Why The Church Of England Is Facing Schism Over Sexuality

12 openly gay members of General Synod. Front row (L to R): Rev Chris Newlands (Blackburn), Izzy McDonald Booth (Newcastle), Rev Giles Goddard (Southwark), Jay Greene (Winchester), Rev Andrew Forshew-Cain, Lucy Gorman (York), Rev Bertrand Olivier (London). Middle row (L to R): Ben Franks (Birmingham), Jayne Ozanne (Oxford), Rev Canon Simon Butler (Southwark). Back row: Rev Peter Leonard (Portsmouth), Ian Yemm (Bristol). 

Is it true that the Bible is at the root of the Church of England's objection to same-sex relationships?

Apart from a few decades in the 20th century when liberals were in the ascendancy, or in the 19th century when Anglo-Catholics held sway, the Church of England has for most of its existence been fundamentally a Protestant, Bible-based Church. And the Bible is not noted for its 'political correctness'.

Last Sunday, Luke 19 was read out in many Anglican churches, ending with verse 26: 'I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.' In our church, however, to the stunned silence of the congregation, the reader carried on by mistake to verse 27: 'But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.'

While treason only ceased to be a capital offence in Britain in 1998, few people today take literally Jesus' apparent instruction to his followers to go out and kill all unbelievers.

But isn't homosexuality regarded still as a first order issue, because of what is in the Bible?

Gay Anglicans want their marriages blessed by the Church so they can live by the biblical commands that restrict sex to the marriage bed only. They don't understand why they those who are not called to celibacy should be required to live celibate lives because they are gay.

1 Timothy 1 lists homosexuality as among those practices that are contrary to 'sound doctrine' and 1 Corinthians 6 lists homosexuals alongside thieves, the greedy, slanderers, drunks and swindlers as among those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. 

Leviticus 20 instructs: 'If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.' This death sentence also applies to anyone who commits adultery, who curses their father or mother, who has sex with his father's wife or his daughter-in-law. If a man has sex with an animal, both he and the animal must be put to death. The final condemnation in this chapter is: 'A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.' 

What is Church of England's teaching on marriage? 

Canon B30 states 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'.

This is based on passages such as Luke 16, where Jesus says: 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'

This passage is also at the root of Catholic Church divisions over whether or not to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. 

But doesn't the Church now allow remarriage after divorce?

Yes. And it has done this without changing the doctrine of the Church that marriage is for life.

So why can't it do the same for gays?

When Christian Today asked this very question at a recent press conference, Bishop of Norwich Graham James said the Church just wasn't ready yet.

Has the General Synod voted on this before? Wasn't there something called the Higton Motion?

In 1987, the synod voted 403 to eight in favour of a motion introduced by the evangelical vicar Tony Higton and largely amended by evangelical Bishop of Chester, Michael Baughen, to state that 'homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion'.

What happened next?

In 1991, the House of Bishops released a document, Issues in Human Sexuality, that appeared to set a double standard, demanding celibacy of gay clergy but not necessarily for the laity, while insisting that 'heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation'.

 Surely that was not on its own enough to lead to this crisis?

Gay Anglicans became increasingly angry as secular society began moving towards gay marriage while their Church appeared to be moving in the opposite direction. The 1998 Lambeth Conference passed resolution 1.10, that committed the Church to 'listen' to gays but restated a traditional biblical line on the issue.

 How come that didn't settle it?

In 2003, Jeffrey John, a well-known gay but celibate Church of England clergyman, was appointed Bishop of Reading. He was then persuaded reluctantly to resign after protests from evangelicals threatened to split the Oxford diocese and is now Dean of St Albans. Christian Today understands that he is currently in the running for at least one other bishopric. In 2004, Bishop Gene Robinson, married to a gay divorcé, became Bishop of New Hampshire. These two appointments led to the creation of conservative Anglican protest groups that have found their strongest expression in GAFCON, the global Anglican conservative fellowship.

 What happened next?

Legislation to allow same-sex marriage came into force in Britain in 2014. After lobbying from bishops, the legislation included a ban on the Church of England performing gay marriages, to protect it from anyone demanding it as their right from the established Church of the land. People of any religion or none are legally entitled to a CofE marriage, but not people of the same sex.

 That seems clear enough. So why is it still an issue?

Gay people want the same rights to marry in the eyes of God as straight people have. Conservatives feel equally strongly that whatever path the secular world goes down, the Bible makes this impossible for the Church to follow. The Church of England has for three years been holding private 'conversations' when both sides have been pleading their case. The bishops' report on this, debated at General Synod, makes almost no concession to change apart from endorsing maximum freedom within existing limits.

Are the bishops all agreed?

No, not at all. They are deeply conflicted, among themselves and many with him or herself. Fourteen retired bishops have spoken out publicly against the latest report. Conservative evangelicals are angry because of the maximum freedom it allows within current limits. Liberals are furious that three years of talks appear to have led to no tangible result.

So what happens now?

A move towards a more liberal stance seems inevitable, medium term. The Church has proved it can change its practice without changing its marriage doctrine by allowing divorcees to remarry in church. If the Church does not move towards doing the same with gays, gays will almost certainly start doing it anyway and simply defy the bishops. Some bishops will privately support them in this.

Does this matter?

It does for all who believe in the gospel imperative to unity. But sadly, a split does seem increasingly inevitable.
GAFCON said today: 'Unless the House of Bishops has the collective will to reassert the historic biblical understanding of marriage and publicly explain it, a trajectory that takes the Church ever further way from its own foundation documents seems inevitable. The ever growing number of orthodox Anglicans abandoned by the Church of England as is embraces secularism in the futile pursuit of popularity will find a warm welcome in the global, confessionally Anglican fellowship which is GAFCON.'

So the outlook is increasingly grim.

Yes. The evangelical Andrew Symes, writing on the conservative Anglican Mainstream website, warns the Church will soon be forced to reflect the secular ideology of the powerful more and more, as has already happened in north America. 'The orthodox can agree to being one view among many, and be gradually erased. A better option: stand firm and if necessary force a schism, and at the same time plan for an alternative jurisdiction.'

Sounds like a split is coming.

Well it is the 500th anniversary of the date that Luther nailed his theses to the door at Wittenberg, so perhaps it is time for a new Reformation. The difference now is that these things are no longer nailed to doors, but posted all over the internet. Whether that will make them longer or shorter lasting in their impact – only time will tell.

I like my conservative evangelical Church but I also like our gay church warden and I don't want the Church to schism. What should I do?

Pray. We think it works, and after all, nothing else has done so far.