By Ruth Peacock
Church of England bishops’ compromise on same-sex marriage has been judged “inconsistent and incoherent” by clergy and lay people.
Their plan — to ban same-sex marriage in church but offer prayers of blessing for same-sex couples after their civic weddings — has pleased no one, with bishops accused of treating same-sex couples as second-class citizens, wasting the past five years of discussion, and talking out of both sides of their mouth.
Speakers from opposing sides of the divide told a Religion Media Centre briefing that they wanted a more courageous stand. But there was also a dose of reality, as any significant shift would need support of the church’s parliament, the General Synod, and this could not be guaranteed.
The bishops’ proposals were leaked on Tuesday evening. They had announced that the CofE would be issuing an apology this week to LGBTQI+ people for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have faced in churches and the impact this has had on their lives. And they would urge all congregations to welcome same-sex couples “unreservedly and joyfully”.
The bishops’ meeting on Tuesday followed the six-year project Living in Love and Faith, in which all church members were encouraged to study and reflect on the issues, with the aim of creating deeper understanding of deeply divided views.
The bishops will distribute final decisions and papers on Friday but the initial leak has provoked protest.
Reaction to the proposals
Andrew Foreshew-Cain, co-founder of Equal, the campaign for equal marriage in the CofE, spoke of his disappointment that the proposals did not move things forward. It was inconsistent and incoherent to bless same-sex marriage while at the same time maintaining that marriage was possible only between a man and woman.
Helen Lamb, from the Church of England Evangelical Council, agreed. She said the bishops were “speaking out of both sides of their mouth”, and they should be prepared to be unpopular with the world by pursuing traditional doctrine.
She said that sex was not just a recreational activity, a hobby or a pastime, but a profound mystery of a covenant relationship between two people.
The bishops’ response was an extraordinary position, she said, and she was dismayed that the confused outcome would simply prolong the agony of division within the church.
The Rev Dr Ian Paul, a theologian and assistant vicar at St Nic’s Nottingham, said the whole situation was “a mess and entirely unsatisfactory”, agreeing it was theologically incoherent.
He said everybody had been clear that there was to be no change of doctrine on marriage. This cannot change until theological work was completed and “we’ve had no actual theological reflection happening here at all”.
Blessings ‘a fundamental shift’
A more optimistic note was sounded by the Rev Dr Charlie Bell, curate at St John the Divine, Kennington, who believed that the bishops’ response was a fundamental shift: “What this new position says is that, for the first time, relationships between two people with the same sex are good.”
He wanted to see more information about the status of clergy already committed in same-sex marriages and whether the CofE would address the rule that required gay clergy to be celibate. Some who had entered a civil marriage had lost their job. He wanted to see them reinstated and same-sex marriage no longer a bar to priesthood. “If that does not happen, the idea of an apology rings even more hollow,” he added.
The Rev Canon Dr Andrew Goddard, who is on the Living in Love and Faith co-ordinating group, said one of the problems in evaluating the decision was that the bishops’ reasons would not be released until Friday. For example, blessings would be a change in church practice, but it was not clear how that step would be made.
Synod has the final word
The bishops’ proposals will go before the General Synod in February. Some believe the synod will throw them out.
Dr Bell said change was not only about theology or coherence, it was also about political reality. Anything that changed the doctrine of marriage or enabled same-sex marriage in church would require a two-thirds majority at the General Synod and this simply would not be forthcoming.
He would have preferred the bishops to have said they wanted to introduce same-sex marriage, but it was not possible. “I’d like to have seen a more courageous stand,” Dr Bell said. “The bishops, unfortunately, have not been known for their courage through all of this process.”
He predicted that even allowing blessings of same-sex marriage would not get through the General Synod with the necessary majority.
Dr Paul suggested the reason the bishops came up with their proposal was that they believed it. Mr Foreshew-Cain believed this was not the case. Many people had said the bishops believed in same-sex relationships, but they were not prepared to nail their colours to the mast and take leadership. The bishops were “floundering around and disappointing everybody”, he concluded.
MPs might intervene
The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw told The Guardian that the bishops were heading for a huge constitutional clash with parliament. “The overwhelming view of MPs on both sides of the house is that it is not sustainable for our established church to be institutionally homophobic and to actively exclude a portion of the population, whom they have a duty to serve,” he said.
He has suggested that MPs might act to end homophobia and inequality in the church.
But Dr Paul said the church had autonomy over its decision-making. The idea that MPs could tell the church what to do was remarkable: “I can only I can think of a couple of countries where the state tells people what they can believe religiously. One of them is Iran. The other one is China.”
He said people underestimated how conservative the Church of England was. It was quite different from churches that have accepted same-sex marriage, such as the Church in Wales and the Episcopal church in Scotland. The CofE had not changed doctrine in all the many changes of the past 100 years, he said.
The panel had a mixed reaction as to whether the five years of the project Living in Love and Faith were wasted.
Some said it had changed the way people spoke to one another and provided helpful resources. Others disagreed. Dr Paul said: “Mostly a waste of time. It’s a real missed opportunity.”
View the briefing on our YouTube channel here