AS THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND GENERAL SYNOD prepares to meet, bringing together representatives of laity, clergy and bishops, how people in same-sex relationships are treated will be a controversial topic.
Bishops have proposed prayers for blessing those who have married or entered civil partnerships, if clergy wish to use these, but have stopped short of recommending allowing marriage in church.
There is fierce opposition among some religiously ‘conservative’ campaigners, though the prayers fall short of clear acceptance of marriage. Though guidance used to sack priests married to same-sex partners is to be scrapped, what will replace this is also unclear. But others think this is not nearly enough, about 95 years of informal debate among Christians in England over same-sex love and 55 years of a formal study and listening process in the Church of England (to which I belong), during which scholarly views and attitudes at grassroots level have shifted considerably. Though it may not yet be possible to obtain a two-thirds majority in all the Houses (bishops, clergy and laity) so as to enable church marriage, if bishops had indicated that this were their preferred direction of travel, it would have made a difference.
The debate on 8 February arising from ‘Living in Love and Faith’, the most recent stage, which included publishing study materials and local discussions, is likely to be intense. The outcome will affect the church internally and its relationships with other churches, the UK state and wider society. This raises more broadly relevant questions about faith groups, conflicts over values, what roles governments and secular legislators can and should play and how and why change occurs.
Religion, power and choice
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 allowed civil marriage in England and Wales to be extended to couples who were legally of the same gender (slightly different legislation in Scotland soon after also widened the range of people who could officially marry). The central bodies of faith groups could decide whether to opt in and, even if they did, local ministers and those in charge of church premises also had a choice about whose weddings they would celebrate.
An extra ‘lock’ was added for the Church of England and Church in Wales because these were usually expected to celebrate marriage for local residents, so that the state had to rubber-stamp any decision by their governing bodies to move forward on marriage – though, basically, as with other religious institutions, these had to decide.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that the Church of England is ‘Established’ – aligned to the state, with the monarch as the ceremonial ‘head’ and bishops represented in the House of Lords. Like many others, I have long been in favour of disestablishment. It is unjust that any religious group be given preference over others; and privilege and closeness to power has had a corrupting effect on a church meant to follow Christ, whose way was so different, though occasionally the benefits have been used for the good.
Those in Synod who wish to maintain a national ban on marriage in the Church of England, rather than devolving choice to local clergy and congregations, vary in their opinions. For instance, some might not think faithful committed physically intimate partnerships necessarily wrong, while others would be strongly opposed to any such intimacy. However they tend to see their stance as defending the authority of the Bible and tradition. Yet I would suggest that their rationale is weak, as many have pointed out.
Many others see marriage equality and fuller inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people as an important reflection of love of God and neighbour and Jesus’ call to treat others as one would wish to be treated. A recent YouGov survey for the Times indicated that, Anglicans, like the rest of the population, more often supported than disapproved of marriage. There are some bishops who have made a strong public case for enabling couples to marry in church; for instance the Bishop of Oxford wrote a pamphlet and bishops in Suffolk have shared their own journeys on biblical interpretation and reflections on the theology of marriage.
Though any step towards affirmation will bring strong negative reactions, there is a high cost to refusing to move forward, especially for LGBT+ people who are hurt by discrimination or who have internalised a sense of being of lesser worth.
Any positive step will be welcomed by some other churches in the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners, deplored by others. Yet constant attempts to appease the least affirming, often by rigging the scales to play down the strength of arguments for change, does not seem to have left them happier; and all may benefit from a theological shift towards being alert to where (from a Christian perspective) God is at work amongst those formerly marginalised.
There have been threats by some MPs that Parliament might act if Synod does not signal a shift towards church marriage, for instance by forcing compliance, obstructing other business until church leaders give way, or disestablishment. I believe it has sometimes been valuable for senior clergy to hear MPs and peers, often Christian, articulating both the spiritual value of loving partnership regardless of gender and the anger and distress so many feel about the failure to respond lovingly; these are hard to dismiss patronisingly, as bishops are sometimes inclined to do. However I think there would be difficulties in, and grave risks to, any attempted solution – even if it brought relief to some LGBT+ people feeling distress at being debarred from church marriage – which might undermine freedom of religion.
There are legitimate limits, for instance on matters such as conversion therapy in which spurious spirituality, often accompanied by pseudo-science, can do considerable psychological damage. However I fear that giving the state too much power over matters of belief brings the likelihood that this will at some point be used in destructive ways, while depriving people and communities of the chance to develop of their own free will also has drawbacks. Certainly if the UK government were more easily able to silence the Church of England over rights for refugees and migrants, treatment of the poor or freedom of assembly, or even compel its leaders to spout hateful propaganda, this would be a backward step – and there is no guarantee that the state would not turn against LGBT+ people too, of which there are already signs.
However there is a rather stronger case for disestablishment, especially given the Church of England’s repeated failures on safeguarding and redress for victims of abuse. Why the state should continue to lavish rewards and high status on an institution which so signally fails to abide by its own moral code might understandably be questioned, though it is unclear how much support there would be in Parliament for such a move.
Perhaps most importantly, church leaders’ failings on this matter have perhaps made Christianity sound hugely off-putting to some of the most spiritually sensitive, caring young and not-so-young people. While several other churches are more inclusive, they tend not to have as high a public profile, so that some observers may get a very unappealing picture of the God whom Christians worship.
If earthly parents happily celebrated weddings for their other children but kept breaking up every relationship their youngest child formed, while repeatedly telling him how much they loved him, most onlookers would think them selfish and cruel. And an approach to the Bible which plucks passages out of context, sometimes uses questionable translations then claims absolute authority for interpretations based on these is an invitation to reject the whole Bible as obsolete or hopelessly morally flawed.
Making Prayers of Love and Faith available to clergy and parishes would be an advance. But a bolder approach is needed to maintain the credibility of the Church of England. In other faith groups too, sometimes extra weight is given to the views of those with greater status or a more hierarchical view of the world, while others are marginalised, which can get in the way of drawing on the best within that tradition. It will be interesting to see what happens at Synod and afterwards.
© 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) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.