One Evangelical's Journey Towards Accepting Gay Blessing In The Church Of England
The Church of England finds itself at an impasse.
Those from both extremes kicked out the bishops' report on Wednesday night that sought a middle road on the deeply divisive issue of sexuality. For the liberals, the report offered no change in tone or practice. For the diehard conservatives, the promise of 'maximum freedoms' for gay couples was concerning.
But there is another story. That of the 'silent middle'.
Nikki Groarke describes herself as an 'open evangelical'. As Archdeacon of Dudley she is a senior clergywoman who, in a key speech during the debate, described how she had changed her conservative view on sexuality.
'While I cannot at this stage support a change to the canons on marriage, I would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships,' she said.
Groarke apologised for staying in the 'silent middle' – a large number of evangelicals she says have softened their stance on LGBT relationships but not had the courage to speak out.
In an interview with Christian Today she describes how she stayed quiet out of fear at what conservative friends would say.
'I knew a lot of people from my evangelical background would immediately say, "You're not a proper evangelical if you think that."
'I think I am a proper evangelical,' she says, adding conservative evangelicals can't write off others who disagree with them.
'I own the name evangelical and I don't think anyone more conservative than me can say I am not an evangelical because I have a different understanding on one or two issues that I don't think are first order issues.'
She admits fully fledged gay marriage would be too far for her at this stage. But she would like to see the Church of England allow blessings and official prayers for gay couples.
'I have blessed some extraordinary things in my time as archdeacon including some knitted Father Christmases,' she says.
'Do we have a right to withhold God's blessings and not to pray for people who are trying to faithfully live out their lives in a way they are happy is honouring to God even if we have some misgivings about it?
'I am not saying I would do it myself.'
She added: 'It's not saying everyone would have to do it but it is saying those who want to do it ought to have maximum freedom to do so.'
Those words, 'maximum freedom', was one the most contentious and ambiguous parts of the bishops' report. It is the phrase that led to several conservatives joining liberals to vote the report down, fearing the very outcome Groarke wants – gay blessings.
But Groarke says she wished they had a 'little humility' to believe the Bible could be saying something different.
'I would say over the years we have thought the Bible clearly says one thing that we have subsequently begun to understand differently. For example the role of women in the Church,' she says.
'Why as evangelicals who really value the Bible can't we wrestle with scripture with a humility that encounters the possibility we might need to learn and grow and change?'
For Groarke it was the combination of her own Bible reading and seeing how gay Christians lived out their faith that changed her mind.
She points to Psalm 139's words of being 'fearfully and wonderfully made' as being particularly poignant. 'The general thrust of Scripture is about God calling us and equipping us as unique individuals made in his image whom he loves,' she says.
'God made us unique individual people to flourish and grow.
'But when I say that to a gay person they say, "But being who God made me to be in the Anglican church at the moment means I can't be in certain ministries."
'I find that contradicts,' she says.
The bishops' report says there was 'little support' for any change in teaching on gay couples. And Groarke to some extent blames herself for not speaking earlier.
If the 'silent middle' is as significant as Groarke says it is, they have another chance to speak out.
The conservative-leaning report has been chucked out. It is back to square one. The bishops will have to go away and come back with different suggestions. This debate is only just beginning.