Savi Hensman

Varied reactions as Episcopal Church permits same-sex couples to marry

By Savi Hensman
July 2, 2015

A decision by the Episcopal Church to marry same-sex couples has led to joy among some, disapproval on the part of others. It has also highlighted divisions among Anglicans, and Christians in general, on sexuality.

The Episcopal Church says yes

The Episcopal Church has agreed to let same-sex couples marry. The decision was made at its general convention in Salt Lake City. However clergy will not be forced to conduct such weddings.

New wording for marriage services was approved, along with a rite of blessing. The US Supreme Court had just approved equal marriage but in some other countries covered by this church, the law does not recognise marriage between same-sex partners.

The changes were agreed by a huge majority of delegates, though some were unhappy. For many others however, there was a sense of joy that they, or their parishioners or families, had at last been fully accepted. “I came to Salt Lake City a second-class citizen in my nation and my church, and I hope to leave here a first-class citizen in both”, said Bruce Garner, a deputy from Atlanta, during the debate.

The changes guarantee "access to marriage liturgies to all couples" while protecting "the conscience of clergy and bishops who dissent theologically," said the Rev Susan Russell, a deputy from Los Angeles. She is also an activist in Integrity USA, which has long campaigned for inclusion in the church.

Study materials on the theology and history of marriage had previously been circulated among church members and widely discussed. The assembly agreed to encourage Episcopalians (Anglicans) to keep studying the subject.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s warning

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had previously issued a less than convincing warning about the risks of moving forward. This would “cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships”, stated a news release by his staff.

“At a time of such suffering around the world, he stated that this was a moment for the church to be looking outwards. We continue to mourn with all those who are grieving loved ones and caring for the injured from the terrorist attacks in Sousse, Kuwait and Lyons, and from the racist attacks in Charleston.”

However broadening the church’s ministry so that it is more just and welcoming need not stop it from tackling other issues. And lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide have also been the targets of sometimes murderous violence and human rights abuses. Indeed, the extremists in the Middle East and USA who inspired the recent attacks tend to be fiercely homophobic and transphobic, as well as deeply sexist. If faith groups can help to demonstrate that religion at best promotes love and peace rather than power-seeking and destruction, they can perhaps weaken such movements.

It is true that leaders and members of some provinces are upset by this embrace of marriage equality. One grouping, Global South Anglican, has stated that the decision departs from “the Anglican Communion's standard teaching on human sexuality” and “clearly contradicts the Holy Scriptures and God's plan for creation.”

But disagreement on sexual ethics among Anglicans is far from new, and the Episcopal Church has already delayed equal treatment to its LGBT members partly to accommodate others.

Anglicans divided on sexual ethics

Three-quarters of a century ago or so, debate had already begun among Anglican theologians about whether same-sex partnerships were always sinful. The 1976 general convention agreed that "Homosexual persons are children of God, who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church", but discrimination continued.

Two years later, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world recognised “the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them.”

As intense and prayerful study took place and LGBT people became more visible, views shifted. A 1979 Church of England working party reported that “there are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage."

This proved too radical to be accepted at the time but, in various parts of the world, change was underway. In the 1980s in the USA, scholars such as Robin Scroggs and L William Countrymen helped to focus attention on the need for careful attention to what the Bible actually conveys.

A couple of decades ago the Episcopal Church prepared an in-depth report, Continuing the Dialogue, and circulated it to other provinces too. But by them many Anglican leaders, heedless of international resolutions and pastoral need, were refusing to take part in discussion, or even uphold human rights for LGBT people.

In 2003 the Episcopal Church finally consecrated a partnered gay man as a bishop, amidst condemnation from senior clergy overseas. Many of them quoted a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution which they themselves blatantly disregarded.

Church of England leaders, seeking to hold the Communion together, have repeatedly criticised the Episcopal Church while expressing unhappiness about the mistreatment of LGBT people internationally, often with church leaders’ approval. But in Britain too, pressure is mounting for full acceptance.

Human rights for all

More surprisingly, the Global South letter – signed by the chairman, Archbishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt and North Africa and the secretary, Archbishop Ian Ernest of the Indian Ocean, among others – expressed disagreement with criminalising LGBT people. This highlights divisions among those opposed to equality within the church.

“We are against any criminalisation of homosexuals, they are like all of us, [they] need God's mercy, grace and salvation”, stated the letter.

Just a week or so previously, the Archbishop of Canterbury had responded to criticism of the Anglican Communion’s new Secretary General, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, by the Church of Nigeria, where he had previously served as an archbishop. This province is active in Gafcon, a more extreme grouping.

At the end of April, leaders had stated that “The Most Rev’d Josiah Idowu-Fearon’s statement: ‘I have never supported the law in Nigeria that criminalises the gay community and I will never support it,’ clearly indicates that he is not in accord with the theological and doctrinal posture of the Church of Nigeria. His acceptance of the post of ACC General Secretary neither received the approval of the Church of Nigeria, nor does it in any way affect the Church of Nigeria’s theological posture on the issues of homosexuality and gay movement. Thus, the Most Rev’d Josiah Idowu-Fearon represents himself at the ACC, and not the Church of Nigeria.”

Justin Welby’s office responded that the appointment followed “a due process of advertising, short listing and interviews...Thirty-one applications were received, spread through all continents, and included candidates from varied disciplines and backgrounds... Archbishop Fearon's view on the criminalisation of people of same gender attraction is fully in line with Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference.”

Continuing to discuss issues while welcoming all God’s children

Anglican and other church leaders should be encouraged to take a stronger stance against abuses of the human rights of LGBT people and allies, and in favour of justice for all. It would also be helpful if those who disapprove of the Episcopal Church’s stance on marriage would bother to read its rationale and explain why they disagree, or listen more attentively to local LGBT people and dissenting scholars.

Meanwhile many people will celebrate the news that they, or their loved ones, can finally marry in church.

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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.