This week, the governing body of the Church of England is meeting for the General Synod, where bishops and other clergy members are debating the Anglican Church’s position on gay marriage.
A vote will be taken at the end of the week, but if it follows a leaked recommendation from the bishops, the C of E will likely allow same-sex marriages to be blessed in church, but continue its ban on same-sex marriages within the church.
The proposal is “undoubtedly incoherent”, says Reverend Andrew Foreshew-Cain, a C of E chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford.
On the one hand, they will bless people’s same-sex marriages in church, “but at the same time, they're also saying the doctrine of the Church of England isn't changing. And the doctrine of the Church of England is that marriage is for one man and for one woman, and that sex outside marriage is sin,” Foreshew-Cain explains.
“That's incoherent. That just makes no sense theologically,” he says.
The UK legalised gay marriage in 2013, but the C of E institution has an exception from the law due to its state-given ability to govern itself. The exception from UK law is a matter close to Foreshew-Cain’s heart. In 2014, he married his longtime partner Stephen. The pair had been openly in a relationship for the previous 14 years, and Foreshew-Cain hadn’t anticipated the newly legal marriage would be an issue.
“To be honest, I was extremely naïve,” he says. The couple would get invitations to dinner with his boss, the Archdeacon. “We were accepted as a couple within the church, even though we weren’t in a civil partnership and, I suppose on one level, living in sin.”
What Foreshew-Cain didn’t realise at the time was that he was the first C of E vicar in a same-sex marriage. Marital status and sexuality are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 in the UK. But the C of E exception meant that there would be no repercussions when Foreshew-Cain experienced homophobic acts after marrying.
“My inbox was filled with abuse. Fellow clergy would refuse to worship with me. People said to my face abusive and unpleasant things about my faith, my ministry, my relationship, and my sexuality,” he recalls. Yet the official line from the church was that it wasn’t homophobic abuse, but a legitimate theological expression of their position. “Whereas anywhere else in the UK if people said those things to me, I could have them arrested,” Foreshew-Cain says.
Foreshew-Cain was blacklisted from new parishes after he left his London position. Luckily for him, the University of Oxford’s parishes are independent educational charities and the C of E couldn’t interfere in the hiring process. The C of E asked for Foreshew-Cain’s name to be removed from the application list but Oxford refused. He was hired by the Lady Margaret Hall college in 2019 and has been the vicar there ever since.
It’s not just the impact on his own career that frustrates Foreshew-Cain about the church’s inertia on homophobia, his concern extends primarily for the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ church members.
“If you're living part of a community where you hear sermons that say homosexuality is wrong and immoral and you’re exploring your own sexuality, that message is going to have a profoundly troubling effect on your mental health,” he says.
An example of the damage the institutional homophobia of the church can inflict is Lizzie Lowe, who killed herself aged 14 due to fears the church wouldn’t accept her as a lesbian. She’s not the only person Foreshew-Cain is aware of who’s taken a similar decision.
This is the danger to people of the church not taking homophobia seriously. Last month, the C of E issued an apology for the way LGBTQ+ people have been excluded from the church.
“We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong,” the open letter from the bishops reads. “The occasions on which you have received a hostile and homophobic response in our churches are shameful and for this we repent.”
It’s a hollow apology, as far as Foreshew-Cain is concerned. “They're apologising for rejecting and excluding, whilst at the same time rejecting and excluding us, because they are saying they are not going to accept our relationships as equal to those of heterosexuals.”
Unless the C of E is willing to fully embrace a change in its position on gay marriage, the apology is void. “It's saying we're sorry for doing what we're doing, but we're going to carry on doing it anyway. That’s the language of an abuser,” he says.
As it stands, the decision to bless same-sex marriages but not allow them seems to have upset everyone. For progressives, it’s not good enough and for conservatives, it gives too much ground. Ultimately, the decision is likely influenced greatly by the C of E’s growing memberships in Africa where permitting same-sex marriage could stoke divisions.
Foreshew-Cain is concerned that accepting the bishops’ recommendation will limit future movements to fully allow same-sex marriage. A similar recommendation was once suggested in the Scottish Episcopal Church. The campaign for equal marriage in Scotland rejected that idea and had it voted down alongside the conservatives.
When considering why they took that approach, Foreshew-Cain explains; “We want marriage, we don't want blessing and being treated as second class.” The campaign worked in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church went on to approve same-sex marriage in 2017.