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Clergy and laypersons should not get into trouble for marrying their same-sex partners, the Methodist Church in Britain agreed. For the time being, only opposite-sex couples will be allowed to marry in church. But a two-year period of study and discussion will examine whether this should change.
Equal marriage became law in England, Wales and Scotland this year. After a consultation, a report exploring the issues raised was presented at the 2014 Methodist Conference, held in Birmingham. This recognised the range of views and need for further listening, reflection and discernment.
The Conference resolved that there was no reason per se to prevent anyone within the Church, ordained or lay, from entering into or remaining within a legally contracted same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples should be welcomed and treated with respect, the report urged. Guidelines will be produced on how to deal with homophobia.
Ministers have been asked to respond with pastoral sensitivity to requests for prayers by same-sex couples, without going against their own consciences, while taking account of current teaching. Church weddings will only be offered to heterosexual couples.
This will be disappointing for some, the report acknowledges: “There will be many who would see the Church’s unwillingness to revisit its definition of marriage at this time as a denial of our commitment in 1993 ‘to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality’.”
However, it will be reviewed in 2016, after further reflection on living with contradictory convictions and the nature of biblical authority. The report helpfully recognises that it is possible to take the Bible seriously while also supporting marriage equality.
Full inclusion is still some distance away. Nevertheless the willingness to take differing views seriously, and decision not to discipline lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) church leaders who get married, are welcome steps forward.
The move will encourage those in other churches who want to move towards greater acceptance of theological diversity on sexuality and gender identity. This includes Methodists overseas and members of various denominations.
In particular, it will have an impact on the Church of England, which has a covenant with the Methodist Church in Britain promoting a close relationship. This is likely to be strengthened this year.
There too, discussion on sexuality is taking place. But the bishops have so far avoided engaging with the theological case for opening up marriage to same-sex couples, and clergy who marry risk being punished.
One of those who responded to the consultation was “a supernumerary Methodist minister in a committed relationship of 33 years and in a civil partnership since they became possible. I hope that in my lifetime I will be able to have that converted to marriage and know that what I believe is blessed by God might be blessed by our church.”
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sectorTweet