Was it really worth it? I refer to the five years of consultation and discussion, entitled “Living in Love and Faith”, undertaken by the Church of England over the issue of sexuality. Or, to be specific, the subject of the church marrying LGBTQ+ people. Because on Tuesday (17 January) the bishops announced that they would not change their teaching and allow the church to catch up with the state, which legalised equal marriage in 2013.
The bishops did agree, however, that “prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing” on same-sex couples could be said for civil marriages or partnerships, that they’d apologise for the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and to reform the 1991 demand that clergy in same-sex relationships be celibate. But that’s it. In other words, good luck on your journey of love but you’re not quite the real thing.
Some see this as progress, others as the opposite. Yet while it’s colossally disappointing, it’s not really very surprising. The Bishop of Oxford and some other less prominent bishops have spoken out publicly in support of change, but most are opposed or – and this is significant – concerned that if they do agree to marrying same-sex couples it will lead to the destruction of the Anglican Communion.
They have a point of course. In much of Africa and the Caribbean, and parts of Asia, there’s vehement opposition. There may be money and influence in Western and particularly the US church, but numbers and growth are in the developing world. There’s room for compromise, as was shown in the recent international gathering in Canterbury, but the line is thin and tenuous.
The US and Scottish churches marry same-sex couples, and in Canada it’s allowed but room is given for dissent. The context is different in England, however. First, because the evangelical wing of the church is fairly strong, whereas in North America there are large and active alternative homes for people with more conservative views. Second, the Church of England is seen as the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. In other words, what it says and does has far more of an effect.
As for the actual theology around homosexuality and equal marriage, the Bible says very little. There are a mere handful of “gotcha” verses, usually quoted with very little understanding of what they mean. I believe scripture to be inspired and vital, but it’s not divine dictation given to us by God to rigidly order our lives and loves in the 21st century. It was designed to be understood through the prism of the informed believer, and its song is one of beauty and openness. Jesus said not a word about the issue of homosexuality, and was more interested in that we love, not whom we love.
Also, church teaching changes. As it has about contraception, suicide, slavery and so much else. It will change on this too, but how much longer will LGBTQ people have to suffer discrimination and pain? That, surely, is the question every Christian should be asking.
[See also: There’s no such thing as being straight]