The Church of England currently teaches two totally incompatible visions of God. On the one hand, there is a gospel of grace, where the love of God is unconditional and available to all. On the other, there is a God who places restrictions on that grace and asks the church to act as the gatekeeper. The latter teaches that if someone like me, a lesbian, has sex then I will go to hell – a truth as central to this branch of faith as believing in the virgin birth or the resurrection.
For years, the church’s solution to this contradiction has been to kick the can marked “LGBT+ relationships” down the road, and the “historic” proposals announced last month on sexuality were no exception. They continue to embed discrimination by refusing to recognise civil marriage as “holy matrimony” and only offer token prayers of blessing to gay couples, cunningly blessing the individuals rather than their union. There are also many shades of grey – especially as to whether our unions can actually now be consummated. All this from our established church, the official state church that operates thanks to delegated powers from parliament, which continues to be allowed to discriminate against those it serves.
This is an unholy fudge. It is a mess designed to try to keep us all happy but that has only succeeded in upsetting everyone. Progressives are angry – they know that while discrimination remains embedded in our teaching, LGBT+ people’s lives will continue to be severely impacted and pose a major safeguarding risk. Conservative Christians are miserable, issuing a statement saying that any hint of change will mean that they will call on their churches to leave the established church.
The church cannot be allowed to continue kicking the can down the road. That is why I have tabled an amendment at the General Synod next week, requesting that provisions for equal marriage legislation be brought back to the synod at its next meeting in July. I am not alone – following her tea with the archbishop of Canterbury, Sandi Toksvig has concluded that “the present position is untenable”. Parliament was also given a warning by Peter Bottomley, the father of the House, during an urgent question last week, when he said that “the Church of England needs to wake up”. Even Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, has said as much in a letter to her bishop.
The proverbial can in this scenario is the LGBT+ community and our relationships, and we get badly hurt every time it is kicked. Current church teaching has already cost far too many LGBT+ lives. It has led to countless LGBT+ teenagers being rejected by their families while others are crushed by heavy weights of shame and guilt. A large number have left the church, such as Wes Streeting MP, who last week in parliament told his own story of rejection and hurt.
Against this backdrop, my synod amendment also proposes that we remove the apology that the bishops have tabled in their motion, which seeks to “lament and repent” for the harm that the church has “caused and continues to cause” LGBT+ people. I believe this would be better until such a time that this discrimination, the “kicking”, embedded in the current proposals ends. Put simply, it is sheer hypocrisy for the church to apologise while at the same time wilfully enabling the abuse to continue. It is also hypocritical for the archbishop of Canterbury to say that he “joyfully celebrates” the provision of prayers of blessing for gay couples while refusing to say the prayers himself and while stating that he would rather the church be disestablished than split over same-sex marriage.
The powers that be in the Church of England would like us to accept that this is just an issue of differing “points of view” with each having equal merit, despite the harm that is inflicted on the lives of LGBT+ people. It won’t work. Those vigorously opposed to equal marriage will never accept there is a diversity of views on this. To them, prayers, blessings, marriage are all the same – if any ground is conceded then all is lost. That is why the matter needs settling now, once and for all.
I understand it was political expediency rather than doctrinal theology that lay behind the bishops’ proposals, as they did not believe that a vote on equal marriage would get sufficient support in the synod. Rather than capitulating to these fears our bishops – and indeed all those on the synod – need to show some spiritual leadership and embrace the Anglican moral tradition of conscience, making room for a plurality of views.
Unless we do, I foresee this will be the hill on which the Church of England, quite literally, will die.
Jayne Ozanne is director of Ozanne Foundation, founder of the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition and an elected member of the General Synod