A 'gender neutral marriage canon' for the Church of England?

The Church of England's General SynodThe Church of England

What are the chances of Bishop Paul Bayes getting his "gender neutral marriage canon" through the new General Synod after October's elections? The change Bishop Bayes is pushing for is drastic because the CofE's current teaching as expressed in Canon B30, Of Holy Matrimony, is crystal clear on the heterosexual nature of marriage. It is also clear that the expression of sexual love should be confined to marriage:

"The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord's teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity."

A major change such as altering the CofE's historic teaching on marriage would require a two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses that make up its governing body.

There is the House of Bishops with 42 unelected diocesan bishops and 9 suffragan or area bishops elected by their peers (there are 73 suffragans who help diocesans with their episcopal duties somewhat in the relationship of a curate to a vicar); the House of Clergy has 191 members who are elected by their fellow clergy in each diocese; and the 205-strong House of Laity is elected by members of local deanery synods of which there are several in each diocese.

The current Synod should have ended its five-year term in 2020 but the elections were postponed until this year due to the Covid crisis.

If the elections result in more revisionists getting onto Synod, it is possible that a change of this magnitude could gain a majority in each of the three Houses by 2026. But among the bishops and the laity it might well fail to get the two thirds needed. More than two thirds of the clergy would probably vote for the change because their House tends to be the most clearly revisionist of the three in Synod votes.

As a "necessary but not sufficient first step" to his gender-neutral marriage canon, Bishops Bayes wants "to see conscientious freedom for the Church's ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions whether civil partnerships or civil marriages".

Perhaps in the next five years there will be a fudge in the form of episcopal guidance under which clergy can adapt existing liturgy to bless same-sex couples in their churches? In 2018 the House of Bishops produced "pastoral guidance" under which clergy could use "Affirmation of Baptismal Faith" liturgy to "welcome transgender people". So there is a precedent for innovating by the liturgical back door.

But this is not enough for Bishop Bayes and the politically correct activists in the Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church (MoSAIC) at whose national conference on Saturday he made his call for a gender-neutral marriage canon. They want full equality for LGBT people in the CofE through a doctrinal change resulting in legally authorised marriage services for same-sex couples.

In the vote for women bishops in 2012, the Houses of Bishops and Clergy backed the change by a two-thirds majority. There was a majority in the House of Laity but it fell just short of the required threshold and so the measure fell. But it got through two years later in 2014. That was because lay members who had voted against it in 2012 were satisfied that there was legal provision for churches and clergy who could not in conscience accept the ministry of women bishops.

The change Bishop Bayes wants is more problematic for revisionists to get through the Synod than the women bishops' measure. The bishops are likely to be more nervous because of the strength of feeling among conservative members of the CofE for whom this is a first order doctrinal issue.

But the problem for conservative Anglicans, especially evangelicals, is that the composition of the Synod does not reflect the size of their churches. The vicar of a large conservative or charismatic evangelical church with several hundred members has the same vote for a House of Clergy representative as the vicar with a congregation of 25. The large-church evangelical vicar may have three or four curates on his staff team with a vote, but an average diocese does not usually have more than two or three such churches. So, they cannot do much to dent the liberal majority in the House of Clergy.

The problem is similar for the House of Laity. Each Parochial Church Council (PCC) of a local CofE church has two or three lay members who are elected as Deanery Synod representatives. They are the people with the vote in General Synod elections.

A large church may have three Deanery Synod members because of the size of its PCC, but each church irrespective of its size gets two. That means the small number of large evangelical churches in an average diocese cannot punch with the weight of their congregational size, which does not play well for conservative opponents of politically correct pressure on the CofE.

So, whilst Bishop Bayes and his supporters might not succeed with their gender-neutral marriage canon in the new Synod, they could get what they wish for post-2026. This would be enabled by more of woke Generation Z (those born after 1997) getting elected and new bishops first ordained as priests in the 2000s.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire.