Will The Church Of England Ever Make Up Its Mind About Sexuality?
The Church of England has been debating sexuality for all my lifetime. The reforms of the law in the 1960s which began with the legalisation of homosexual acts were influenced by the Church. The CofE's website explains that 'the Church of England's Moral Welfare Council was one of the major influences that led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Commission, supporting its recommendation to abolish the law against male homosexual activity and to set the age of homosexual consent at 21, which became law in 1967'.
Since then, the battle lines have been slowly drawn. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was formed in 1976 to campaign for full inclusion of gay people in the life of the Church. In the wake of the abortive appointment of senior gay clergyman Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, renewed focus was brought to the debate in the early 2000s as conservative groups such as Anglican Mainstream were formed, finding common cause with pre-existing conservative groupings like Reform and the Church Society.
In a couple of generations, the Church of England has gone from being (publicly at least) of one mind about sexuality, to being drawn into factions facing off against each other.
This week the General Synod, the Church's parliament, voted narrowly not to 'take note' of a report compiled by the Bishops into the way the Church deals with issues such as clergy who are gay and same sex marriage. Much of the debate was calm and insightful. There were good conversations between opponents both in person and online. Yet, we seem to be no closer to a resolution. The Bishops' relatively conservative position – to uphold traditional teaching while providing a better welcome to LGBT people – has now been symbolically pitted against the mind of the synod.
In one sense the 50 or 60 years in which this debate has been happening is just the blink of an eye. The Church is almost 2,000 years old and there have been debates which have rumbled on throughout much of that time. On the other hand, members and non-members of the Church might be entitled to ask when the Church of England is going to come up with a consistent position.
Both liberals and conservatives (to use the imprecise labels which still remain a helpful guide) as well as those in the middle wonder whether the debate hasn't gone on long enough and either the door should be closed to change, or that change should be plumped for and then cemented.
There are two problems with this. First, there's no mechanism within the Church of England to make such a decision. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a Pope and though he and his fellow bishops set the agenda, they can't narrate the future into being. Secondly, with views which, on either extreme, are diametrically opposed, there is no hope of any decision being made which will be definitive and which will remain unopposed.
Just how vociferous are the opposition voices? Well, witness one conservative commentator saying sexuality is a 'salvation issue' and that revisionist voices should be 'excommunicated'. See here, a progressive bishop implying a comparison between his fellow bishops and the high priest who handed over Jesus to be crucified. This is serious stuff – even though the vast majority of synod members and those in the pews on a Sunday morning would not care to speak about each other in this way.
What, then, is the way forward? Short of a miracle, there is no obvious practical answer. The Archbishop of Canterbury's statement following the synod vote gave some hints and also some hope, though. 'To find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church,' he said. 'This must be founded in Scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual.'
The Archbishop's call for healthy flourishing relationships must be the key here. Opponents need to get out of the trenches and talk, openly and honestly. The statement carried on, 'We need to work together – not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone – to move forward with confidence.' Though it's low on detail at this stage, surely this is the only game in town. The way forward may not be simple, but it is clear. We need each other and the sooner we realise it, the better.