Evangelicals 'grieved' as Bishop of Oxford says Church of England should back same-sex marriage

Bishop Steven Croft.(Photo: Facebook/Diocese of Oxford)

Evangelicals are calling on the Church of England to hold to its historic position on marriage and sexuality after the Bishop of Oxford published a 52-page essay arguing that clergy should have the freedom to bless and marry same-sex couples.

Bishop Steven Croft writes that his views have changed over the last decade and that he now believes the legal barriers to the solemnisation of same-sex marriage in the Church of England should be removed.

Clergy should be free to enter into a same-sex marriage if they wish, he argues in his essay, Together in Love and Faith, published on Friday. 

"I need to acknowledge the acute pain and distress of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the Church," he writes.

"I am sorry that, corporately, we have been so slow as a Church to reach better decisions and practice on these matters.

"I am sorry that my own views were slow to change and that my actions, and lack of action, have caused genuine hurt, disagreement and pain."

Traditional parishes should, he continues, be respected and not forced to opt into any new arrangements.

"Any settlement must be founded on love and respect: love and respect for LGBTQ+ people and their families within and beyond the Church, love and respect for those who take different views," he said.

"This love must be the hallmark of our debates and conduct through this season." 

Under current rules, Church of England clergy cannot bless a civil partnership or conduct a same-sex marriage. Some clergy have entered into same-sex civil partnerships but they are prohibited from sexual intimacy. 

The essay by Bishop Croft was written in response to Living in Love and Faith, an ongoing discernment process in the Church of England around the topics of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. 

Evangelical leader, Vaughan Roberts, who is based in the Diocese of Oxford, has written a response for The Latimer Trust in which he says that the Church of England should not change its position on this matter. 

"I remain persuaded by the truth and goodness of the traditional Christian understanding that the right place for sex is only within heterosexual marriage and that any change to that position should be resisted as being unfaithful to God and harmful in its effects," he writes. 

Rev Roberts acknowledges that LGBT people have not always been treated well in the Church of England, and that attitudes in the wider culture have shifted, but he argues that these are not enough to justify a change of position. 

"If we are to feel free to make changes in relation to same-sex unions, on what basis can we resist the calls, which will inevitably come, for further boundary changes?" he said. 

"If, in supporting this change, we have rejected an understanding of sexual ethics which has been held by the whole Church down the ages until very recent times, on what basis can we speak with authority into our confused and hurting world about any other aspect of sexual morality?

"Do we really think that the proposed change will result in large numbers returning to church? The churches that are full of young people tend to hold to traditional teaching, which offers a distinctive message, rather than an echo of what they hear elsewhere.

"Surely what is needed in the face of the disjunction between Church and society is not accommodation, but rather a winsome, confident re-presentation of the riches of Christian teaching about sex and marriage." 

Vaughan Roberts' response, Together in Love and Faith?, is available to download for free from The Latimer Trust.

In its own response, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) said it rejected Bishop Croft's theological arguments and called for "robust" protections for traditional Anglicans.

"CEEC continues to believe that the Church of England's current position on human sexuality is built on the teaching of scripture and is therefore good for individuals and society as a whole," a CEEC spokesperson said.

"We are therefore committed to praying and working for the outcome of the Living in Love and Faith process to be one of joyful reaffirmation of this position.

"Whilst CEEC rejects the theological argument in Bishop Steven's essay its expression highlights the fundamental incompatibility that exists between the current teaching of the C of E and the position he (and others he might speak for) have come to adopt.

"The essay also helpfully refers to the need for differentiation and provision of oversight in the event of change - a differentiation that CEEC believes would need to be of a structural nature and robust enough to secure the sustained flourishing of orthodoxy going forwards."

The Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship said it was "grieved" by the bishop's essay and that it "departs from the clear teaching of the Bible in relation to sex and marriage". 

"We are grateful that Bishop Steven recognises 'the validity and integrity' of the traditional view and affirms the ministry of those who uphold it, as bringing blessing in many ways 'often including the welcome and care extended to LGBTQ+ people'," it said. 

"We also appreciate his recognition that a change in the Church's position will require, not only the protection of conscience of those who could not support this, but also a differentiation of ministry and oversight.

"There are those in the diocese who have already felt the need for this, believing these matters to be first-order issues and, very sadly, as a result of this publication, that number is bound to increase.

"We encourage our members to engage with this debate with the same spirit of grace that Bishop Steven has himself exhibited.

"We should always remember that this is not firstly a political issue but, above all, a deeply personal and pastoral one."