by Christina Baron, Chair of the General Synod Gender and Sexuality Group and Elected Member of General Synod for the Diocese of Bath and Wells
At the beginning of November, we are promised, the product of the Church of England’s exercise now known as ‘Living in Love and Faith’ will, finally, be published. This has involved hundreds of people and, almost certainly, hundreds of thousands of pounds in the three years since it was set up in response to the highly unusual defeat in General Synod of a paper on same-sex relationships from the bishops.
‘Living in Love and Faith’ was originally to be called ‘The Bishops’ Teaching Document’. The change of title confirms something which is already evident and well-known: teaching about sexuality, gender and relationships is something on which not all bishops can agree. So, in changing the document’s name, there is a tacit acknowledgement of that disagreement, but it is a continuing puzzle why this disagreement may not be publicly admitted. In contrast, on the subject of the ordination of women as priests and, later, bishops there was, and continues to be, public acceptance that not all bishops are in agreement.
So, the key question is, what is it about sexuality that makes the “good disagreement” to which the church aspires, so unwelcome?
Interestingly, there is a history of some in the Church of England leading public opinion on sexuality. In the 1950s an adviser to the Church of England Moral Welfare Council, the Rev. Dr. Sherwin Bailey, gave evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, advocating the decriminalisation of male homosexual activity. And when decriminalisation finally came to parliament ten years later, it was supported by Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Senior churchmen were not afraid to give a moral lead then it seems.
Over the past fifty years, as society has become more accepting of same sex relationships and the shadow of criminalisation has cleared, the Church of England has been endlessly rewriting its liturgy and discussing whether women could be ordained. Meanwhile, first civil partnerships and then same sex marriage became legal in England. That would indicate that the country, and attitudes to same sex relationships in general, have changed since Wolfenden. And if we look over the borders to the countries which share this island, we see that same sex couples may now marry in the Scottish Episcopal Church and that the Church in Wales has voted in favour to do so too, although not quite yet by the required majority.
A local councillor once said to me about gays and lesbians “I don’t know any.” Since the 2017 debate, no member of General Synod can say that. And with the increasing public acknowledgement and acceptance of same sex couples, nor can most Church of England worshippers – the people in our pews.
Before the 2017 debate, I put a note in the pewsheet of my parish church, asking for comments. This was in a small town (all right, we have a cathedral and a royal charter – so officially it’s a city, but a very small one) with a local, not a gathered, congregation. At coffee time there was a queue to speak to me and my heart sank. I should have had more faith, however. There was a procession of “we had a wonderful gay vicar in our last parish,” my godson should be able to get married in his parish church,” “my niece had a lovely Quaker wedding.”
Sadly, some Christians, including some members of the Church of England, see same sex relationships as what used to be called a “first order issue” – that is “fundamental to the faith”, like the divinity of Christ. That means that some members of the Church of England would find it impossible to remain in a church which allowed any endorsement of same sex relationships.
I don’t want to see anyone leave the Church of England over this issue. But we must acknowledge that current teaching means that the Church of England has already lost untold numbers of people, particularly partnered clergy and potential ordinands. They have gone over the borders to Scotland or Wales, or left for another church or, in some cases, for no church. Great personal anguish has been caused and the Church has lost people it could ill-afford to lose. Those of us who want the Church to accept and affirm same sex couples could cohabit (although not literally) in one church with those who disagree, with provision to protect their conscientious objection. It is unfortunate that such cohabitation seems not to be acceptable to those who want no change.
‘Living in Love and Faith’ will, we are told, include study materials for discussion at PCCs and synods. However, as one bishop has said “it will land extraordinarily badly.” Not only are all churches and dioceses now coping with the pastoral, practical and financial consequences of Covid-19, but most worshippers accept same sex relationships and don’t know what all the fuss is about! For them the issue is no longer an issue.
If the Church of England had embarked upon ‘Living in Love and Faith’ forty or fifty years ago, it would have been leading the way for secular society. In 2020, the Church seems to many, both members and non-members and particularly the young, to be spending endless time talking about sex. At the same time, the environment is being trashed and poverty and injustice increase.
Sex is not the most important element of Christ’s teaching and I for one would really like never to have to write an article, make a speech, table a motion about sexuality and gender ever again. But the Church’s disregard, and worse, of faithful lesbian and gay Christians does not demonstrate the eternal truths – that we are all made in the image of God and loved by God. For the sake of the mission of the Church to all people, we must take the opportunity offered by ‘Living in Love and Faith’ to deal with this question once and for good.
Many of us in the Church of England believe it is right to affirm same sex relationships. Other Church members cannot accept this. The critical question is – can we find a way to live with that difference and demonstrate that the Church of England truly is “here for all the people of England?