The Church of England (the ‘C of E’) is on the brink of breaking up over the vexed question of gay priests as conservative and progressive Anglicans fight for supremacy in the Church.
For conservatives, gay sex is a sin that the Bible condemns and threatens damnation. Gay marriage is a contradiction because marriage by definition requires the union of a man with a woman and unnatural because men and women can complement each other in ways that two members of the same sex cannot. To condone either is flagrantly to defy the clear teaching of the Bible and the order in creation that God set out.
For progressives, however, the Bible knows nothing of homosexuality as we now understand it. The few relevant bible verses do not condemn gay sex outright but castigate it in the context of larger concerns, e.g. breaches of hospitality and succumbing to idolatry. Modern scientific thinking has demonstrated that homosexuality is an aspect, not a perversion, of nature, as the law and the medical profession now acknowledge. The level of commitment and love that homosexual people manifestly show each other should, it is contended, be publicly honoured in civil society and the liturgies of the church.
The Church of England’s official position is that all sexual activity must be confined to the marriage bed and that all non-marital sex is ‘less than ideal’, a wonderfully oblique way of saying ‘sinful’. It has reluctantly accepted that gay clergy can enter into civil partnerships provided they undertake to remain ‘celibate’, a word it does not define too specifically. Marriage remains off-limits to gay clergy, even though it is recognised in law.
For the past five years, however, the Church of England has worked to reconcile conservative and progressive elements. This has included a series of ‘Shared Conversations’, a carefully orchestrated succession of facilitated discussions organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the anglican church, between opposing members of the Church’s ‘parliament’ – the General Synod. These were well received but followed up with a Bishop’s Report which seem to reassert the old conservative position and remain vague about how civil partnerships and gay marriages could be “blessed” by the church. In a rare act of defiance, the General Synod refused to ‘take note’ of the report. It seems that for progressives, nothing less than a profound transformation in the Church’s attitude to gay people will suffice, while for the conservatives, nothing less than a strict adherence to traditional practice. Schism seems inevitable.
The debate over gay priests is symptomatic of a wider dispute – how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Conservatives believe that in this era of uncertainty, clear boundaries are required in sexual and other matters as laid down in scripture and scruple. Progressives contend that truth is something not only deposited but also discovered through the complexities of life in the world. After all, Jesus promised his disciples that he would ‘lead them into all truth.’
Which path the Church of England will take remains to be seen.
By Revd Dr Mark Bratton, member of the General Synod of the Church of England representing the Diocese of Coventry.