Factsheet: Sexuality and the Church of England

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by Dr Susannah Cornwall

The Church of England is in the midst of a complex and fraught internal debate over same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Currently it bans gay weddings in churches, allows prayers of support to same sex couples following a civil partnership or marriage and allows clergy to enter a civil partnership

What is the Church of England’s position on same-sex marriage?

The Church of England is the state church in England. The Church of England’s church law (Canon Law) is part of English law. Same-sex marriage was made legal in England and Wales by the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.

The Church of England and Church in Wales sought exemption from the law, and as a result it is not legally possible for them to celebrate same-sex marriages. It would not be possible for them to legally celebrate same-sex marriages until such time as their Canon Law was changed.

The Church in Wales voted in September 2021 to offer prayers of blessing to couples in same-sex marriages. However, the Church in Wales can still not itself conduct same-sex marriages.

Other religious groups can opt in to celebrating same-sex marriages, but cannot be compelled to do so. Some religious groups have chosen to do so: these include the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Unitarians, and some United Reformed Church congregations.

No discrimination claim can legally be brought against a religious group on the grounds that it has not opted to celebrate same-sex marriages.

In a 2017 interview, when asked for his views on “gay sex”, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, said: “I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people … that covers both sides of the argument. And I haven’t got a good answer, and I am not doing that bit of work as well as I would like”.

What about the Anglican Communion?

The Anglican Communion is a voluntary fellowship of churches around the world, many but not all in Commonwealth countries, which are in full communion with the Church of England. This means they fully recognise each other’s clergy and ministries.

The churches of the Anglican Communion each have their own leadership and governance, but often look to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior bishop in the Church of England, as a focus for unity. However, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Church of England has any authority in any other provinces of the Anglican Communion.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference (a gathering of bishops from the worldwide provinces of the Anglican Communion) passed a resolution characterising “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”. This resolution is not binding on any of the Anglican churches worldwide, and some of them have gone on to ordain gay clergy and/or to celebrate same-sex marriages.

Conservatives in the Church of England fear that acceptance of same-sex marriage by the Church of England would put it out of step with the Anglican churches in provinces such as Uganda and Kenya, and could lead to the breakdown of the Anglican Communion.

Liberals in the Church of England note that there are other Anglican churches worldwide, including the Episcopal Church in the USA, and the Scottish Episcopal Church, which already do celebrate same-sex marriages.

What is the situation with gay clergy?

In 1991, a document called Issues in Human Sexuality, produced by the Church of England’s bishops, stated that Church of England clergy were not at liberty to enter into sexually active same-sex relationships. This was in line with the Church of England’s teaching that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage. At the time, same-sex marriage was not legal in England and Wales.

The 1991 guidance has not been superseded by any more recent documents. People who are accepted to train as Church of England clergy must affirm that they agree to live in accordance with Issues in Human Sexuality.

However, since the passage of the Marriages (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, some Church of England clergy have married their same-sex spouses.

In 2014, Revd Jeremy Pemberton, who had married his same-sex partner, was disciplined by the Church of England and prevented from taking up a post as an NHS healthcare chaplain in Nottinghamshire.

In 2017, Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, a vicar in London who married his husband in 2015, resigned from his post citing the pressure of working for an “institutionally homophobic organisation”.

In 2005, civil partnerships for same-sex couples were legalised in England and Wales. Since 2020, civil partnerships have also been available foe heterosexual couples.

The Church of England has not prevented its clergy from entering into civil partnerships as long as they are celibate. The Church of England ruled in 2013 that it was also possible for clergy in celibate civil partnerships to become bishops. Some Church of England churches have held services of blessing following civil partnerships.

Since 2013 it has been possible for same sex couples in civil partnerships to convert their relationships to marriages. When this happens it is possible to “backdate” the marriage to having begun on the date when they entered into the civil partnership. In 2017 Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain said he knew of between 20 and 25 Church of England clergy in same-sex marriages, some of whom had converted their civil partnerships.

Ongoing discussions

In 2013 the Church of England published a report of its Working Group on Human Sexuality (often known as the Pilling Report). This did not change the Church of England’s teaching on marriage, but did call for opposition to homophobia. Following the publication of the Pilling Report, the Church of England convened a series of regional mediated conversations on sexuality between bishops, clergy and lay people.

In 2017 the Church of England began work toward a new document, Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Identity, Sexuality, Relationships and Marriage, bringing together bishops, clergy and scholars in working parties focusing on different areas: social and biological, biblical, theological, and historical. Church of England churches were encouraged to undertake a short course of study based on the Living in Love and Faith materials during 2021 and 2022, and to offer feedback on their learning and experience by April 2022.

From September 2022 the College of Bishops will begin to work on proposals for a way forward in light of the Living in Love and Faith book and the feedback from congregations. In February 2023 these will be brought to the General Synod who will then “agree a clear direction of travel

Dr Susannah Cornwall is a senior lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter

See also this timeline of debates around sexuality in the Church of England for more detail

This article was first published in April 2018 and last updated in January 2022

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