Church of England bishops seek to repair divisions over same-sex relationships

Archbishops suggest another debate at the next meeting of the synod and plan to press ahead with ‘teaching document’ on marriage and sexuality

Church of England bishops have been told to meet with synod members in their dioceses in an effort to repair bitter divisions over the issue of same-sex relationships and marriage following this week’s vote to reject a controversial “road map”.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York – the two most senior figures in the C of E – sent a letter to all members of the synod on Thursday setting out “the way forward in the next few months”.

Justin Welby and John Sentamu’s proposals include pressing ahead with “a large-scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality” – a key element in the rejected report.

The two archbishops also suggest another debate on the issues of marriage and sexuality at the next meeting of the synod in July.

The joint letter comes after the synod – or church parliament – narrowly threw out the report, which upheld traditional teaching on marriage. The vote came at the end of an emotional debate on Wednesday in which many supporters of a more inclusive approach to LGBT Christians spoke of their personal experiences and changes in attitude.

In response to anger that LGBT people were seen as a “problem” by the bishops, Welby and Sentamu said: “We want to be clear about some underlying principles. In these discussions, no person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people called to redeemed humanity in Christ.”

But, they added, the church faced the challenge of how to “deal with the real and profound disagreement – put so passionately and so clearly by many at the debate”.

A “radical new Christian inclusion in the the church” was needed, founded in scripture, tradition and faith while also based on “a proper 21st century understanding of being human and being sexual”.

Bishops have been asked to hold “extended conversations in order to establish clearly the desires of every member of synod for the way forward”. The move comes after almost three years of intense discussions behind closed doors on the issue.

Potentially more controversial is the archbishops’ proposal for a new teaching document, which will guide clergy on the issue of same-sex relationships, to be drawn up by bishops.

“In an episcopal church a principal responsibility of bishops is the teaching ministry of the church, and the guarding of the deposit of faith that we have all inherited. The teaching document must thus ultimately come from the bishops,” said the letter.

But LGBT members of the church will be alarmed if they are not represented on any body or working group formed to hammer out the contents of the document.

A teaching document does not need the approval of the synod, thus avoiding the risk of another rebuff by members.

At the end of Wednesday’s debate, the clergy voted 100 to 93 against a motion to “take note” of the report, meaning the motion fell despite an overall synod majority in favour, as it needed to pass in each house of the synod – bishops, clergy and laity.

While acknowledging the symbolism of the vote against the report, church figures pointed out the closeness of the clergy vote, especially when nine recorded abstentions were taken into account.

Christopher Cocksworth, the bishop of Coventry, apologised for pressing the wrong button on his electronic handset, inadvertently voting against the report. A second synod member, from the laity, also said he had accidentally voted against the report.

The two mistakes made “no material difference to the outcome of the vote”, said a C of E spokesperson. “It is the responsibility of synod members to follow debates and the business of synod carefully and to cast their votes accordingly.”

Some bishops believe that the church’s opposing camps – supporters of gay rights and conservative opponents of same-sex relationships – cannot be reconciled.

But LGBT members of the church are confident that a significant number of bishops have understood the need to listen more closely and consult more widely.

Andrew Foreshew-Cain, a London vicar who married his partner in defiance of the church, said supporters of gay rights understood that same-sex church weddings were probably a generation away. “But we want a recognition among bishops of the legitimate diversity within the church, and that people who don’t agree with the official line have a place at the table.”

He said the bishops had underestimated the shift among many evangelical Christians in the past five years to an understanding of LGBT issues. “There will always be a few absolutists, and they may well choose to leave [the C of E]. But most of the church can probably agree on some movement.”

As bishops consider how to proceed, a quiet campaign of civil disobedience may step up with an increasing number of clergy offering de facto services of blessing to same-sex couples in civil partnerships or marriages in the coming months in defiance of church rules.

The synod, which ended on Thursday, heard an international perspective on the issue of sexuality from Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon, the secretary general of the global Anglican communion. He said: “The dispiriting and destructive dynamic of Anglican conflict over human sexuality … [is] divisive between the provinces of the Anglican communion as well as within them.”

But Idowu-Fearon, a Nigerian bishop, suggested churches in Africa faced more fundamental challenges than whether people of the same sex could marry in church.

“In my own African context, and more specifically my Nigerian context, the single most pressing issue around human sexuality is the criminalisation of homosexuality … The struggle for the legal, social, spiritual and physical safety of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is our issue in Nigeria and other places in Africa,” he said.

“The prophetic task for African Anglicans is to denounce violence, and civil liberties that are supported by members of our own communities and leadership. This is about changing attitudes, and we need the space to do this work on our own.”


Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Church of England bishops refuse to back gay marriage
Bishops resist change that would allow clergy to marry same-sex couples but propose civil marriages can be blessed in church

Harriet Sherwood

18, Jan, 2023 @12:54 PM

Article image
Church of England in turmoil as synod rejects report on same-sex relationships
Clergy vote against report by 100 to 93 in blow to archbishop of Canterbury as he tries to chart course between apparently unreconcilable wings of church

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

15, Feb, 2017 @8:53 PM

Article image
Five more Anglican bishops back same-sex marriages in church
Church of England bishops say clergy should be able to act according to conscience on issue that has divided Christianity

Harriet Sherwood

04, Nov, 2022 @6:44 PM

Article image
C of E bishops’ compromise on same-sex marriage will not settle painful divisions
Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledges the proposals are likely to displease both conservatives and progressives

Harriet Sherwood

18, Jan, 2023 @2:04 PM

Article image
Church of England bishops ‘delaying same-sex equality’ move
Synod members say creating new working groups fails to address issue as leaders accused of ‘waffle’

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

08, Jul, 2017 @1:28 PM

Article image
Church of England should allow same-sex marriage, says Bishop of Oxford
Steven Croft apologises for church’s history on LGBTQ+ rights, but calls for ‘love and respect for those who take different views’

Tobi Thomas

03, Nov, 2022 @6:57 PM

Article image
Church of England members back same-sex marriage
Poll shows for first time more Anglicans supporting gay couples marrying than opposing it, despite leadership’s opposition

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

29, Jan, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
Sex is for married heterosexual couples only, says Church of England
Pastoral guidance also calls for Christians in gay or straight civil unions to be abstinent

Harriet Sherwood

23, Jan, 2020 @12:58 PM

Article image
Church of Scotland general assembly votes to allow same-sex marriages
Ministers and deacons to be allowed to opt in to officiate at same-sex weddings, ending centuries-old ban

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

23, May, 2022 @1:16 PM

Article image
Justin Welby forced to allow Anglican bishops to reject statement on sexuality
Archbishop of Canterbury responds to outcry over declaration that marriage is ‘between a man and a woman’

Harriet Sherwood

26, Jul, 2022 @10:13 AM