Marriage: a leap for Methodists, a shuffle for the Church of England

By Savi Hensman
July 15, 2019

The British Methodist church has taken a leap forward towards allowing church marriage for same-sex couples. After local consultation, the issue will return to conference in 2020, when weddings could be given the go-ahead. 

Meanwhile Church of England leaders, while still confused and hesitant on inclusion, will recognise and support same-gender marriages, if the partners seemed to be opposite-gender when they married. This is good news for many transgender Christians and their spouses, while highlighting flaws in the unaffirming official line.

 Methodists back ‘God in love unites us’

As the 2019 Methodist conference approached, from late June to early July in Birmingham, a groundbreaking report was on the agenda. ‘God in love unites us: The report of the Marriage and Relationships Task Group reflected a long journey, as many church members came to accept the strength of the theological case for greater inclusion. 

Various other churches too worldwide have moved towards greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and their families. This often involves respecting freedom of conscience both for those who believe their faith commits them to treating all equally and for others who interpret the Bible and tradition in a more ‘conservative’ way.

As delegates gathered, the new president, Barbara Glasson, explored some of the ways in which Christians linked stories about God with those of their own lives. This was rooted in a belief that “as people of creation, exodus, crucifixion, wilderness wandering and even in exile we can still claim the hope of resurrection and the gracious promise of life in all its fullness.” She described moving away from simple narratives rooted in a colonial era, where missionaries made great sacrifices to bring the gospel to others – but also spread “an English version of faith, British norms and cultural expectations.”

Similarly in digging deeply like the biblical character Hagar, surviving by God’s grace in the desert, “I began to see the fractured and broken world that lay below the surface of people’s lives. I began to hear stories that did not yet have a polished narrative or a triumphant conclusion… I heard coming out stories of transformation… I heard from people who had attempted suicide because the church told them they could not be who God had made them.” Yet she spoke of reconciliation and hope.

The vote was 247 to 48 in favour of agreeing “in principle to the marriage of same-sex couples on Methodist premises” and by Methodist ministers, though districts now have to discuss the issues and the 2020 conference to make a final decision.

A small but significant advance by a wavering Church of England

In the run-up to the July gathering of General Synod, a written answer in the order papers made the headlines.

For a decade-and-a-half, the House of Bishops has allowed (though not forced) clergy to celebrate marriages between a man and woman when one is transgender. In 2017, Synod recognised “the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church” and liturgical guidance was later prepared.

It is now widely known that a minority of people have a strong and persisting sense, often from early childhood, that their gender does not match that usually linked with their biological sex at birth. Some may try to suppress this for years, sometimes marrying without letting their spouse know, in the hope the feeling will go away. When this fails to happen (sometimes, though not always, leading to hormone treatment and/or surgery), even if both partners make an effort, the marriage may end in annulment or divorce. Yet if they love each other and wish to stay married, both may face a new challenge, as it becomes apparent, in a practical sense and perhaps legally, that they are a same-gender couple.

In mid-2019, Synod lay member Prudence Dailey had asked, “Given that the Church of England’s teaching about marriage is that it is a lifelong and exclusive union between one man and one woman, if one person in a couple undergoes gender transition, has consideration been given as to whether they are still married according to the teaching of the Church of England?” (Q86

The Chair of a Pastoral Advisory Group on sexuality, Christine Hardman, the Bishop of Newcastle, replied that, “When a couple marry in church they promise before God to be faithful to each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health – come what may, although we preach compassion if they find this too much to bear. Secondly, never in the history of the church has divorce been actively recommended as the way to resolve a problem. We have always prioritised fidelity, reconciliation and forgiveness, with divorce as a concession when staying together proves humanly unbearable. In the light of those two points, if a couple wish to remain married after one partner has transitioned, who are we to put them asunder?”

Some feared that this was because this church did not take gender transition seriously. This is clearly incorrect, since clergy are free to hold weddings for couples both of whom were born physically male (or female), if one is transgender but not otherwise. So the reply recognised that the bond was a genuine marriage, not a relationship formed in error which ideally should end. This might hint that the Holy Spirit may be at work even when human preconceptions get in the way of faithful, self-giving relationships which in some way reflect God’s covenant with the church and wider humanity.

The rest of Synod was, predictably, more mixed, given church leaders’ hesitancy to challenge the small but powerful group of church members strongly opposed to affirming same-sex love and variety in gender identity. The Archbishop of York’s presidential address rightly stressed the importance of valuing those with whom one disagrees but was sometimes muddled.

For instance he complained that “The church has come to rely on others to do its serious thinking for it - whether they are theologians, philosophers, scientists, sociologists, statisticians, or simply those with a story to tell” – as if Christians with these callings are not part of the church!

There was no recognition of differences of power and privilege, just hurt on both sides. To make things worse, he appeared to buy into a distorted version of history which many church leaders seem to hold – that religious calls for inclusion came after society became more welcoming (somehow without Christian involvement). 

He claimed that “Our debates on human sexuality, gender and human identity… began in 1987”. But the Church of England’s official study process began in 1967, with two important reports produced in the 1970s along with a Lambeth Conference resolution urging study and dialogue across the Anglican Communion. Informal debate was underway long before, by the early 20thcentury, when gay sex was unlawful and social attitudes highly negative.

On 11 July, in a BBC documentary by Jide Macaulay, a Nigerian gay Christian, a spokesperson stated, “While the Church of England understands marriage to be between a man and a woman, we recognise there are different views, especially given the legalisation of same-sex marriage in this country.” Yet the view 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” is not new. It is from a Church of England working party report published forty years ago.

A ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process is expected to give rise to yet another report in 2020. However there is much scepticism among LGBTI people and others who are affirming that bishops will be bold. Perhaps there is something to learn from those churches which seek to follow Jesus in being attentive to voices on the margins and calls for justice reflecting the values of God’s commonwealth on earth.

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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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