Another crisis for Church of England, newspapers warn

Another crisis for Church of England, newspapers warn

"First gay clergyman to wed plunges Church into crisis: Archbishop under pressure to sack canon who flouted ban on same sex marriage", announced the Mail dramatically. "Church of England faces 'crisis' as gay priest weds" was the Telegraph headline.

Canon Jeremy Pemberton, a hospital chaplain from Southwell, married Laurence Cunnington. The following day, churches across the country gathered for worship as usual, sometimes holding processions to celebrate Palm Sunday.

Weddings bring up powerful emotions for the families and friends of the couple getting married, whatever their gender. For most others in the Church of England, whether supporters or critics of equal marriage, marking Holy Week – when the church remembers Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, last supper, betrayal, arrest, death and resurrection – probably takes priority.

Previous headlines from the Telegraph declared ‘Church faces crisis over “tainted” women bishops plan’ (2012) and ‘Church of England in crisis as five bishops defect to Rome’ (2010). ‘St Paul’s protest triggers Church leadership crisis’, read a headline in the Times in 2011.

This is not to deny that what had happened is significant. But what can seem momentous at the time may, a few years (let alone decades or centuries) later, turn out to have been more manageable.

Some vocal opponents of equal marriage have urged bishops – who advised clergy not to marry same-sex partners – to discipline Pemberton. Yet they themselves have sometimes benefited from top bishops’ light-touch approach to enforcing discipline around both doctrine and conduct.

A number of them even tried to block the former Archbishop of Canterbury from leading prayers at a national evangelical Anglican conference. Sensibly, he did not haul them up for blatant public disrespect: if anything, he was too conciliatory.

And when a number went further still, making it clear that they might decide to disregard the authority of their bishop and even refuse to be in communion with him if they disagreed with him, they were not disciplined. It is ironic they now want bishops to act in an authoritarian manner.

The bishops’ pastoral guidance was aimed at minimising, or at least postponing, conflict. But it did not take sufficient account of the strength of concern among numerous laypersons and clergy about the importance of recognising and supporting committed loving partnerships and not excluding minorities.

Whereas at one time it would have been widely regarded as scandalous for a priest in England to marry at all, and later to marry a same-sex partner, many are now scandalised that some clergy are being pressured not to get legally married.

Until consensus about same-sex partnerships is reached (which may be quite a while), allowing some latitude to church members to do what they believe is right, along with encouragement to be courteous to others with different views, would be advisable.

Like many who know one or both of the newly-weds, I am delighted for them. I recognise that there are some who will be upset, or whose task as church leaders will be complicated, by what has happened. However if they can keep a sense of proportion, and avoid being browbeaten by those who want them to overreact, they can avoid turning a sensitive situation into a full-blown crisis.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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