Seeking to be a focus of Anglican unity, but drawing criticism from many directions
By Rosie Dawson
The Archbishop of Canterbury has welcomed prayers and blessings for same-sex couples, but said he will not use them.
The Rt. Rev. Justin Welby spoke at a press conference January 20, ahead of the next meeting of the church’s General Synod (Feb. 6-9). Earlier in the week, more than 100 bishops agreed that, while they would not initiate legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry in church, they would endorse Prayers of Love and Faith for people wanting to celebrate faithful same-sex relationships.
The agreement was immediately leaked to the BBC. Those who had been campaigning for same-sex marriage and those who had wanted no change in the church’s position gave their reactions to a voracious media. This meant the press conference intended to unveil the bishops’ proposals had only one genuinely new story to tell.
Welby called his decision a “self-denying ordinance” in view of his position as spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. Churches in the United States, Canada, and Scotland have recognized same-sex marriage, but the overwhelming majority of churches in the Anglican Communion oppose it.
Welby said the bishops’ proposals represented “a moment of joy and celebration. We have actually made decisions which change our approach to LGBTQI+ people.” But he added that, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he is supposed to be “an instrument of communion and a focus of unity. I have a pastoral responsibility for the whole communion. So, while joyfully celebrating these new resources, I will not personally use them, in order not to compromise that pastoral care.”
Welby has embarked on a pilgrimage of peace with Pope Francis in South Sudan, where Anglican bishops are among the strongest opponents of any change to the church’s position.
The U.K. Parliament introduced civil partnerships in 2005 and same-sex marriage in 2013.
The bishops’ proposals mark the end of a five-year process known as Living in Love and Faith (LLF), which distributed resources, films, and stories for discussion in churches around the country. Six thousand people sent in responses, and these were considered by the bishops’ Next Steps Group, chaired by the Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Sarah Mullaly.
She hailed Prayers of Love and Faith as “a real first. Up until now, same-sex couples have had no way of publicly expressing their desire to put God at the center of their relationship and commitment to one another in a Church of England church.”
The bishops’ statement on January 20 acknowledged their personal as well as theological differences. “The differences among you are also present among us, the College of Bishops. We are partnered, single, celibate, married, divorced, widowed, bereaved; heterosexual, gay, bisexual, and same-sex attracted. We have diverse convictions about sexuality and marriage.”
The Rt. Rev. Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, told the press conference that, while he understood Welby’s position, he would use the prayers blessing same-sex relationships. He became emotional as he recalled attending the civil partnership of two gay friends who were not allowed by law to include a Bible reading as part of the ceremony.
He spoke about an apology by the bishops “for the ways in which the Church of England has treated LGBTQI+ people”: “One thing we’ve learned in this process is just how much damage we’ve done. The sorry now is coming from a place of being informed. We’ve spent so much time listening and working with people across a whole range of diversities. It has brought us to a new knowledge and a new place of humility before God, before church, before the world where we can say, ‘Yes, we got it wrong.’”
Reactions to the bishops’ statement have been predictably mixed.
The Rev. Andrew Foreshew-Cain, chairman of Equal: the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, said: “They’re about to apologize to the gay community for the way that we’ve been treated over the last few years, whilst proposing to continue treating us as second-class citizens within church and not officially recognizing our relationships.”
A cautious welcome came from the Rev. Charlie Bell, a priest of the Diocese of Southwark.
“For the first time, we’re saying that relationships between two people of the same sex are good, and that good comes from them. We’re not saying they’re equal, and that’s an issue. But there’s a fundamental shift.”
Helen Lamb of the Church of England Evangelical Council told a briefing held by the Religion Media Centre that LLF had been helpful in changing the tone of debate within the church, but she worried that the new proposals were a “Trojan horse” leading to an eventual change of doctrine.
“I hesitate to accuse bishops of this, but it’s as if they’re speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” she said. “On the one hand, marriage is between one man and one woman. And that is the doctrine. And on the other hand, we want to bless and say that something is holy that God in his Word says is not.”
Her CEEC colleague John Dunnett suggested that the gulf between traditionalists and liberals was so wide that special arrangements might be necessary to accommodate them.
“We need to recognize that the liberals want something that is so different to what we believe is right — that the only ‘settled’ way forward is through a clear differentiation between those in the Church of England who hold different views. At a practical level, this might involve the creation of a new space in the Church of England for those wishing to pursue change.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury said the overwhelming majority of Church of England bishops supported the change. Many bishops issued personal statements. Bishop Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry described the decision as “a form of ‘differentiated consensus’ that has an authentically Anglican character,” providing “a pastoral framework in which all can serve and, common ground on broad but sensitive liturgical provision.” Some, like the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt. Rev. Vivienne Faull, expressed regret that the church was not looking to change canon law to allow same-sex marriage. Others indicated they would push for further change. A statement from bishops in the Diocese of Chichester emphasized that the Church of England continues to affirm holy matrimony, “as it has always done.”
The Global Anglican Future Conference, which includes Global South Anglicans and some who are not in communion with Canterbury, condemned the bishops’ decision. Archbishop Foley Beach, chairman of GAFCON, said in a statement that the bishops’ decisions “not only deny holy practice, but reject the authority of Scripture, the teaching of the historic church, and the consensus of the body of Christ from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation alive today.”
One area still to be addressed is the situation faced by clergy in same-sex partnerships and marriages. Some of those clergy have lost their licenses to officiate. The bishops will draft pastoral guidance within the next three months to be brought before July’s meeting of General Synod.
It will include a statement on the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered faithful, and another on the conduct expected of clergy and ordinands. This will replace Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), which said homosexuality could not be considered equal to heterosexuality in the created order, and that clergy were not at liberty to enter into sexually active gay relationships.
“The very minimum that must happen is that those relationships and those marriages should no longer be a bar to either ordination or continued ministry, and those who have been barred from ministry through entering same-sex civil marriage should immediately be reinstated,” Bell said. Bell told TLC he has received private assurances that this will happen.
A motion going before February’s General Synod will invite its members to join in the bishops’ apology, and to welcome Prayers of Love and Faith.
But prominent campaigner Jayne Ozanne has introduced an amendment calling on General Synod to discuss legislation that would authorize same-sex marriage in the church. While voting on the motion might give a closer indication of the level of support for same-sex marriage within General Synod, any legislation discussed in July would have no chance of gaining the two-thirds majority required to pass into church law.