A TROUBLED UNION: LOVE AND MARRIAGE IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND
The Recent Decisions of the Church of England Synod in relation to Sexuality have provoked major reaction around the Communion and raise many questions about whether or not Church teaching is being changed. This extended overview places the decisions in relation to major prior statements on the topic going back to 1991 (which are extensively quoted). It also cites some of the dramatic initial responses to a process that has in fact some way further to run.
Despite the latest process of churchwide reflection and analysis taking six years of work, it would seem there is no end in sight to the tumults that issues about sexuality can cause the Church of England. Indeed, the impact of the most recent actions of the Synod look likely to reverberate around the global Communion, which now looks set to split ever more deeply. The initial responses to the decisions made, illustrate the divides all too clearly:
‘The Church of England was likened to an “abusive partner”…as it ruled out a push towards same-sex marriage in favour of watered-down reforms on LGBT+ issues…. After years of deliberations and consultations, bishops will keep in place the Church’s ban on clergy performing same-sex weddings, but instead will permit in-church “blessings” for same-sex couples who get a civil marriage – concessions that progressives warn will “please no one” and are too little to maintain the Church’s relevance in modern Britain…’, while, ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, warned …. that further liberalisation risked making the Church “a victim of derision, contempt or even attack for being part of what is called the ‘gay church’”….However, ‘LGBT+ Christian campaigner Jayne Ozanne challenged the bishops…” saying, “It’s akin to an abusive partner who keeps telling the one they abuse that they love them and they are sorry and they will never do it again. That is a harmful cycle of abuse….’ (Nick Duffy, writing for inews.co.uk, February 9, 2023)
“It is now beyond doubt that the C of E as an institution has formally rejected God’s clear design for sex and marriage revealed in his Word, and in doing so, has demonstrated a theological confusion, lack of confidence in the Gospel and capitulation to the worldviews of secular culture which is disastrous for the church’s pastoral care and mission.GAFCON Great Britain and Europe, together with GAFCON Global, laments this departure from “the faith once delivered to the saints”, and stands in solidarity with faithful clergy and laity in the Church of England who find themselves out of communion with those supposedly in spiritual oversight over them.” (Statement of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) UK, February 14, 2023)
It is fascinating to see that the responses do not even agree upon what the Synod actually did as the interpretations are themselves incompatible.
Just how the Church of England reached this point is a complex story with many contributing strands, of which three may usefully be distinguished:
a) Earlier Statements of the House of Bishops of the Synod of the Church of England entitled respectively, Issues in human Sexuality (48 pages) issued in 1991, along with Marriage: A teaching document from the House of Bishops, of September, 1999. (And there was in addition, a Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, but this was explicitly “not a new policy statement from the Church of England”;
b) Resolution I,10 on Human Sexuality of the 1998 Lambeth Conference;
c) The debacle of February 2017, when the House of Bishop’s Report of that time was (very narrowly) rejected by the Synod. It was this event that precipitated the entire Living in Love and Faith process that led to the decisions by the Synod in February this year.
It is useful to approach the events at this Synod by looking first at some aspects of the documents produced in relation to each of the stages cited here, in this long evolving saga. In doing so there is, however, a structural difficulty, insofar as they differ very much in length. This means that there is very substantially more material to cover from the first document than from any of the later ones, since these have tended to be much more immediately practical in their import. But the Issues in Human Sexuality Report of 1991 sets out a great deal of historical and theological hinterland that still informs much of the long and continuing debate, which means that an overview is highly informative.
Some key sections from the House of Bishops Report of 1991
Issues in Human Sexuality:
(NB some of the vocabulary used, not to mention spellings, are distinctively English and of their time) NB: the following passages from this 1991 document are extensive and run for the next several pages.
Section 2: Scripture and Human Sexuality
2.17 …The Bible has a positive approach to the possibilities of affection in same-sex relationships. Expressions of the depth of affection between one man and another, or one woman and another, can have the quality of similar affection within the marriage bond. Ruth and Naomi (‘Where you go I will go; and where you lodge I will lodge’: Ruth 1.16) and David and Jonathan (‘Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’: 2 Sam. 1.26) are good examples, to say nothing of the warmth of affection between Jesus and his disciples, or the injunctions to brotherly love in the New Testament letters. …..It has also been remarked that we have no record of any explicit teaching by Jesus on the subject of homosexual relations. This is true. But from the fact that he supports with his own authority the statement in Genesis that in the beginning God created humankind male and female, and uses that as a basis for ethical guidance (Matt. 19. 3-9; Mark 10.1-12), it is not unreasonable to infer that he regarded heterosexual love as the God-given pattern.
2.29 There is,… in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable. It is also recognised that God may call some to celibacy for particular service in his cause. Only by living within these boundaries are Christians to achieve that holiness which is pleasing to God….this ultimate biblical consensus presents us with certain problems….But it is quite clearly the foundation on which the Church’s traditional teaching is built…
Section 3: The Christian Vision for human Sexuality
3.2 …One basic principle is very definitely implicit in Christian thinking about sexual relations…: the greater the degree of personal intimacy, the greater should be the degree of personal commitment. ….For Christian tradition this has been, as it were, codified in the principle that full sexual intercourse requires total commitment, that is, in the words of the marriage service, ‘faithful’ and ‘forsaking all others’ ‘to have and to hold … for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’. ….
3.6 It is also the marriage committed to loving stability which alone can provide the best home for our children….
Nonetheless the report notes that:
3.12 Many of the most valuable contributions to work or community are made by single people …. One special gift which the single….have the freedom to develop is that of friendship. Jesus says to his closest followers, ‘I have called you friends’ John 15.15), and the Gospels show him as one who had this gift of being friends with a wide variety of people. Friendship is undervalued in the present age, indeed its potentialities are far from fully understood. …In particular cultures and periods of history friendships have also had a much richer emotional quality than our own time feels comfortable to allow them. Reference has already been made to the biblical story of David and Jonathan. Later Christian tradition too contains many wonderful examples of these deep friendships. We see them in the lives of men like Basil the Great, Augustine or Aelred of Rievaulx, or in the partnership of Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal. Our own day is much too ready to interpret any intimate friendship as no more than a disguise for hidden homosexual or heterosexual involvement, a tendency which can not only inflict hurt but also actively inhibit the development of friendship in general.
3.13 True friendship, like marriage, calls for loyalty. It involves sharing at many levels. It too is a means of grace for the growth of our personalities. It can greatly enhance the quality of our work or of our general service of others. At the same time it is more flexible than marriage… Above all, friendship, however deep, is never exclusive
3.14 This is the fundamental reason why full physical sexual relations, or behaviour that would normally and naturally lead to such relations, have no place in friendship or, indeed, in the life of the single person in general. The proper fulfilment of such relations, the good which they serve, is that of unique lifelong commitment to one partner. Where such commitment is not possible, the effect of the physical relationship is not in the end to enhance life for those concerned but to impair it. It frustrates both parties because their love can never achieve the purpose at all levels for which God intends it…..
However, the report goes on to say:
3.15 ….Celibacy is… a choice of the unmarried state not for self-regarding reasons but from love in order to be able to serve God and neighbour more freely, whether through the life of prayer or through activity or both. To prescribe ‘celibacy’, therefore, for all those for whom marriage, for whatever reason, is impossible is a misuse of the term. Celibacy cannot be prescribed for anyone. What is needed is that the single should live in the form of chastity appropriate to their situation…..
Section 4: The phenomenon of homosexual love
4.13…The word ‘natural’ has various connotations. … moral theology employs it to describe those types of human conduct which are in harmony with the will of God as discernible from creation as opposed to those which violate that will and which are ‘unnatural’. In this context, therefore, ‘natural’ does not refer simply to whatever we happen to find human beings doing or wanting to do spontaneously. Thus we can say that, though in certain circumstances it may, in ordinary parlance, be a very natural thing to tell a lie, in the theological sense it will be ‘unnatural’, because if God created a world in which accurate communication is possible we may properly assume that his overall purpose was to enable us to give and receive the truth. But it may not always be unnatural in this sense to lie, as in the classic example of lying to divert a murderer from his intended victim, where the lie serves God’s overriding purposes of love and justice.
4.14 In the context of human sexuality, a first and obvious observation is that sexual desire and the sexual activity that results from it serve the purposes of procreation; and it would be highly unreasonable to argue that it was not the will of a Creator that this should be so. Furthermore, since it is the interaction of the male and female genital organs which makes procreation possible, that too must be part of God’s purpose, and be so for at least the great majority of humankind. In short, the biological evidence is at least compatible with a theological view that heterosexual physical union is divinely intended to be the norm.
4.15 At the same time such sexual desire and intercourse have other, if related consequences, of which the availability of effective contraceptive methods has increased the importance. The intimacy of the parents, and the pleasure they find in each other, serve to strengthen the bond between them and so to enhance their co-operation in the necessary work of raising and protecting their children and bringing them to mature adulthood. But if that is the practical utility of sexual affection, it can also help to create the same kind of bond whether there are children or not. The words of Genesis about the union of man and woman are true independently’ of procreation. Adam amid all the richness of creation finds himself in lonely isolation; among all other creatures there is ‘no helper fit for him’. In the story only the creation of another who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh overcomes this loneliness; and, as the text observes, this is the fundamental reason why ‘a man leaves his father and mother and attaches himself to his wife, and the two become one’ (Gen.2.24, REB).
4.16 The potential blessings of this bonding are such that a theology of creation will very properly see them as also ‘natural’, that is, within the purposes of God. Moreover, these blessings are not simply there to be received automatically…. the pattern of self-giving needed for physical fulfilment is also essential if the partnership is to realise its full potential in other ways. In this way physical sex can positively promote personal values which Christians will certainly see as very much God’s will for human life.
4.17 In heterosexual love this personal bonding and mutual self-giving happen between two people who, because they are of different gender, are not merely physically differentiated but also diverse in their emotional, mental and spiritual lives, their way of experiencing and responding to reality. It is important not to exaggerate this distinction. As the writer of Genesis 2 realised, the fact of the common humanity of women and men is more important than any differences between them. Nevertheless, they do live that common humanity in different ways which make the distinctive contributions of each essential for the fullness of humankind as a whole; and it is important for the mature development both of individual men and women and of society that each person should come to understand and to value this complementarity. ….The fact that heterosexual unions in the context of marriage and the family are of such primary importance for the fostering of true man-woman complementarity seems to us to confirm their essential place in God’s providential order.
4.18 These considerations suggest one further insight. If the physical differentiation between the sexes is not only relevant to the biological process of reproduction but is also integral to the personal spiritual realities of mutual self-giving, parenthood and complementarity, then this is a major instance of a principle that lies at the heart of the Christian world-view: that the physical order is sacramental…..Our bodies can be the means of forwarding a spiritual and, where there is a living relationship with God, a divine purpose in our lives. For this to happen, however, there has to be a harmony between the physical and the spiritual. When we think of our bodies in this light, we see that they need to be used in a way that is both proper to themselves and in harmony with the spiritual realities we are trying to express and foster. Psychologically this corresponds to the ideal of an integrated human personality, where body, feelings, mind and spirit work fully together. Theologically it corresponds to the desire that every aspect of ourselves should be aligned with God’s will.
4.19….Those who are homophile can find themselves faced with specific difficulties distinct from those of the majority. There is, for example, a mismatch between their sexuality and their physical and often also their emotional capacity for parenthood. There may be for some a mismatch between their bodies and the ways in which they wish to express their mutual self-giving. Their sexuality can be a barrier rather than a help toward full man-woman complementarity. In all these respects, therefore, there are special difficulties in the way of integrating their sexuality into their life as a whole, or of fulfilling its potential as a sacramental expression of their relationship with the one they love. The task that surely faces both the individual Christian homophile and the Church is to work out together how his or her sexuality can best find expression within the discipleship to which every human being is called.
Section 5: The Homophile in the Life and Fellowship of the Church
5.1 We come now to consider what guidance for pastoral practice can be offered to the Church in the present state of Christian understanding of this issue. The aim of us all must be to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into the mind of Christ for all his members in a world where homosexual orientation is the experience of some. We begin by setting out two fundamental principles…
5.2 The first is that homophile orientation and its expression in sexual activity do not constitute a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, Tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, make it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation, or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.
5.3 We are aware that some regard such a position as tantamount to a rejection of the homophile as a person. Personal identity, it is argued, is so fundamentally bound up with sexuality that to categorise the latter as in some way imperfect is to treat the whole person as also essentially inferior. The argument is, however, false. Sexuality is a very important and influential element in our human make-up, but it is only one aspect of it….
5.4 This leads directly to our second fundamental principle, laid upon us by the truths at the very heart of the faith: homosexual people are in every way as valuable to and as valued by God as heterosexual people. God loves us all alike, and has for each one of us a range of possibilities within his design for the universe. This includes those who, for whatever reason, find themselves with a homophile orientation …within which therefore they have the responsibility of living human life creatively and well. Every human being has a unique potential for Christlikeness, and an individual contribution to make through that likeness to the final consummation of all things.
5.5 Of Christian homophiles some are clear that the way they must follow to fulfil this calling is to witness to God’s general will for human sexuality by a life of abstinence. In the power of the Holy Spirit and out of love for Christ they embrace the self-denial involved, gladly and trustfully opening themselves to the power of God’s grace to order and fulfil their personalities within this way of life. This is a path of great faithfulness, travelled often under the weight of a very heavy cross. It is deserving of all praise and of the support of Church members through prayer, understanding and active friendship.
5.6 At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the Church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God. All those who seek to live their lives in Christ owe one another friendship and understanding. It is therefore important that in every congregation such homophiles should find fellow-Christians who will sensitively and naturally provide this for them. Indeed, if this is not done, any professions on the part of the Church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homophile situation can be no more than empty words.
5.7 It will be noted that what we have said no more countenances promiscuous, casual or exploitative sex for the homophile than for the heterophile. The ideal of chastity holds good for all Christians; and homophiles who do not renounce all physical sex relations must nevertheless be guided by some form of that ideal appropriate to them. In this regard we would make specific comments on three particular matters, all connected ….with the themes of fidelity and the personal dimension in sexual relations.
5.8 The first is that of bisexuality. We recognise that there are those whose sexual orientation is ambiguous, and who can find themselves attracted to partners of either sex. Nevertheless it is clear that bisexual activity must always be wrong for this reason, if for no other, that it inevitably involves being unfaithful. The Church’s guidance to bisexual Christians is that if they are capable of heterophile relationships and of satisfaction within them, they should follow the way of holiness in either celibacy or abstinence or heterosexual marriage. …
5.9 The second concern arises from developments in the ideology of homosexual relations. The argument is heard that ….(the) homophile can and should enjoy the freedom to express through physical sex a whole range of relationships, profound or superficial, transient or longer lasting, with any number of partners. Clearly this flies in the face of all that has been said earlier about the sacramentality of the body and the importance of proportion between physical intimacy and personal commitment. It should, indeed, be recognised that one-to-one partnerships are not the only ethically serious model for homophiles, who may find that the more appropriate way of life for them is, for example, that of a network of warmly, even intensely emotional friendships….
5.10 The third matter is that of paedophilia. This may be either homosexual or heterosexual. Because, however, it is commonly linked in popular misconception with homosexuality, let it be stated yet again that a homophile orientation does not, any more than a heterophile, of itself entail a sexual interest in or attraction to children. It is mistaken and unjust to assume, for example, that children in school or in a church choir are particularly at risk from gay or lesbian members of staff….
5.11 We come now to the question of the homophile clergy….
5.13 From the time of the New Testament onwards it has been expected of those appointed to the ministry of authority in the Church that they shall not only preach but also live the Gospel. These expectations are as real today as ever they were. People not only inside the Church but outside it believe rightly that in the way of life of an ordained minister they ought to be able to see a pattern which the Church commends. Inevitably, therefore, the world will assume that all ways of living which an ordained person is allowed to adopt are in Christian eyes equally valid. With regard to homophile relationships, however, this is, as we have already explained, a position which for theological reasons the Church does not hold. ….the Church is … bound to take care that the ideal itself is not misrepresented or obscured; and to this end the example of its ordained ministers is of crucial significance. This means that certain possibilities are not open to the clergy by comparison with the laity, something that in principle has always been accepted.
5.14 Restrictions on what the clergy may do also stem from their pastoral function. If they are to be accessible and acceptable to the greatest number of people, both within the Church and outside it, then so far as possible their lives must be free of anything which will make it difficult for others to have confidence in them as messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord. There can be no doubt that an ordained person living in an active homophile relationship does for a significant number of people at this time present such a difficulty.
5.15 Some would argue that a deeper understanding of God’s will would show these difficulties to be unfounded. The Church, they would say, needs to undergo a profound and radical transformation of its attitude to and understanding of the whole of human sexuality, including homophile relationships. Homophile couples, on this view, are simply witnessing to part of a truth which the Church will eventually come to accept, and ought to be allowed freedom for that witness. To this we would reply that, though the Church is not infallible, there is at any given time such a thing as the mind of the Church on matters of faith and life. Those who disagree with that mind are free to argue for change. What they are not free to do is to go against that mind in their own practice.
5.16 Another dissenting view is that clergy living in such permanent and faithful relationships are needed in order to provide others in the same situation both with role models and with wise and understanding pastoral care. On the question of the clergy as role models, the Ordinal of 1662 and the Canon Law do indeed require those ordained deacon and priest to make both themselves and their families wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ. But this points to a particular difficulty as regards clergy in sexually active homophile partnerships, namely that, given the present understanding of such partnerships in the Church as a whole, it is unrealistic to suppose that these clergy could in most parishes be accepted as examples to the whole flock as distinct from the homophiles within it. On the second point, that of good pastoral care, it is mistaken to suggest that this can be given only by those who have shared the relevant experience, Shared experience can in some cases enhance pastoral care, but if it were essential no pastors would be able to help or guide more than a small proportion of those to whom they were called to minister…..
5.17 We have, therefore, to say that in our considered judgement the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships. Because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration, to allow such a claim on their part would be seen as placing that way of life in all respects on a par with heterosexual marriage as a reflection of God’s purposes in creation. The Church cannot accept such a parity and remain faithful to the insights which God has given it through Scripture, tradition and reasoned reflection on experience.
5.18 In the light of this judgement some may propose that bishops should be more rigorous in searching out and exposing clergy who may be in sexually active homophile relationships. We reject this approach for two reasons. First, there is a growing tendency today to regard any two people of the same sex who choose to make their home together as being in some form of erotic relationship. This is a grossly unfair assumption, which can give rise to much unhappiness, and the Church should do nothing that might seem to countenance or promote it. Secondly, it has always been the practice of the Church of England to trust its members, and not to carry out intrusive interrogations in order to make sure that they are behaving themselves. Any general inquisition into the conduct of the clergy would not only infringe their right to privacy but would manifest a distrust not consonant with the commission entrusted to them, and likely to undermine their confidence and morale. Although we must take steps to avoid public scandal and to protect the Church’s teaching, we shall continue, as we have done hitherto, to treat all clergy who give no occasion for scandal with trust and respect, and we expect all our fellow Christians to do the same.
5.21 We respect that integrity. But it is also our duty to affirm the whole pattern of Christian teaching on sexuality set out in these pages, and to uphold those requirements for conduct which will best witness to it. We therefore call upon all clergy to live lives that respect the Church’s teaching, and we shall do everything in our power to help them to do so.
5.22 This means that candidates for ordination also must be prepared to abide by the same standards. For reasons already mentioned, however, we do not think it right to interrogate individuals on their sexual lives, unless there are strong reasons for doing so. Ordinarily it should be left to candidates’ own consciences to act responsibly in this matter.
5.23 Let us try to sum up….
The Church in its pastoral mission ought to help and encourage all its members, as they pursue their pilgrimage from the starting-points given in their own personalities and circumstances, and as they grow by grace within their own particular potential. It is, therefore, only right that there should be an open and welcoming place in the Christian community both for those homophiles who follow the way of abstinence, giving themselves to friendship for many rather than to intimacy with one, and also for those who are conscientiously convinced that a faithful, sexually active relationship with one other person, aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship, is the way of life God wills for them.
But the Church exists also to live out in the world the truth it has been given about the nature of God’s creation, the way of redemption through the Cross, and the ultimate hope of newness and fullness of life. We have judged that we ourselves and all clergy, as consecrated public and representative figures, entrusted with the message and means of grace, have a responsibility on behalf of the whole Body of Christ to show the primacy of this truth by striving to embody it in our own lives. But we also wish to stress the Church’s care for and value of all her clergy alike, and that where the Church’s teaching results for any ordained person in a burden grievous to be borne we, the bishops, as pastors to the pastors, will always be ready to share in any way we can in the bearing of that burden.
5.24….. In making our response we have tried never to forget our two principal duties as bishops: to be guardians of the Christian faith and way of life; yet equally to be pastors who not only respond in love to those who cry out of any pain of injustice or distress but also seek to discern when love is summoning the Church to rethink its existing perception of the truth. The story of the Church’s attitude to homosexuals has too often been one of prejudice, ignorance and oppression. All of us need to acknowledge that, and to repent for any part we may have had in it. The Church has begun to listen to its homophile brothers and sisters, and must deepen and extend that listening, finding through joint prayer and reflection a truer understanding and the love that casts out fear. If we are faithful to Our Lord, then disagreement over the proper expression of homosexual love will never become rejection of the homosexual person.” NB this ends the extended quotations from the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality.
As will be evident from these extended quotations, this report set out a substantial body of arguments for upholding, in practical terms, the historic teaching of the Church. However, along the way, it clearly also set out reasons for implicit but significant revision of the pastoral understanding and practical responses of the Church. Most notably, it made a clear distinction between same-sex attraction and the sexual expression of that attraction. It affirmed that all are to be welcomed into the Church and it took an expansive view of friendship, while lamenting its sexualization in modern culture, which it also critiqued for being overly sexual in general. It set out an extensive basis, derived both from scripture and Christian ethical reflection, for seeing heterosexual relations and marriage as only possible between a man and a woman, Yet, nonetheless, it also opened the door somewhat to other views, as legitimately possible through the exercise of the appropriately informed conscience. Clearly, it affirmed the legitimacy of stable same-sex relationships of various levels, so long as they be grounded in friendship, which then left a certain tension in the reasoning. Since, on the one hand, friendship qua friendship could never be exclusive, while sexual intimacy was tied to exclusivity. On the other hand, this underlined the inappropriate character of sexual relations between same sex couples thus understood, but then again, the view was somewhat undercut by highlighting that fidelity was much preferable to promiscuity. And the opening was rendered yet wider, by the care taken to allow that an appropriately informed conscience could take a different view, in respect to the sexual aspect, and that the Church should respect such choices. However, the report quite clearly set out all the reasons for holding clergy to the higher standard required by their commitment to live out exemplary lives ,which was held to preclude same sex partnerships – even if ,as a practical matter, this was not something into which overly intrusive enquiries should be made.
This document remained important, since it informed the practice of the church for a long while after it was written and continues to inform the later debates.
While this report was substantial, the next document of note comprised just a few sentences:
Resolution I,10 on Human Sexuality of the 1998 Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops, which reads, “while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation …” It also, states that the Lambeth Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” This Resolution still stands in an important sense, as an expression of the mind of the Communion, since neither of the two subsequent Lambeth Conferences passed any further resolution on the subject that would set it aside.
Nonetheless, several Provinces among the thirty-nine which comprise the global Communion have formally broken with its provisions (including those in North America, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand). And this very fact was a major factor behind the absence of many Global South bishops from the subsequent two Lambeth Conferences, since they questioned the point of attending, if what they resolved upon could be thus ignored. While the absence, in turn, of so many bishops would have made the status of any later Resolution upon the matter, itself moot (though there are precedents for successive Lambeth Conferences taking different views upon the same issue, as happened in respect of contraception).
Then within the Church of England, in September 1999 there next came the Report:
Marriage: A teaching document from the House of Bishops,
This ten page document opens with a Preface stating that:
“It has always been the Church’s mission to proclaim the unchanging gospel to the changing world. Lifelong marriage itself represents an unchanging ideal, and one which is the bedrock of a rapidly changing society. The House of Bishops considers it timely on the eve of the new millennium to reaffirm the Church of England’s teaching on marriage….
+George Cantuar, +David Ebor”
It then continues:
“Why is marriage important?
God is love (1 John 4.16), and in creating human beings he has called us to love, both himself and one another. The love of God the Father for his Son is the ground of all human love, and through the Holy Spirit we may dwell in that love, which the Son has shown to us (John 15.9). Marriage is a pattern that God has given in creation, deeply rooted in our social instincts, through which a man and a woman may learn love together over the course of their lives. We marry not only because we love, but to be helped to love. Without the practice and disciplines of marriage, our love will be exhausted and fail us, perhaps very harmfully to ourselves and others. When publicly and lawfully we enter into marriage, we commit ourselves to live and grow together in this love.Marriage is not, of course, the only pattern that is given us for a life of love. Unmarried people, of whom Jesus himself was one, have a different pattern of loving relationships, also to be valued and appreciated. Such people also have a special place in the life of the Church, since they have often made a decisive contribution by being available for initiatives in ministry. Married people, too, love others than their partners: they love their children, friends, strangers, and even their enemies (cf. Mt 5.44). But their marriage is the central focus of their relationships, around which other relationships grow; their home life together is their primary contribution to society. Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively. The three blessings that belong to marriage are traditionally described as the procreation and nurture of children, the hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections, and the mutual society, help and comfort which each affords the other in prosperity and adversity.”
Here, the message is firmly of unchanging continuity in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the simple declaration that “Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively.”
This highlights a key point of underlying continuity in the documents, which is that, whatever possible new thinking there might be in regard to same-sex unions ,or partnerships, or whatever the chosen term might be, marriage itself remains defined as it always has been, and is thus, only possible between a man and a woman.
Tracing the clarity and consistency with which this position has been maintained is very important for the current situation. It also goes to the heart of a difference between where many nation states have gone in civil law, and what the Church continues to hold.
This comes across at various points in the continuing debates when the secular legal framework is expressly referred to, as having changed the definition of marriage. This has important implications for the rhetoric about “marriage equality”, since it implies quite clearly that, the said equality has been achieved, not by extending the prior understanding of marriage to same-sex couples, but rather, by changing the definition of secular marriage for all. One aspect that reflects this is the widespread removal of consummation as a requirement for a valid civil marriage, since this clearly entails (paradoxical as it may seem) that sex itself is not necessary for a marriage. No doubt this is in part because the secular state has not wanted to get involved in defining exactly what would constitute the sexual relations required, but it is still a very significant development that reinforces the difference, when the Church tends to discuss marriage in terms of its telos and ontology as when it speaks of two becoming one flesh and in terms of openness to the transmission of life.
Which then brings us next to the 2017 House of Bishops (nineteen page) Report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (deriving from the Pilling Report of 2013). Key sections of this document stated that:
“26. From the deliberations of the House and the College….there has emerged a provisional approach regarding how the Church of England should move forward in this area following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations. The two key elements of this would be:
a) Proposing no change to ecclesiastical law or to the Church of England’s existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships; and
b) Initiating fresh work in the four key areas identified here in paragraph 23”
a) Establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church;
b) The preferred option should be backed up by a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships, replacing (or expanding upon) the House’s teaching document of 1999 (Marriage: A teaching document from the House of Bishops, Sept 1999) and the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality;
c) There should be guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and
d) There should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.
In the light of later and current events it is also worth noting the 4th and 5th paragraphs of the report which state:
“… the necessity of approaching mission contextually is central to Anglican and ecumenical missiology since at least the famous Edinburgh Conference of 1910. The challenge faced by the Churches is to find ways for the gospel of God’s love to be heard in our particular context, without undermining the lives and witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere. In a world still struggling to understand the ways that globalisation connects yet divides humanity, this is not just our problem. In addressing it we want to listen to other parts of the body of Christ, in this country and from across the world.”
“We seek to draw together the demands of moral theology, our vocation to offer pastoral care and love to all who seek it, the link between that pastoral care and our mission to make disciples, and the maintenance of our integrity as a part of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, including our integrity as bearers of a received deposit of belief….”
Once again, the document is clear in upholding the understanding that marriage is only possible between a man and women, but it indicates new levels of solicitude and pastoral concern for same sex couples, while also registering the potentially explosive character of this terrain for the unity of the Communion.
However, it was the disastrous reception of this report at the Synod of February 2017 which set in motion the processes that ultimately led to the events of this year’s Synod. For in 2017, the House of Clergy (by a vote of 93 to 100 against) caused the Church of England Synod not to “take note” of the then House of Bishops’ proposals concerning same-sex relationships. (The House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly (43-1) in favour of the report, and the House of Laity backed it by 106 votes to 83 but procedural rules required acceptance by all three houses.) This meant that the Synod as a whole had declined to receive the bishops teaching on marriage, even though it had been carefully placed alongside new pastoral provision though this expressly did not include blessings for same-sex relationships.
In responding to the shock of this repudiation at the Synod, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury then called for a “radical new Christian inclusion in the Church … founded in Scripture, in reason, in tradition, and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.”
It was this call, which eventually led to the long and complex process, which took place over several years, under the name of “Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning About Identity, Sexuality, Relationships, and Marriage.” (often referred to by the acronym LLF). It is also important to note that the civil law of the land had changed in March 2014, when same-sex Marriages became legal in England.
All of which finally led to the actual decision of the Synod in February of this year.
The actual Motion, as amended and finally passed , reads as follows (with emphasis here added)
That this Synod, recognising the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other of the Living in Love and Faith process, and desiring with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church:
(a) Lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church;
(b) Recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person by continuing to embed the Pastoral Principlesin our life together locally and nationally;
(c) Commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage;
(d) Welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance;
(e) Welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes;
(f) Invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time.
(g) Endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.
This motion was finally carried in each of the three houses of the Synod with the Bishops voting for it by 36 to four, with two abstentions, the clergy voting for it by 111 to 85, with three abstentions and the house of Laity voting in favour by 103 to 92, with five abstentions.
But that simple fact fails convey the depth of obscurity as to quite what the wording actually entails, something made considerably more complicated by the course of the debate and the way the amendments were handled during it.
Notably, an important amendment proposed by Church Commissioner Busola Sodeinde, that would have required consultation with the Primates of the Communion, was brushed away on a technicality. This sent an ominous signal to the wider Communion, causing him later to comment that there was here an element of “colonialism which insists that western culture is progressive ,while dissenting voices in Africa and everywhere else are silenced…I want to address the impending racial injustice, disunity and racial segregation in the church if we were to introduce same sex blessings without further consultation…I am worried that there may be an exodus of diverse communities from our parish churches and of having a profound impact on racial diversity which until now we have tried so hard to encourage.”
It was after this that Archbishbop Welby made his astonishing and tearful intervention, stating that “This isn’t just about listening to the rest of the world. It’s caring. Let’s just be clear on that. It’s about people who’ll die; women who’ll be raped; children who’ll be tortured. So, when we vote, we need to think of that…We must also do right here as part of the church Catholic.”
These sentiments were reinforced by the guest speech of Archbishop Samy Fawzy, of the Anglican Province of Alexandria. He urged restraint, saying that “Crossing this line of blessing same sex unions will alienate 75 per cent of the Anglican Communion and endanger the ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. This shift in practice will lead eventually to impaired and broken communion.
We inherited the traditional Orthodox faith of the Church of England. So please, please do not surrender your unique position as the mother church of the Anglican Communion.”
This stark view was reinforced by the Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London, who is the co-chairman of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission, who stated that “Decisions here will impact the life of the Church outside this chamber; it will have implications. I am very aware of the difference between a blessing and Holy Matrimony—it is used here in the chamber and in the Church of England—but that distinction will not be readily understood by many around the world. The distinction will sound like a mere technicality.”
Yet, amidst all the tension and drama, it would seem that what has actually been committed to is, as yet, far from clear and will in fact be the result of yet more disputatious labours and will all have to come back to the Synod before any implementation. That in particular applies to the proposed prayers of blessing (for which the drafts merit further analysis that cannot be attempted yet here). This follows from the twin realities that on the one hand these texts are be brought forward, while on the other hand, it is requird that they must not compromise the traditional doctrine of the Church on marriage.
In a thoughtful commentary on the Covenant blog of the Living Church, the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, wrote with evident regret that, “I accept my share of responsibility” we, “allowed ourselves to hurry the last and vital stage. We did not give the time and attention to hone the response and scrutinize the prayers with the great care that was needed for documents put into the synodical process”.
He went on to point out that “we promised pastoral guidelines on the practical outworking of the provision, with all their complex legal and theological questions, at a later point, rather than offering them alongside the liturgical provision. The result was that the response and prayers raised more questions than they answered” Moreover, “it soon became clear that different bishops had, after all, different understandings of what was being provided.”
Bishop Cocksworth then pointed out that, crucially, “The prayers are only drafts. They have not been commended. So we now move into the fourth stage of LLF. It is likely to be the most difficult. The risk of sustained and systemic disruption to the life of the Church of England has risen, the knock-on effects of the Synod vote to the structures of the Anglican Communion are already being seen (as evidenced by the recent meeting of ACC), and the Anglican contribution to the unity of the universal Church has become less clear. (“Living in Love and Faith: Where Do Things Stand?”)
There are certainly a great many questions still be resolved:
• Are the proposals and draft texts actually consistent with the doctrine of the Church of England?
• How are the new distinctions to be understood between civil marriage and Holy Matrimony on the one hand and the other between a blessing of two people but not of their union?
• Will laity and clergy be equally able to avail themselves of what is proposed?
• What provision will there be for laity, clergy and even whole parishes who cannot in conscience accept the Prayers proposed?
As Bishop Cocksworth points out the most careful attention to these large issues, “the use of the provision faces legal challenge, the implementation of the proposals risks pastoral chaos, and the reception of the provision in the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and the worldwide Church of God will be confused”.
And the gravity of that last point and of all this for the future shape of global Anglicanism did not take long to become clear, as evidenced by the prompt statement released shortly after the Synod vote by the Primates of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), This was very blunt so major efforts will be required if it is intended demonstrate that the long standing Church of England Doctrine on Marriage will not in fact be changed for they write:
“As the Church of England has departed from the historic faith passed down from the Apostles by this innovation in the liturgies of the Church and her pastoral practice (contravening her own Canon A5), she has disqualified herself from leading the Communion as the historic “Mother” Church. Indeed, the Church of England has chosen to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith expressed in the Anglican formularies (the 39 Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Book of Homilies) and applied to the matter of marriage and sexuality in Lambeth Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
Moreover, “our calling to be ‘a holy remnant’ does not allow us be “in communion” with those provinces that have departed from the historic faith and taken the path of false teaching”, with the consequence that, “The GSFA is no longer able to recognise the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt. Hon & Most Revd. Justin Welby, as the “first among equals” leader of the global Communion.”
They further declared that, “With the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury forfeiting their leadership role of the global Communion, GSFA Primates will expeditiously meet, consult and work with other orthodox Primates in the Anglican Church across the nations to re-set the Communion on its biblical foundation. We look forward to collaborating with Primates and bishops in the GAFCON movement and other orthodox Anglican groupings to work out the shape and nature of our common life together and how we are to keep the priority of proclaiming and witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world foremost in our life as God’s people.” They added that they, “will…provide Primatial and episcopal oversight to orthodox dioceses and networks of Anglican churches who indicate their need and who consult with us.
They further declared that, “we believe it is no longer possible to continue in the way the Communion is. We do not accept the view that we can still “walk together” with the revisionist provinces as prescribed by the Anglican Communion Office and in the exploratory way proposed by IASCUFO (Inter- Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith & Order) at the recent Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)-18 meeting.
We will not walk away from the Communion that has so richly blessed us …. What has happened in the Church of England has only served to strengthen our resolve to work together … and to ensure that the re-set Communion is marked by reform and renewal. Only then will the Anglican Church as a whole be able to be God’s channel of light and transformation in a dark and broken world. Only then will we be able to live out our witness as part of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
(Press Statement issued on February 20, 2023 by The Panel of Primates of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA).
The bonds of Anglican unity look set to be severely tried: a troubled union indeed.