Tangled legacy of the Church of England’s debate on same-sex marriage

Image credit: Church of England

By Ruth Peacock

Exhausted, sad, confused, anxious and angry — the legacy of the Church of England’s tortuous eight-hour debate on same sex blessings. To this, add bewilderment.

In a Religion Media Centre briefing on the fallout of the vote came the revelation from Ed Shaw, who co-chairs the Church of England Evangelical Council: “We don’t actually know what we agreed to yesterday, particularly around the role that the church leaders think sex plays in a relationship.”

The General Synod resolution included a commitment to restate the church doctrine of marriage and a promise from the bishops to produce pastoral guidance and suggested prayers for blessings same-sex couples, to be achieved within five months, ready for the next synod meeting in July.

Mr Shaw said: “The jury’s still out on what we passed. The guidance is unwritten and in some ways until July, it’s really hard to know how to respond to any of this, because we’re not actually sure what we said yesterday.”

Bishop Jill Duff agreed that it might have been better if the bishops had produced the pastoral guidance at the same time as the proposals for the synod vote.

She also revealed that the bishops had not talked about sex in their deliberations leading up to the synod debate. “A really important part of the way forward … is the pastoral guidance about sex outside marriage — what that looks like for clergy, but also laity? That wasn’t something we talked about. And in my group, a question that came up put up again was please, can the bishops talk about sex?”

The Rev Dr Charlie Bell said it was vital to debate marriage. Not all relationships are sexual. “Sex is not what homosexual love is about,” he said.

He said people complained that anything goes and we no longer have a theology of sex. “Well, if you won’t let us debate marriage, this is where it ends up. The idea of debating marriage is the idea of debating a fairly conservative institution, ie an institution which we say is the right place for sex. We have been unable to have that conversation. You cannot be surprised that therefore we have to talk about sex outside of marriage.”

The Rev Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes ventured: “There’ll be some people who think why on earth is the church still talking about this. Didn’t we all agree this was OK 30 years ago? That’s quite a large view that I’m hearing. And of course, there’ll be people who are saying, ‘How on earth dare the church being even think about this?’”

Nicola Denyer, a lay minister from Newcastle said: “Basically, all I want to say is most of the people I know are a mixed bunch in the northeast of England, who really fundamentally don’t care what the church does … because not that many people go to church, certainly of my age group anyway. And what people care about is how we treat each other. And where we are now, most people think the church are just a bunch of people who argue with each other.”

And the synod vote didn’t stop that. The Rev Dr Ian Paul, from Nottingham, expressed his fury at the bishops for resisting amendments, acknowledging the risk of consequences for Anglicans in other countries yet still going ahead.

“I think this whole thing has been immensely damaging,” he said. “I have said that the confidence in the House of Bishops is catastrophically low and I think it’s got even lower after this synod. And I think in particular, Justin Welby’s reputation has been immensely damaged … I think the bishops are going to have to do some really significant bridge-building because confidence in their leadership has hit absolute rock bottom.”

He said the idea that the Church of England was a place where we just simply had a variation of what people believed was nonsense. And yet, the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, said people were not of one mind: “As every parish priest in the land knows, within their congregations, they have people of many different views on all issues, and particularly on this one.”

Bishop Jill Duff had her own misgivings: “I think we want the bishops to keep the church together. It’s also our calling to be teachers of the church and guardians of the faith. And I think there’s been key elements that I think have eroded that in the past two weeks, by things that were talked about in documents and people going beyond that, in terms of whether its direction of travel, whether that’s talking about sex outside marriage. As a house of bishops, because we hadn’t discussed and agreed things and then things went beyond that, trust needs building up. I have raised this privately”.

Bishop Olivia Graham disagreed that there had been a breakdown of trust. “I think that the process that we’ve been through as bishops has brought us together like nothing else … I think we’ve had some really honest, deep conversations with each other. Where I do agree with her is that I think we are absolutely committed to walking together and to keeping the church together. And that’s a key part of our calling.”

The Bishop spoke of the variety of views held within the Church of England: “Every parish priest in the land knows, within their congregations, they have people of many different views on all issues, and particularly on this one. This includes some of the big evangelical churches”.

Yet Rev Dr Ian Paul said: “The idea that the Church of England is a place where we just simply have variation of what people believe it’s just nonsense. In the ordination vows, I stood up and I said, ‘I believe in the doctrine of the Church, I will teach it, I will model it to others’. The idea that that’s optional is just crazy”.

This was not the experience of Westcott House ordinand Kenton Li, who said there was a plurality of views among ordinands: “I suppose it’s part of our ordination training to hold different views together”, explaining that people come to the Church of England as a place of refuge and safety from different parts of the Anglican Communion.

The briefing heard from Busola Sodeinde, a church commissioner, who expressed her fear that a divorce was impending within the church, globally and within, as both sides were polarised in their thinking.

She said  transparency was essential. It was like Brexit where some facts were there but some weren’t. She had wanted consultations to have taken place with other churches in the Anglican communion before a vote was taken.

The Pentecostal church had moved away from mainstream churches in Britain as doors were shut on them in the 1960s. But now with this debate, doors were being shut on them again and there must be efforts to avoid racial disunity and find space to accommodate people.

Two speakers in the synod debate had warned of the risk of moving forward on same-sex blessings, with many churches within the Anglican Communion opposing the move. The Global South Fellowship Association issued a statement saying it deeply regretted the decision and questioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “fitness to lead”.

Professor Helen King, vice-chair of the Gender and Sexuality Group on general synod, said she was quite surprised at the reaction, because the synod had expressly said it would not depart from the traditional doctrine of the church on marriage.

She understood that there had been conversations behind the scenes between the archbishop and the wider Anglican Communion. But this was a big juggling act and the archbishop “was juggling the impossible”.

Bishop Olivia Graham sketched out the next steps and said there was a lot of work to do to meet the July deadline. Draft prayers were presented to groups at synod and the bishops will consider the feedback: “We were very much in listening mode.”

The pastoral guidelines to be produced by July would not a document that people had to sign up to, but a guide including on people who want to go into ministry, who are in same-sex civil partnerships, or who would like to be. “The implication is of the prayers is that those clergy won’t have to sign up to the vow of celibacy and also that they will be able to be married and still have a licence.”


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