Bishops, balance and boldness

By Savi Hensman
October 14, 2016

In Anglican and other churches where current policies get in the way of witnessing to Christ in word and deed, senior clergy and elders act in various ways. Some are bold in seeking justice and truth, others cautious or even allied with powerful forces opposed to change.

Church of England bishops have set up a working group to pull together their responses on sexuality, before Synod returns to the issue. Though there is strong support among church members for a more inclusive position, those most against wield disproportionate power and some have threatened to break away.

Some overseas leaders have also warned against accepting same-sex partnerships and in certain instances punished those in favour. In Sydney, Australia, the removal of a priest’s license has led to protests.

Meanwhile, the Anglican Archbishop of Wales has argued that marrying same-sex couples is in line with biblical values. Southern Africa’s Synod has turned down blessing same-sex unions for the time being but the Archbishop of Cape Town has expressed dismay that some may feel rejected and indicated that this may change.

Different approaches to this controversy reflect broader theological differences, not only on sexuality and gender but also unity and power.

Wales, Southern Africa and a global shift

Among Christians worldwide (when able to debate the issues freely), there has been growing recognition that self-giving, committed same-sex partnerships are morally acceptable. This is especially the case in denominations which recognise the value of thought, prayer and openness to learning.

More lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people have felt able to be open about their identity. This has made it harder to sidestep thinking seriously about their wish to form, and grow emotionally and spiritually through, loving relationships and how the church should respond.

In addition, a number of Christians have not thought too deeply about the issues and go along with the prevailing views of those of their age, gender and social circle. Increasingly in much of the world, these tend towards greater acceptance.

Nevertheless there are some who believe that the case has not yet been adequately made. In addition there are people who cling to particular readings of the Bible and tradition and are unwilling seriously to consider alternatives, sometimes because they fear change will make the church or society less stable or affect their status.

They have in some instances found allies abroad. This is a fallen world where minorities and the poor are all too often victimised. There are countries where governments or the media have targeted LGBTI people and church leaders have played along, sometimes even backing criminalisation of same-sex intimacy.

There is an overlap with people who have internalised a version of Christianity intertwined with European moral norms, though not everyone in this category condones persecution. Along with those who have genuinely grappled with the issues and remain ‘conservative’, these make up a sizeable proportion of church members in these nations.

There are more radical Christians in the South with a more questioning approach to colonial-era laws and cultural codes. However they often wield less power in institutional churches and in some instances risk persecution if they speak out. Nevertheless many people who are more ‘conservative’ are willing to extend Christian fellowship to those with different views on this matter.

International Anglican gatherings have repeatedly affirmed human rights for all. The need to read the Bible thoughtfully rather than as a set of instructions and value the work of theologians and scientists has also been underlined repeatedly, as well as seeking justice for minorities. There have been explicit calls since 1978 to study sexuality and enter dialogue with lesbian and gay people.

A handful of Anglican churches have taken steps towards allowing celebration of marriages of same-sex couples, in areas and by ministers where there is agreement. Others have been discussing this, including in Brazil and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

In Wales, where debate continues, Archbishop Barry Morgan spoke boldly and clearly in favour of greater acceptance. He pointed out that “taking the Bible as a whole and taking what it says very seriously may lead us into a very different view of same-sex relationships than the one traditionally upheld by the Church.” He said that “Taking Holy Scripture seriously means paying attention to Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity” and made a strong case for supporting marriage for same-sex couples.

Another example of leadership came after a recent synod in Southern Africa turned down a resolution to strengthen pastoral care, including authorising blessings of same-sex civil unions. However substantial numbers backed this, including 45 per cent of those voting in the house of clergy. Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town, tried to console those deeply disappointed.

He said, “the debate is not over. Without trying to predict its ultimate outcome, or to suggest what that should be, it was notable that a number of opponents of the motion did not reject it out of hand, but suggested instead that opinion in our Church was not yet ready for such a move.” He told “our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers” that “I was deeply pained by the outcome of the debate. I was glad I wear glasses or the Synod would have seen the tears.”

Opposition to inclusion

In contrast, the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, has refused to renew the licence of a Sydney priest, Keith Mascord, due to his views on the Bible and support for equal marriage. He was informed he could still minister in his parish only if he desisted from teaching "specifically on the issue of same-sex relationships". Sixty-eight Australian clergy and lay leaders have signed a petition protesting against this.

International groupings opposed to greater inclusion have also been rallying. The Global South Primates and GAFCON Primates Council wrote that “the brokenness of our world produces many aspects of human behaviour which are contrary to God’s good design. These include slander, greed, malice, hatred, jealousy, dishonesty, selfishness, envy and murder, as well as fornication, adultery and same-sex unions... We hold these convictions based on the clear teaching of Scripture.” To “condone same-sex unions” would be “tampering with the foundation of our faith once for all laid down by the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20-22; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11; Jude 3).”

Several Church of England bishops were reportedly present, including one of the members of the bishops’ working group. A Global South communiqué warned the Church of England, which has a “unique role in the life of the Communion”, against accepting blessings of same-sex unions. This “would have serious implications for us should it occur.” There have been warnings too by prominent Anglicans in England.

Moving forward boldly

For leaders of the Church of England and other churches, Anglican and otherwise, it can be tempting to shy away from challenging those with very strong views which have so far held sway. However this poses several problems.

To begin with, among theologians and at grassroots level in many such churches, opinions have been changing. People have increasingly been drawn to the notion of a church as just, loving and inclusive as Jesus and put off by the idea of not loving their LGBTI neighbours as themselves or, if LGBTI, of holding second-class status. In some cases there is an embarrassing gap between official pronouncements and what happens at local level.

In addition, when the church is perceived as unkind, unjust and not open to reason, it puts off many outside, thus damaging mission. And the pastoral damage is also considerable. While senior figures often pay more attention to those already holding power and privilege, it would seem obvious that upsetting someone committed to the status quo is not quite the same as fostering suicidal thoughts in a teenager.

It is to be hoped that bishops and moderators will have the courage and wisdom to act. Yet often change is brought about primarily by those with less status and outward authority. As 1 Corinthians 1 puts it, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

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.