Church of England bishops head for showdown on marriage for same-sex couples

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It's a headline that could have run at any time in the past three decades: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the primate of the Church of England and the ceremonial head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, attempts to balance conservative and progressive views on LGBTQ affirmation in the name of church unity.

For years, archbishops have sublimated their own views, knowing that challenging traditional teaching would threaten the church's and the Communion's existence. Not challenging it, however, has made for problems among churches in liberal democracies.

Now, this long-running story might be coming to an end.

This week, the bishops of the Church of England are meeting to finalize proposals to be submitted to a meeting in February of the governing body of the church, the General Synod, about marriage for same-sex couples. The document they will be discussing, "Living in Love and Faith," focuses on many topics under the rubric of love and marriage, but it is same-sex relationships that are the most neuralgic.

The meeting comes as support for marriage for gay couples is growing within the church, most notably among evangelical members of the episcopate who have long opposed it. But if the bishops choose to recommend changing doctrine, they know that it will have consequences far beyond England's shores in the broader Anglican Communion.

This summer, at the Anglican Communion's all-bishops meeting known as the Lambeth Conference, the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tried to mollify conservative bishops by reaffirming a 1998 declaration that gay sex is a sin, while reassuring liberals by saying he would not punish national churches in the Communion that allow priests to marry same-sex couples. Conservative bishops from the global south called Welby's refusal to discipline churches over gay marriage "a lamentable position," but none threatened to leave.

Now Welby has risked infuriating both sides again, when he told The Times newspaper, in advance of the bishops' two-day meeting this week, that he would not say what he himself thinks about marriage for LGBTQ Christians. He declined to let his views be known on the issue, he said, because it was his role to be a source of unity.

"I am not sure I will be able to say during my time in this job. I can express my own view as far as I know my own mind — and it doesn't change," he said.

"But the role of archbishop is to be a focus of unity. That isn't just convenient or pragmatic. In Christian thinking, that is part of God's call to church leaders. Therefore I have to be convinced before God that it's the right moment to do it — and not just politically."

But if Welby is keeping his own counsel, several senior clerics are beginning to break cover and publicly express their views. The most significant statement came from Steven Croft, bishop of Oxford, in early November, when he published a 50-page essay urging the church to lift its ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

Croft said that at stake was the church's claim to serve the whole of society and that its anti-LGBTQ stance "is leading to a radical dislocation between the Church of England and the culture and society we are attempting to serve." Citing the pain he believes the church has caused LGBTQ people, he observed that "many, of course, have given up on the church at different points in their lives because of their accumulated distress."

Croft's intervention was notable not only because he was the first serving diocesan bishop to speak up, but because he is an evangelical who previously opposed same-sex marriage on Scriptural grounds. In his essay, he said he had changed his mind and apologized for actions, "and lack of action," he said, that "have caused genuine hurt, disagreement and pain."

The bishop also based his revised thinking on Scripture, referring to Christ's comment in the Sermon on the Mount that "a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit." The current situation, said Croft, was producing bad fruit.

"Is there bad fruit from acceptance of the blessing of these relationships? If there is, I cannot see it. ... Overall, our society has been enriched, not diminished, by the encouragement of stable same-sex unions," he said.

He also argued that Christ, in giving Peter the keys of the kingdom, permitted the church to develop its ethics, so long as that development was consistent with the principles of love.

Five other Anglican bishops have backed Croft, with the bishop of Worcester, John Inge, and bishop of Dudley, Martin Gorick, saying they favored church weddings for same-sex couples. Inge, like Croft, apologized, saying in a tweet: "I stand convicted of being silent for too long."

One of the most well-known Anglican activists on same-sex marriage, Jayne Ozanne, said she and other LGBTQ people had been reduced to tears by Croft's stand and particularly by his apology.

"It was important because he apologized for the harm that has been done and the pain inflicted by this negativity. He broke the silence that bishops have imposed on themselves, and he was critical in helping others define their thoughts, and he's done it while maintaining his biblical thinking," said Ozanne. "That was crucial."

Croft's spokesman, Steven Buckley, said laypeople's response had been largely in favor as well. "The resultant postbag has been overwhelming and very moving to see; roughly 75% of all correspondence positive and supportive of the recommendation in the essay."

But both they and those supporting traditional teaching on marriage urged the bishops to make a clear recommendation and end what they called "wishy-washy" statements.

This, for some, is the fatal flaw in Croft's essay: he suggests that a decision to end the ban on same-sex marriage should also offer an opt-out for traditionalists. Clergy and parishes who do not agree to gay marriage ought to have the right to "distance themselves from the parts of the Church that welcome and affirm same-sex relationship."

"You can't compromise on harm," said Ozanne. "You don't have some churches that are racist and others that are not.

"This is the idea that unity matters at all costs," she added. "But truth matters."

Others want to grant priests permission to bless non-marital civil partnerships if they like. The bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, told his own diocesan synod, "The Church's polity concerning civil partnerships is the reality of our present situation. ... I support a generous pastoral provision that respects freedom of conscience by the provision of a liturgy of affirmation and commitment for same-sex couples and a conscience clause that means no priest is required to officiate at such a service."

At the same time, Chessun said, there are problems for those who are gay within the Church of England, saying it is "not safe for those in same-sex unions."

Same-sex couples are finding a greater welcome in other nearby Anglican churches. The Scottish Episcopal Church conducts same-sex weddings (and clergy in Scotland have said they are happy to marry Church of England couples or elsewhere). The Church in Wales offers blessings to civilly married gay couples.

But Welby's problems lie farther afield. Whatever the English bishops decide in February, the conservative Global Anglican Future Conference (known as Gafcon), whose members include the Archbishops of Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria as well as leaders of Anglican churches that have split with the Communion, will meet in April in Kigali, Rwanda. Their focus will be their dissatisfaction with the churches that have accepted same-sex couples and what they see as a lack of tough discipline from Welby.

So far, they have not threatened to quit the Communion based on how the Church of England votes, but some have suggested that if the vote doesn't go their way, it will be the Church of England that has left, not them.

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