guidance’ from the House of Bishops sternly warned clergy against getting married to a member of the same sex. It also forbade blessing relationships, though prayers could be said for couples. More positively, it advised that “Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.”

The tone as much as the content of this communication caused deep hurt among many LGBTI people. It also seems to have encouraged those with more extreme views, including wanting mass excommunication of LGBTI churchgoers who are not celibate, single or married (happily or otherwise) to the opposite sex. If this faction had its way, which thankfully is extremely improbable, it is likely that the pews in most churches would soon empty as relatives and friends stayed away.

EGGS expressed concern that the guidance “says nothing about the position of lay people holding a bishop’s licence or commission”, stating, “We believe that such lay ministers, who along with ordained ministers should offer an exemplary lifestyle, should be expected not to enter into same-sex marriages, and those who have contracted same-sex marriages should not be licenced or commissioned.”

What is more, “While affirming that everyone should be welcomed in our churches, we continue to believe that appropriate sacramental discipline should apply to those who choose to enter into any sexual relationship other than within marriage between a man and a woman.” This group’s concept of ‘welcome’ is rather odd.

The EGGS executive committee is chaired by the Rev John Dunnett, a synod member for Chelmsford Diocese. Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, is a co-opted member.

Its letter describes its own perspective as “biblically orthodox” and refers to “the clarity of Scripture and the vision it offers for human flourishing”. Yet interestingly it seems less interested in punishing those who are unjust to the poor, migrants and others who are vulnerable, a matter on which the Bible is a great deal more clear and consistent than on homosexuality and gender identity. Nor does it acknowledge the hazards of being judgmental. Overall there is a notable lack of awareness of the risks of projecting human bias on to God.


© 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.

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