For 23 years, Jay Greene and the Rev Marion Clutterbuck have devoted themselves to each other and to the Church of England.
Clutterbuck, 66, was one of the first female priests to be ordained in the 1990s. Greene, 69, has served on the church’s parliament, the General Synod, and she is a church commissioner.
Their faith “matters deeply to both of us”, said Greene. But despite the couple’s long and dedicated service to the C of E, it has denied them their dearest wish: to be married in church.
In 2002, the couple made vows to each other in a ceremony hosted by the Quakers. In 2006, they underwent a civil partnership. In 2013, parliament legalised same-sex civil marriage – but the C of E steadfastly refuses to conduct same-sex marriages in church, and denies clergy permission to marry someone of the same sex in a civil ceremony.
“We’d love to be married in church and to make our promises before God,” said Greene. “Marion has given her life to the C of E, and I have worked hard for the church. But it won’t allow us – and I feel really angry about it.”
Now, after decades of bitter and anguished divisions over sexuality in the C of E, the matter may be coming to a head.
On Tuesday, C of E bishops will meet in London to discuss and vote on a recommendation to be put to synod in February. They received a paper last week outlining a proposal, which one insider said reflected a “centre of gravity around change” but was cloaked in fairly unfathomable language.
The options start with the status quo – that the bible proclaims marriage to be a union of a man and a woman – but few observers believe that will prevail. At the other end of the spectrum, same-sex marriage in church on an equal basis as heterosexual marriage is also unlikely.
Between these two positions is a “conscience clause” for clergy, allowing those who want to marry same-sex couples to do so, but those that are opposed to opt out – as happens with divorced people wishing to remarry.
Another option is to permit clergy to bless the civil marriages of same-sex couples. Or bishops could recommend a “church within the church”, allowing clergy and parishes that oppose same-sex marriage to be overseen by bishops who share their stance , as happens with female priests.
There is also the question of whether the ban on clergy marrying same-sex partners, and the insistence on celibacy for those in same-sex civil marriages, should end.
“The weight of opinion is for change, but final discussions will be over the level of change,” said a person familiar with the talks.
The synod debate on the bishops’ final recommendation will be intense, with passionate arguments voiced by both conservatives and progressives. Any measure that requires a change in canon law, such as equal marriage in church, needs a two-thirds majority in each of the synod’s three groups: bishops, clergy and laity.
The shift in opinion in the pews seems clear. According to 2022 polling commissioned by the Ozanne Foundation, which campaigns for equality, 55% of people in England who identify as Anglican believe same-sex marriage is “right”. Younger people are more likely to share this view. Just 29% think it’s “wrong”.
But lay members of synod include a “very effectively mobilised group of traditional conservatives” determined to block change, said the Very Rev Joe Hawes, the dean of St Edmundsbury and the most senior (out) LGBT+ cleric on synod.
But there was still everything to play for. “There is a swath of lay members as yet undecided. We have to make our arguments and hold faith that synod will respond to this groundswell for justice.” said Hawes.
Bishops and clergy are more inclined to support some kind of change. Some clergy already find ways round the C of E’s official orthodoxy on same-sex marriage, quietly conducting services that are “as near to marriage without being marriage as possible”, according to equality campaigner Jayne Ozanne.
Some bishops may have been persuaded by a 52-page essay by Steven Croft, the bishop of Oxford, circulated in November, in which he became the most senior C of E figure to publicly argue that the church should allow same-sex marriage for congregation and clergy. He apologised for being “slow to change” on the issue.
Last week John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, also went public, with an open letter saying the C of E should “celebrate and honour” same-sex relationships.
But Ozanne said she had little faith in bishops arriving at a clear way forward. “Bishops need to lead, and their credibility is at stake, but they will probably end up with a classic fudge. There is very little respect and trust over the way they’ve handled this,” she said.
Ozanne said the synod decision would be a “defining moment” for her, after more than 35 years as a committed member of the church. “I believe God has called me to witness to being a Christian who happens to be gay. But I cannot continue to endorse institutional homophobia.”
For conservatives, the next few weeks are also critical. “How can this not be a red line for those that truly believe the Bible, who have vowed to uphold biblical teaching?” said Andrea Williams, a former synod member. The C of E is verging on “apostasy”, she warned.
There have been calls for parliamentary intervention if the C of E – the national church – fails to move towards the law and public opinion.
Tony Baldry, a former Conservative MP, government minister and Second Church Estates Commissioner, said last week: “I have little doubt that if the church cannot find a way forward that enables clergy either to marry same-sex couples or to bless their weddings, MPs will soon feel the need to intervene.”
Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP and former cabinet minister, has said that without change, “we might see growing calls for disestablishment”.
Among Anglican churches in the west, the C of E is an outlier. Same-sex marriages are conducted or blessed by the church in Scotland, Wales, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Greene and Clutterbuck will be watching closely as the church decides on the way forward. “We are now far along in our journey as a couple, but we pray that other couples will soon be able to receive the grace of marriage at the beginning, not the end, of their journeys,” said Greene.