Church of England seesaws on LGBT inclusion

By Savi Hensman
December 13, 2015

Church of England leaders have signalled both welcome and rejection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, their families and friends in the same week. This is a common pattern in churches grappling with issues of sexuality.

In an interview by Michael Gove in the Spectator, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, responded positively to a question about inclusion. He was asked how he would react if one of his own children were to be gay, fell in love with another person of the same sex and asked his blessing.

“Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely. Would I pray with them together? If they wanted me to. If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend? Of course I would,” he replied.

He was then challenged as to whether, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, he would not say to his child that, while he loved them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate.

“I would say, ‘I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.’ Whatever they say, I will say I always love them,” he answered.

That is a bold and heartening statement, especially in view of the pressure Welby is under from many Anglicans in England and beyond to condemn same-sex partnerships strongly. Amidst sometimes heated debate, it increases the hope of finding a way forward which allows space for different theological views.

More negatively, a much-loved and respected retired priest has been barred from leading services in a particular area, just because he married his life-partner.

Canon Jeremy Davies is a former precentor, a role involving organising and leading worship at Salisbury Cathedral, which he did for many years. After getting married a year ago to Simon McEnery, he took several services in Winchester Cathedral. He was also in demand as a preacher and lecturer in the UK and USA.

He has now been denied permission to officiate in the Diocese of Winchester by Bishop Tim Dakin. According to a spokesperson, this was “Due to the Church of England's position on same sex marriage, as set out in the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance.”

The widely-criticised guidance did urge gay clergy not to marry but did not specify what would happen to those who did. In some dioceses they have been, at most, formally rebuked and allowed to carry on their ministry.

However two other ministers, coincidentally also called Jeremy, have also had their ministry blocked after getting married. Jeremy Pemberton is a hospital chaplain who could not take up an NHS post after being refused a license by the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, resulting in a legal case which is now at the appeal stage. Jeremy Timm is a reader (lay minister) in the Diocese of York.

To many people, this is seen as a grave injustice and a failure to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Attitudes towards inclusion of LGBT people, including those who are partnered, have shifted considerably among Christians over the past century.

Many theologians now believe that the Bible does not rule out committed, self-giving same-sex partnerships. More widely, those who identify as Church of England members have increasingly come to believe that faithful love should be cherished and supported. Indeed many would like priests and congregations to be able to hold weddings if they so choose.

However, within the Church of England, the leadership has tended to focus on not upsetting the minority strongly opposed to greater openness on this issue, as well as those senior Anglican clergy overseas who fiercely object.

This has sometimes involved refusing to make use of the gifts of LGBT people, treating them as marginal and alienating their heterosexual friends and relatives too.

Cases such as that of Jeremy Davies make it harder for churches to witness convincingly to God’s love for everyone. It is time for a more loving and bold approach, in line with Justin Welby’s reply when interviewed. While those not currently in favour of full LGBT inclusion also have a place in the church, this should not be to the exclusion of others.

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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.