Is The Church Of England Finally About To Make A Decision On Gay Marriage?
Is the Church of England finally about to make a decision about same-sex marriage?
It seems unlikely. But one of the Church's most senior bodies – the House of Bishops – has a climax meeting this week in London.
It comes amid a long and drawn out process and will certainly not be the last key moment.
Arguments have raged for decades over the Church's teaching and practice on gay relationships. Things reached a head when several conservative Anglican leaders formed a splinter group ahead of the 2008 Lambeth Conference of senior bishops from across the world. Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) was set up in protest that the US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada had been welcomed despite promoting a "false gospel" over same-sex relationships.
In light of this increasing division the Pilling Report was commissioned in 2011 to make recommendations to the CofE over the issue. When published it recommended that priests should be free "to offer appropriate services to mark a faithful same sex relationship". It did not propose a change in teaching or a new official liturgy but suggested some form of "pastoral accommodation".
It also recommended that in light of "deeply entrenched views", the issue "would best be addressed by facilitated conversations".
That was in 2013. Since then the Church of England has undergone two years of "shared conversations" where all levels of Church hierarchy took part in facilitated talks with other Anglicans in an effort to understand concerns on both sides of the debate.
The process of behind-closed-doors talks – and a two-year grace period for the Church – has now ended. In July, the entire General Synod took part in the talks and it is now down to senior bishops to collate the results and come up with a recommendation of what to do next.
To do so they have formed a reflection group and the bishops are expected to bring a suggestion to the CofE's General Synod which will meet next in February.
It had been thought the Church was heading towards some form of acceptance or welcome service for gay couples, as Pilling recommended.
But the reflection group, when announced, contained a number of "entrenched" conservatives, as the report put it. None of the members have previously advocated for a change in Church teaching. And it featured two prominent conservative evangelicals – Rt Rev Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn and president of the Church of England Evangelical Council, and Rt Revd Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone and former chair of the conservative Reform group.
As a result even Colin Coward, a long-time LGBT activist within the Church, thinks any change in teaching or practice is now unlikely.
"Unless there is a dramatic change in heart and mind in the members of this group I can't imagine there being any change," he told Christian Today.
"They would either betray their GAFCON colleagues or they will betray the people of this country."
What is clear for both sides is that this marks a breaking point. If there is some form of change to welcome or bless gay couples in the Church, conservatives have vowed to leave. John Dunnett, chair of the Evangelical Group on General Synod, has told Christian Today many "will have no option than to reconsider their position in the CofE" if the bishops suggest anything that even gives the perception the Church may change its teaching.
"It is important that whatever the bishops propose it does not sow confusion about the teaching of the Church," he said.
But without a change Coward warned LGBT people would continue to feel alienated by the CofE. "More and more people I know are simply leaving the Church to find other paths for their faith," he said.
"A quiet change is taking place that is extremely damaging."
Whatever the outcome of the bishops' meeting in the coming days, the Church is edging towards a decision. The question remains if it will be definitive, or if it will leave the door open to years more argument and division over sexuality.