Senior bishops of the Church of England will continue to make it difficult for clergy and congregations to celebrate the marriage of same-sex couples. This has left many people feeling hurt, betrayed and angry. But campaigners have pledged to keep working for change.
The House of Bishops will oppose any change to church law or the existing position that sex is only right in heterosexual marriage. But they call for a fresh tone and culture “that can communicate welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and for those who experience same-sex attraction.”
Ministers will continue to be allowed to pray publicly with same-sex married couples but there will no authorised or commended liturgy. Guidance will be produced on how far such prayers are allowed to go.
The official position has been slightly softened on people seeking ordination. They may no longer be asked to sign up to lifelong abstinence if not in a heterosexual marriage, though still reminded that this is the church’s position, which they are expected to obey. But if they marry a same-sex partner, the report makes no promise that they will not be punished.
This goes back to the unofficial policy of 'don’t ask, don’t tell' which was in place thirty years ago. At that time, 70 per cent of British Anglicans thought that same-sex sexual relationships were always wrong, according to the British Social Attitudes survey. However now only about 20 per cent hold that view.
Many theologians have argued that loving, committed partnerships are in line with biblical principles. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are far more visible in churches and wider society. Numerous Christians now believe that it is discrimination which is wrong, not same-sex love or diverse gender identity.
The bishops’ report follows a working party report which recognised that views among faithful Christians varied. There followed two years of regional 'shared conversations' aimed at building understanding and trust, making it easier to find a way forward amidst deep divisions.
However Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations, published by the House of Bishops on 27 January 2017, gives little ground to those seeking greater flexibility.
A new teaching document is to be drawn up which reaffirms “our current doctrine of marriage as being between one man and one woman for life” and explores “the distinction that has opened up between the state’s conception of ‘equal marriage’ and the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony.” But it will include “the possibility of covenanted friendships.”
The report does not explicitly address the experience of transgender and intersex people. However previous attempts by church leaders to argue that heterosexuality is essential to marriage have tended to emphasise rigid divisions between men and women, based on biology.
“This is no last word on this subject. For there are very different views on same sex relationships within the Church, and within the House of Bishops”, said Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich. While “no change in doctrine is proposed...it is often pastoral practice – how we treat people – which matters most.”
General Synod, which brings together clergy and lay representatives and bishops, will discuss the document on 15 February 2017. It is thought that strong feelings will be aired.
LGBTI Anglicans took part in the 'shared conversations' at “a high personal cost of putting themselves and their relationships on the line for public discussion and comment”, stated an open letter to the bishops from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. “This outcome is an almost complete betrayal of the trust that has been placed in you by faithful disciples of Christ.”
Tracey Byrne, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), said, “LGBTI+ people have participated in this process in good faith, at considerable personal cost, and now feel feel unheard and dismissed. Other churches in England have made much more significant progress in recent years in including LGBTI+ people. Despite us knowing that many individual bishops favour a move towards a more gracious, compassionate and inclusive church, collectively they’ve failed to deliver.”
"What we’re saying now to the bishops is that LGBTI+ Christians are here, are part of the church, and are happy to work with those who want change. But LGCM can no longer wait for episcopal leadership,” said the chair, Jeremy Pemberton. “The Spirit is moving in God’s faithful people and we’re seeking to be obedient to that movement.”