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Writer for Reformer (Religious & Theological Studies student at Cardiff University)

Church of England and Homosexuality

Is the church of England failing to keep up with social change?

The House of Bishops of the Church of England recently released a report on "Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations". The objective was to clarify the Church's position on same-sex marriage and relationships, following pressure from LGBTQ+ members of the Church and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) to realise and engage with its varied sexually-orientations in its congregation. In a modern and evolving society, religious institutions like the Church of England are falling short of attracting the diverse range of the population which will be key to its continuation and growth.

Throughout the report, the claim is made that the Church is seeking to work "towards greater clarity about...how the good news of God in Jesus Christ can be shared more effectively" by providing "a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people". The report suggests "it might also be important to identify specific opportunities for the Church of England to express its welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and those who experience same-sex attraction".

Although the report provides an unprecedented step towards inclusivity, and provides four major practical propositions, it lacks a coherent proposition of action and change.

Revitalised teaching on marriage?

On marriage and relationships, the report offers to "affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church", allowing their voices to be "heard" within the "life of the Church". This seems like a remarkable step in the right direction towards a utopian, egalitarian Church, but just a few lines later is the instruction to "reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life".

Clearly, this is contradictory and quite insulting towards gay and lesbian members of the Church. They apparently should be welcomed and able to voice an opinion in a church, but must sit through rigorous teaching about how a marriage with someone they love is wrong and not what the Church accepts. It also proposes "a theological exploration of friendship...and not just sexual relationships". For this to be mentioned in a report about same-sex relationships in the Church seems like this is a patronising attempt to suggest abiding celibate gay or lesbian couples are simply just friendships, not legitimate romantic relationships. The report also wishes to highlight "what is good about friendships", inferring that a friendship is a great alternative to a homosexual sexual relationship.

This proposition is both condescending and belittling for the LGBTQ+ Christian community.

Pastoral support for priests and clergy

One reasonable suggestion that comes out of the report, is the offering of "guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same-sex couples". This shows that leaders in the Church are keen to pastorally support gay and/or lesbian members of their congregations, and advice for them would be accessible, if necessary. It gives an opportunity for those leaders of the Church who have more conservative values, but are willing to build ecclesiastical equality, to engage with these members of the Church and have support if they need it.

However, clergy may only pray “informally with same sex couples” which portrays some sort of suppression of this pastoral and spiritual support, and that it can only be done privately and unofficially.

Questioning potential priests

The report even covers the ordination process, specifically the questioning that takes place of those who are exploring a vocation of priesthood. Homosexuals that are seeking ordination are "questioned about the nature of their relationships, with the explicit expectation that they be celibate". The document does, however, note the evident ill-treatment of lesbian and gay ordinands, as heterosexuals are not questioned on such intimate parts of their life, even though they should be. The Bishops seek a change in this to enforce questioning of all ordinands as part of the "wider examination" of their ordination process.

What happens next?

"One unifying theological theme to have emerged is that of unity", according to the report. But this theme is definitely not one that comes across in the published findings that I have read. The desire for a shift in attitude and riddance of stigma towards lesbian and gay members can be appreciated, but the report offers no concrete support for LGBTQ+ members of the Church with no real change in the Church's law or doctrine. It fails to be revelant, not tackling any issues regarding transgender or bisexual members of the Church, by only referring to "lesbian and gay people" and the (rather vague) "those who experience same-sex attraction".

The report has been a huge blow to LGBTQ+ members of the Church, particularly Vicky Beeching who tweeted: "How will this 'fresh culture of welcome' for LGBT people be created? By changing absolutely nothing in Church doctrine or practice. Bizarre." Christians looking to achieve unity amongst all genders, races and sexual orientations need to speak up and not be fearful of what opposing people believe.

The Church of England is an institution that is held dear by many, but with church attendance falling below one million people for the first time ever, it will soon be one to devolve and eventually die out with the older generations.

Moving forward, The Church must seek a viable, theological promotion of equality and acceptance, through both words and actions. By beginning an active and doctrinal process to share the message of the Church to, with, and among people with different sexual orientations. Every Sunday service is an opportunity to spread the message that Christianity is a religion of love and this needs to be reflected in its publicity and endeavours in our evolving postmodern society. In an open letter, the LGCM said that this is no longer a waiting game and "members and supporters", with other Christians and non-Christians of all sexual orientations (including myself), "will begin the work of making change happen at the grassroots".

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