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Postcard from London

By John Martin

After two weeks of wall-to-wall Olympics coverage by the United Kingdom’s mass media, the usual seasonal news void has set in.

Making headlines this week is a story first featured in The Guardian that a dozen gay Church of England priests intend to write an open letter to the House of Bishops to ask the church to change its stance on same-sex marriage. Half of them intend to say they are already married to same-sex partners.

Guardian reporter Nicola Slawson wrote that the letter is “likely to reignite the heated debate on the issue, which has divided the church since same-sex marriages were legalised in England and Wales in March 2014.”

When Parliament approved legislation enabling same-sex marriage, the Church of England negotiated what at the time was called a “quadruple lock.” It effectively barred clergy from performing same-sex weddings and protected the church from potential legal challenges right up to the European Court.

When Archbishop Justin Welby visited his fellow primates and persuaded them to attend the Primates’ Meeting held in Canterbury in January, he could counter the critics by saying it was illegal for Church of England clergy to contract or officiate at a same-sex marriage.

The Rev. Andrew Foreshew-Cain of the Diocese of London is one of two high-profile priests who have defied church rules. So far it appears that no sanctions have been brought against him.

In another instance, the Rev. Canon Jeremy Pemberton was refused a licence when he was appointed as a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. A legal challenge failed, although Pemberton says he will appeal.

Both of these instances appear to weaken Archbishop Welby’s bargaining power in the Anglican Communion, not least because he has asked primates to plan on attending another meeting next year.

Closer to home, the Church of England has engaged in Shared Conversations based on the principle of “good disagreement.” There were regional conversations, and General Synod’s summer sessions featured two and a half days of executive sessions. A report from these sessions will go to the College of Bishops.

It’s clear that peace did not break out. Members who hold a traditional view of marriage say that theological and exegetical presentations in Shared Conversations were poor and far from convincing. There were complaints that moderators cut short discussion on important issues. There are calls for more theological work to be done.

For the liberal-minded, the obvious and straightforward solution would be some sort of mixed economy, what for many years has been called “local option” in the United States. That appears to be unacceptable to a majority of General Synod members. For them it would signal an abandonment of the traditional theology that marriage is between a man and a woman. Many will never concede this.

Some of them say the best option for the Church of England is to affirm its traditional stance. This, they suggest, would risk the loss of a relatively small number of clergy compared to the numbers of clergy and lay people who would leave if same-sex marriage carried the day.

For now, the quadruple lock makes the open letter something less than the beginning of a revolution.

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