For more than a decade, the Church of England has engaged in an agonised, divisive and often poisonous debate about the status of same-sex relationships. As attitudes in the wider national culture have transformed beyond recognition since the 1980s, the country’s established church has gradually become an anomalous outlier, steadfastly refusing to countenance same-sex marriages or the blessing of civil unions. Its doctrine continues to conform to the view that homosexual practice is “incompatible with scripture”.
Responding to the hurt and grief that this has caused LGBT+ members of its congregations – apparently equal in the eyes of God but second-class citizens in their own church – the C of E has, at best, wrung its hands sympathetically. To the deep disquiet of many bishops and much of the laity, the goal of maintaining unity, both at home and in the worldwide Anglican communion, seems to have led to the perpetuation of a derided status quo.
Thankfully, a remarkable and high-profile intervention last week by the bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Steven Croft – the first of its kind by a serving diocesan bishop – suggests that this paralysed state of affairs may not hold much longer. Ahead of a crucial December meeting of the College of Bishops, which is due to discuss reform, Mr Croft has published a groundbreaking 50-page essay in which he disowns his previous opposition to change. While arguing for a freedom of conscience clause for dissenters, the document calls for full recognition of same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian clergy, and for all LGBT+ people who wish to marry in their local Anglican church. Two other bishops have immediately and publicly voiced their support.
The refusal of equal status to same-sex relationships, writes Mr Croft, has created an unsustainable “dislocation” between England’s established church and the society it has a vocation and duty to serve. Church thinking and doctrine, he points out, are not immutable; it has evolved many times in the past – for example, in relation to slavery, apartheid, divorce and, more recently, the ordination of women.
Strikingly, the document also challenges the opportunistic weaponisation of isolated passages from the Old Testament in the traditionalist cause. Mr Croft cites an episode of The West Wing, in which President Bartlet skewers a Leviticus-quoting Christian fundamentalist by asking him for advice on how to sell his daughter into slavery – as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. An account of Christian truth that is more faithful to the gospels, the bishop writes, understands that “the foundational trajectory of Scripture is of recognising … dignity, worth and equality”, and seeks to extend these values further in a spirit of radical inclusion. Preserving church “unity” is not a good enough reason for avoiding this task.
This is a significant and systematic intervention from a senior member of the church. As such, it is both overdue and profoundly welcome. At the fraught Lambeth conference in the summer, Archbishop Justin Welby rightly acknowledged the extent of division in the worldwide Anglican communion over same-sex relationships. But it is past time for the C of E to recognise that its current state of fearful intransigence is untenable. A meeting of the General Synod early next year is due to establish a new direction of travel for the C of E. The bishop of Oxford’s essay should be used as a map to help guide it.