Bishop’s call to deny communion defies church on LGBTI welcome

By Savi Hensman
June 6, 2018

The Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas, has encouraged clergy not to be too ready to give communion to people who are ‘unworthy’ because of their same-sex partnership or gender identity. Unless the archbishops act to make sure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people are not blocked, this calls into question claims that the Church of England is committed to welcoming them.

He was responding to a letter from bishops in Lichfield to local clergy. This stated that, whilst there were differing views on sexuality and gender, “Our basic principle is that all people are welcome in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table.”

They went on “make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” They also wrote that they “wish to affirm that LGBT+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service” and warned that “the perception that the Church is homophobic and transphobic is harming our mission.”

Though the Church of England’s public stance is that sex outside marriage between a man and woman is wrong, few members now disapprove of committed same-sex partnerships. But as far ago as 1991, when disapproval in society and the church was more widespread, bishops urged that laypeople who in good conscience entered faithful relationships should be welcome. In the early 2000s, it was recognised that church members could (though did not have to) recognise that gender reassignment might be right for some people.

In 2014 the House of Bishops stated that “Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.”

Last year General Synod has gone further in welcoming transgender people, while the Archbishops of Canterbury and York called for a “radical new Christian inclusion in the Church“

Yet leaders have been reluctant to confront those most passionately opposed to greater inclusion, including the faction of which Rod Thomas is one of the leaders. His role involves supporting ‘conservative’ evangelicals who, like him, are opposed to women’s ordination and believe in male headship. To them, at the core of marriage is the difference between the husband, who represents Christ, and the wife, who represents His church.

There are relatively few who think this way, which some regard as contrary to the Christian message of justice for all, perhaps even idolatrous. At best it sets up an unhealthy model of relationships if one partner is likened to the One before whom every knee shall bow and whom every tongue shall confess is Lord (Philippians 2.11). But this grouping wields considerable power, in part because it is well organised but also because other leaders are especially reluctant to upset them.

Rod Thomas has expressed opposition in the past to greater acceptance of same-sex partnerships and of gender identity not always being based on sex at birth. However in this letter he goes further in encouraging clergy to exclude a sizeable proportion of LGBTI people from holy communion and maybe baptism. This is a startling break with church policy and undermines the authority of the archbishops, Justin Welby of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York.

According to the Bishop of Maidstone, there is a “need for all sexual relationships outside marriage to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion…

“This issue comes into focus when considering the question of participation in the Sacraments. Your letter mentions the need to let all people know that there is a place at the table for them… I wonder whether the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation...

“This approach is, I hope, one which avoids inappropriate ‘exclusion’ or intrusive questioning. However, there may be some private pastoral discussions where people bring issues to us which require very gentle probing in order to clarify what is involved. These conversations may well provide opportunities for participants to open the Bible together, and can lead to a number of different conclusions. In some cases they might lead to a decision not to participate in Holy Communion for the time being… In the case of those with concerns over gender identity, we know that a wide range of issues may be involved and in some cases the suggestion of counselling would be appropriate.”

For many in the wider community, the notion that their LGBTI family and friends might be placed under heavy pressure in church, or even barred from being baptised or receiving communion, would be shocking. If the “radical new inclusion” seems purely optional, whereas clergy have been disciplined for marrying their same-sex partners, the church’s claims to witness to God’s love for all will be badly damaged.

Colin Coward, a veteran campaigner for greater equality, has urged the archbishops to act. Many others will be watching to see how the archbishops and other senior clergy react and whether they are really committed to making sure that LGBTI people are treated with respect and love.

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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. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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