The archbishop of Canterbury has been forced into a last-minute rethink of plans to ask Anglican bishops to oppose same-sex marriage when they meet this week for the first Lambeth conference – held in Canterbury – in 14 years.
Liberal Anglicans and gay rights campaigners in the Church of England voiced outrage after the conference recently circulated a series of “calls” – similar to motions – for the 650 bishops and archbishops from around the world to consider.
They included one that calls for a reaffirmation of a position that “upholds marriage as between a man and a woman”, that “legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions” cannot be advised, and that “it is the mind of the Anglican communion as a whole that same-gender marriage is not permissible”.
The bishop of Los Angeles, the Right Rev John H Taylor, was among those aghast at the call, warning the conference was on course to register support for a position that “divides, hurts, scapegoats and denies”.
And in a move that raises questions about behind-the-scenes machinations, a bishop in Toronto who is a member of the group that drafted the call, revealed in a Facebook post: “At no point in our meetings did we discuss the reaffirmation [of the position] at the conference, and it never appeared in any of the early drafts of our work together.”
He said he was “shocked and dismayed” about what has been called the “human dignity call”.
“As a gay man married to another man, my understanding and experience of human dignity includes the blessing of two people joined together in holy marriage, regardless of gender,” he said.
The lead author of the call is listed in conference documents as Howard Gregory, the bishop of Jamaica.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, is the president of the Lambeth conference, which said on Monday morning that “in full consideration of comments made about the Lambeth Calls, the subgroup that coordinates the process will meet with the archbishop of Canterbury today to discuss concerns raised. A further statement will be issued later.”
On Monday evening, after the bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, increased pressure on Welby by urging that references to the position on same-sex unions be cut, the conference announced it would make revisions to the text, but declined to say how. It also announced bishops would be given the option of opposing the call when it is discussed, when previously this was not possible.
Welby had already caused anger among some in the church when partners of gay clergy were not invited to the event. Socially conservative church leaders from Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda are also boycotting the conference in protest at moves by some Anglican churches towards conducting or blessing same-sex unions.
Welby is faced with trying to reconcile a global Anglican community that is deeply divided on homosexuality and has previously said he struggles with his own position on same-sex relationships. In 2017, when asked if gay sex was a sin, he replied: “I haven’t got a good answer to the question,” and admitted he was “copping out because I am struggling with the issue”.
But the inclusion of the call on same-sex marriage appears to have undermined trust with liberal figures in the Anglican community.
Taylor said: “The word is spreading quickly that the Kumbaya Lambeth is actually a bait-and-switch Lambeth, with moderate and progressive Anglicans and Episcopalians about to arrive in Canterbury as credulous props for what is likely to be a majority vote against marriage equity.”
The conference will not legislate or set Anglican policy, “but that won’t matter to a global audience that is likely to read that a majority of Anglican bishops refused to affirm the dignity of every human being”, he added.
In a letter to delegates on Sunday, a group of senior Anglicans including Nigel Evans, the chair of the campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England, and Prof Helen King, vice-chair of the General Synod gender and sexuality group, urged “each and every bishop of the Church of England to oppose the issuing of the call … in its present form. Without such a stand, trust between LGBTQ+ members and many others of the Church of England will be impossible when it is most needed.”
The Church of England website states: “The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer.”
In a vote last year, the Anglican church in Wales decided it would offer special blessings to same-sex married couples, but still does not allow same-sex marriages in church.
• This article was amended on 26 July 2022 because an earlier version referred to “the bishop of Toronto”, when it meant to refer to a bishop in Toronto.