How will the Church of England respond to heterosexual civil partnerships?

The Church of England likes to portray itself as the friend of civil partnerships for LGBT+ people.

This is notwithstanding the fact that when the legislation was passing through the House of Lords in 2004 the majority of its 26 bishops in the British upper chamber of parliament voted for an amendment that was widely seen at the time as a way of wrecking the bill.  

The amendment failed, and the bishops published rather grudging pastoral guidance as the new arrangements came into force, including a refusal to offer any services of blessing for couples entering civil partnerships.

Since then same-sex marriage has been introduced, and bishops have discovered the joy of civil partnerships, which is that they can be assumed to be sexless relationships.

In the Church’s teaching, sex belongs, you will recall, only in a lifelong, exclusive marriage between one man and one woman. Just don’t ask about divorce and second marriages – somehow they don’t alter this fundamental position.

However, because there is always the possibility that people in a civil partnership might have discovered the delights of sex, the bishops still don’t want to ask God to bless anyone entering such a union. Just in case. Because sex is so yucky and awkward and worrying.

In a ruling in the British Supreme Court last year, the judges found unanimously that barring entry to civil partnerships for heterosexual couples (as had been the case) was, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, discriminatory and against the human rights of heterosexual couples who wished to make such a commitment.

The passage of a bill recently changing registration arrangements has now opened up the prospect of the Secretary of State being able to change the rules around civil partnerships to include heterosexual couples. And the timetable for this to take place is before the end of the year.

This is going to put the Church of England in a bit of a spot.

Any heterosexual couple in England has a right in law to be married in their parish church. If a heterosexual couple choose to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage, but also want this union blessed in the church and present themselves to their local vicar, what is s/he to say?

The Church of England doesn’t bless civil partnerships. But what is the essential difference between them and marriage?

If a civil partnership is between a man and a woman should it be a sexless thing like for same-sex couples? Or will the Church of England agree to bless heterosexual civil partnerships officially, but not homosexual ones?

The uproar that would cause doesn’t bear contemplating – even the most tin-eared Lambeth Palace apparatchik must know that would be PR suicide.

Up until now the bishops have not had to address this question. But the clock is ticking. The end of the year is the latest date the change in regulations could be introduced, not the soonest.

We deserve to be told what they will do.

There is no time for the Living in Love and Faith process, a major report into – as the Church describes it – “human identity, sexuality and marriage” due to be published next year, to debate this for years.

Will gay and straight people entering civil partnerships get equal treatment as regards a blessing? If not, why not?

If no blessing is offered, on what grounds is this denied to heterosexual couples? And if it were to be offered equally, then is the assumption about “sexlessness” being abandoned? In which case, why doesn’t the Church of England bless same-sex marriages as well?

It could be a very interesting few months.

This blog post was first published on 7th May 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

The Church of England must break its toxic colonial legacy

March 12 marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women priests within the Church of England. Yet while today marks one milestone, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain second-class citizens.

Next year the Anglican bishops from around the world will meet for the Lambeth Conference. Except that a tranche of them, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, will boycott the event because of the toleration (as they see it) some churches show towards ungodly behaviour.

In their eyes, this is because the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States (and one or two others) have welcomed and included LGBT+ people in the life and ministry of their churches and support equal marriage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sits poised anxiously and uncomfortably on the fence between these two blocks.

He doesn’t want to be seen as being nasty to the gays, but he doesn’t want to be the man on whose watch the Anglican Communion (the loose worldwide federation of Anglican churches) falls apart terminally. He daren’t offend the anti-gay churches by being seen to be too supportive of the English LGBT+ faithful and their frustrated cries for inclusion.

So the LGBT+ community faces oppression for the sake of a greater goal – inter-church unity.

This Anglican Communion only exists because of British colonialism. As the empire spanned the globe, so too did the Church of England. And after some time, indigenous churches sprang up along the Church of England model. This is not all the story – Scotland and the United States have a close relationship and an entirely independent route through history into this family of independent reformed catholic churches. But the dominant influence was churches being established on the coat tails of British colonialisation.

Those colonial churches have been independent for many years. They are in places where the British introduced harsh laws against homosexuality. The majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 53 sovereign states of the Commonwealth and legal in only 18.

This has been described as being the legacy of the British Empire. In most cases, it was former colonial administrators that established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts during the 19th century and even earlier. The majority of countries have retained these laws following independence.

Due to the common origin of historical penal codes in many former British colonies, the prohibition of homosexual acts, specifically anal sex between men, is provided for in Section 377 in the penal codes of 42 former British colonies, many of whom are today members of the Commonwealth.

Perhaps, then, LGBT+ Christians and their allies in the Church of England should give some attention to this toxic legacy. We should be supporting the work of groups like the Human Dignity Trust. Changing the law in these Commonwealth countries requires lawyers who will work to get this done – they need our support. It is work that needs to be done for its own sake.

However, when decriminalisation arrives in, for example, Uganda, Kenya or Nigeria, then it will start to put real pressure on, for example, Uganda’s churches to change their homophobic tune. Those Anglican churches that are most virulently anti-gay are also financed and resourced by extreme conservative Christians from the United States.

These links also need exposing and breaking.

It might also free the Archbishop of Canterbury from the bind he now finds himself in and help him to do the right thing by the many LGBT+ members of his own church who are tired of being second-class Christians.

This blog post was first published on 12th March 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

The Church of England must open its doors to same-sex weddings

The first same-sex marriages were celebrated on March 29 2014 shortly after midnight. No same-sex marriages have yet been celebrated in Church of England churches, because the established church, firmly against the proposal, campaigned for and was granted a pass by the government to make sure it wouldn’t happen.

Five years on, a new campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England is being launched on Friday.

EQUAL: The Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England begins the work of persuading the church nationally to accept this foundational social institution among gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples. I say begin, but in truth, most Anglicans support same-sex marriage and would be pleased to see it available in their parishes. Fewer than 20 percent now think that same-sex relationships are wrong in all circumstances.

The problem lies with the church. What does it say? And how does its opposition to same-sex marriage look after five years?

The Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission produced a report called “Men and Women Together in Marriage” in 2013. In it we find some startling claims.

On the first page, we are told that marriage between a man and a woman is the best context in which to raise of children. This is an understandable traditional assertion, but is there any evidence that this is so? The question is usually posed the other way round: does being raised by same-sex parents harm children?

The research on this point is extremely clear, the latest being a considerable study from Australia published last autumn in Nature magazine – being raised by same-sex parents does not harm or disadvantage children at all. What harms and disadvantages them is stereotyping, bullying and homophobia. There is no demonstrable advantage to being raised by two parents of opposite genders.

Again the Commission writes: “We cannot turn our back upon the natural, and especially the biological, terms of human existence.”

But what is “natural” and “biological”?

Estimates of species that exhibit same-sex sexual behaviour run to as many as 1,500, and pair-bonding for life is well-documented in some species, for example the Laysan albatross. Domestic sheep have a stable population of exclusively homosexual sheep of about 8 percent.

And humans, the only species to have hated and persecuted homosexual people, has a persistent and stable minority despite these hurdles. Not acknowledging this, and not supporting it looks rather more like turning your back on nature and biology.

LGBT+ people are a persistent natural minority.

When it came to the debate in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated… The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished.”

No evidence was offered to support these claims. “However, it is not at heart a faith issue,” he concluded. “It is about the general social good”.

I agree. How has the general social good been affected by the introduction of same-sex marriage?

Five years on, the Church of England ought to be ready to evidence the rather wild claims that it made before its introduction, only a few of which I have highlighted here.

I don’t believe it can produce any serious evidence to support its concerns. Indeed, the evidence points, as I have indicated, in other directions.

EQUAL is campaigning for the doors of parish churches to be unlocked to same-sex couples. They want a full welcome to couples of all kinds who want a religious wedding.

Enough time has passed. The dogma and foot-dragging of the institution needs to change fast if it is to retain any credibility with a population who thinks that treating people equally is the only moral way to behave.

This blog was first published on 12th April 2019 by Openly, an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation :

True LGBT+ inclusion and equality in the Church of England are a long way off

This has been a strange few weeks in which to be LGBT+ and a member of the Church of England. The bishops of the church have commissioned a process called “Living in Love and Faith”. This will, according to its website, produce “resources that will help bishops” lead others in thinking about “what it means to be holy in a society in which understandings and practices of gender, sexuality and marriage continue to change”.

It is a slow process involving many experts and a report is expected in time for the global Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops next year.

In a meeting last month of the General Synod, which governs the Church of England, the project called for people to work against prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, lying and the use of power against LGBT+ people in churches.

All fine words. But what is the reality?

Looking positively first, gay and transgender people in the Church of England can be members of a congregation and join parish electoral rolls and stand for parochial offices.

They are also permitted to sing in the choir, ring the bells, do the flowers and be a part of study, prayer or teaching groups. They may also find that they are loved and accepted by the parish in many parts of the country.

However, on the flipside, they may also find that their gender identity or sexuality is never mentioned even in abstract terms and that their partners or loved ones are airbrushed out.

Certain churches might also prevent them from performing certain tasks, for example, working with children, because they are LGBT+. They might also discover that their vicar is unsympathetic if they come out to them.

Many might also find that there is no explicit advertising in their church that makes a welcome for gay and trans people obvious and that some same-sex couples find it hard to have children baptised.

In instances, some LGBT+ might have been refused communion. And finally that there is explicit teaching in some places about sinful same-sex relationships.

Therefore there are a few ground rules for those who sense a vocation to ministry. First, when offering for ordination they may well be treated sympathetically, but their reception will depend on each diocesan policy.

Second, that colleges try to accommodate and care for LGBT+ ordinands and that initial training placements (curacies) are mostly handled sensitively.

They will also be expected to train and be ordained in accordance with a 1991 House of Bishops statement that makes clear that clergy should not be in sexually active same-sex relationships. Bluntly put, this means they will have to either live in a celibate relationship, or pretend they are doing so.

They will not have the choice to marry and minister, and those clergy in same-sex couples who marry will not be employed or allowed to take services even on an occasional basis because of the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidelines of 2014.

Finally, clergy in civil partnerships will be able to find employment in some dioceses subject to the restrictions noted above and the policy of the individual bishop.

In conclusion, everyone needs to remember certain fundamental facts that underpin who the Church of England operates.

At the base of everything is the rule that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and this is the only approved context for sexual relations. Yet despite this, the church has accommodated divorce and has many divorced and remarried bishops and clergy; indeed divorce is no longer a bar to remarriage in church or to taking Holy Communion.

The Church of England fought successfully for exemptions to the Equality Act 2010. No same-sex couple can legally be married in a Church of England church, and it will require parliamentary legislation to change that.

The church still discriminates nationally and locally against LGBT+ people and shows no sign of wanting to give up the special privileges that allow it to do so legally.

The truth is simple: true inclusion and equality are a long way off.

This is the reality and this is the checklist against which we will measure progress. Not the fine words and phrases of a House of Bishops project group.

This blog post first appeared on 4th March 2019 in Openly, an initiative by the Thomson Reuters Foundation :