Making a Case for Pastoral Guidance

The latest pastoral guidance by the Bishops of the Church of England is designed to address the change in the law in England and Wales that has now opened up Civil Partnerships to opposite sex couples as well as same sex ones.

In the guidance they have provided the bishops make one or two things clear:

  • Sex is for heterosexual marriage and nowhere else
  • That civil partnerships are a form of friendship
  • That they should be sexually abstinent, whoever is in the CP

Let’s look at the good things first. First of all, this is clear guidance. No one can be in any doubt about where the bishops stand over the question of sexual relationships. Secondly, at least it does not discriminate further against LGBT people – it takes precisely the same stance over the sexual lives of heterosexuals as well. Thirdly, there is a certain bravery about offering guidance that is so massively at variance with the mores of the time. According to a recent survey, only 4% of British people now think that sex should wait until marriage in all cases.

That is all that I think can truly be said in its favour. The Guidance has been received with obloquy. Here are some of the reasons why.

Having a sexual ethic that says sex is only for marriage between a heterosexual couple made quite a lot of sense when there was no reliable contraception and no antibiotics. It did not stop people having all kinds of sex, but as an ideal it made a lot of sense and offered protection to the most vulnerable – the young women who would get left holding the babies. In the days before social security and child support, when single parents were almost unknown because a single woman with a child simply could not survive without independent means, only family and societal pressure could oblige young men who fathered children out of wedlock to do the decent thing; marry and support their children. It didn’t work with rich men who had no compunction in abandoning girls of a lower social status. So that ethic wasn’t just about an ideal of virginity, it connected with the real lives of almost everyone. There could be and often was real cruelty in society’s response to those who fell short of this norm, but there was also sometimes real compassion.

But if the bishops are going to adhere to this ethical norm, which has an uncertain basis in Scripture, which assumes for the most part that women and children are the property of men, they had better start by explaining why. Telling us it is what the Church’s doctrine teaches is not an answer – why does the doctrine teach it (if it does)? Why is there nothing else that can be said about sex, except no? Why have medical advances made no difference to what we have to say? If there was really good quality relationship teaching coming out of the House of Bishops about personal and sexual relations people might be more inclined to listen. But there isn’t. All we have is a Church under siege for the way it has handled sexual offending and continues to behave extremely defensively towards victims and survivors.

Again, some consistency would help them. When Prince William, as he then was, was going to marry Miss Kate Middleton, the Archbishop of York was asked about their decision to live together before marriage. His rather flippant and tasteless answer made no reference to the importance of virginity and abstinence, but rather suggested that he assumed they would be having sex – “Taste the milk before you buy the cow”. Why should we take any notice of pastoral guidance which says the opposite?

There is, in this guidance, which follows the lines or argument of the 2014 guidance about same-sex marriage, one novel twist. There is an attempt to distinguish between civil partnerships and marriage by focusing on vows. Vows are not obligatory at a CP, though many people entering one choose to have vows. One senses the bishops reaching for anything that might increase the distance they want to create between marriage and CP. But this is not a help to them.

For a start, I don’t know of any bishop who would say that a heterosexual civil marriage is not a marriage. Yet it is not a requirement that couples contracting a heterosexual civil marriage use any form of vows at all. They are often introduced – but they form no part of the legal requirement. Other religious communities also contract marriages without vows – the Orthodox, for example.

The bishops make a lot of sex – and nothing at all of love. Sex is mentioned forty-nine times in the Guidance, love not once. They correctly point out that civil partnerships do not presuppose sexual intimacy and can be simply a kind of covenanted friendship. They hold on this as being the reason they can permit clergy to be in same-sex civil partnerships – because they assume them all to be celibate. Daring bishops may have asked for assurances that this is so, but they are not really supposed to do that these days. Obedient clergy may be adhering to this discipline. There is no way of telling.

Marriages, they think, presuppose sexual relations. But this is, of course, mistaken. There are lots of sexless marriages contracted for all kinds of reasons. There always have been. They have all been marriages, just as much as the ones where the couples have an enthusiastic and energetic sex life. Sex, in and of itself, does not make a marriage. Marriages, in the old language, can be consummated. But they are marriages anyway. Non-consummation is a ground for a marriage to be annulled – at least in the case of opposite-sex marriages. This notion was not included in the legislation for same-sex marriages.

My own experience is that, under cross-examination, an Anglican bishop and a senior Church House official were quite unable to offer any convincing explanation of the essential difference between a opposite-sex marriage, a same-sex marriage and a civil partnership. The doctrine of the Church tells us that marriage is “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” This doctrine is trotted out cheerfully by the supporters of the bishops’ views. They never really explain satisfactorily why the indissolubility of marriage, which it seems to me the plain meaning of these words expresses, is now more observed in the breach. And if that feature of the doctrine can be flexed, as it is, to support and permit remarriage after divorce, then why can’t other aspects of it?

Lying behind this latest guidance is the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage. There has been no attempt to develop a sexual ethic that takes account of any of the changes of the last century. With those changes have come also huge social revolution in peoples’ personal and sexual lives. There has been determined resistance at a formal level to the changes that have brought some equality and dignity to the lives of LGBT people.

The sexual revolution has not been without its victims. Human beings hurt themselves and others just as they always have done. But, as even Justin Welby could recognise, same sex relationships can be “stellar” in their quality, as can opposite sex ones. So too can civil partnerships of both kinds. The bishops need to do a lot more work to explain to us how and why what happens in their different bedrooms is determinative of the goodness or otherwise of the relationship.

They also need to focus more on love and generosity, and on the contributions that good relationships make to our society. These contributions take all kinds of forms – as diverse as the homes they come out of. They all need encouraging.

The sad thing about this Guidance is that it reeks of an attempt to maintain some consistency with earlier offerings. But that is an internal conversation – it is simply arse-covering, and its audience are the conservatives in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion who are always quick to see heresy in any softening of tone or content in the church’s teaching. Just look at the criticisms that are currently being aimed at Steven Cottrell, the Archbishop of York designate.

This guidance offers nothing pastoral. It never deals with the deeper questions about why doctrines are as they are. And if the bishops believe their own rhetoric, and people are asking deep questions about how to live, then a dogmatic response like this is worse than useless when what is needed is an apologetic for the Christian life as a joyful calling.

On Not Sharing the Peace

When I was a boy, there was no such thing as sharing the peace. The 1662 Prayer Book Communion service is a liturgy that resolutely maintains the sense of the individual amidst the corporate. Charles Willams’s poem, At the “Ye that do truly” expresses the sense of separation of one Christian from another in this rite:

Now are our prayers divided, now
must you go lonelily, and I;
For penitence shall disallow
Communion and propinquity.

Charles Williams

The liturgical reform of the later 20th Century rediscovered the Kiss of Peace of the early church, and it was introduced in the Church of England’s experimental Series 3 liturgy in about 1971. It was controversial. For many long-standing church people there was something intrusive about having to have such an explicit acknowledgement of our participation in the communion of being part of the people of God. For others, the discovery of fellowship, to use a good Old English word, was a dimension of believing that had been missing in our practice (though not, I think, in Cranmer’s theology).

Hence the theological meaning of being part of the Body of Christ, gathering to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ that we may serve him in the world, found part of its renewed meaning in the exchange of a “sign of peace” – kisses were a bit much for the English – a handshake or possibly a hug was as far as it usually went.

With that too went a rediscovery of the importance of the quality of our fellowship – the dominical warnings about forgiveness in Matthew 18 and Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church about discernment have elevated the importance not simply of our self-examination before God, but also the significance of making good our human relationships as far as in us lay, before approaching the altar. Because we understand that not only must we recognise the solemnity of the presence of God’s saving love in Christ in the elements of bread and wine, we must also see and play our part in preserving and enhancing the meaning of those words which so often introduce the Peace – “We are the Body of Christ”.

We know that every member of that Body is vital to the fulfillment of the realisation of that mystery – Christ’s presence among us, and in and through us. That is made explicit in Paul’s lyrical description of the indispensiblity of every part of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. So maintaining the peace of the body is important.

Which is why today was a very difficult day for me. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, came to Southwell Minster at the end of a weekend of diocesan mission, and preached at our Eucharist. I have some history with the Archbishop at one remove. In my trials with the Church of England, it was the archbishop who discussed with the then acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the late Richard Inwood, what was to be done about this priest who had gone against the Pastoral Guidance of the House of Bishops and had married his partner. Bishop Inwood’s decision to remove my permission to officiate led inexorably to his refusal to give me a licence to a senior chaplain’s post in the NHS, and I consequently lost that employment.

I decided to respond with a legal challenge to what had happened, and for a time, thought to involve the Archbishop in it, but that was not possible. Nevertheless, I saw, from some distance, Archbishop Sentamu remove the licence of a well-loved and long-standing Reader in his diocese for doing the same thing as I had done.

My legal challenge was unsuccessful. I continue to be a priest who is not allowed to function, because I remain, very happily, married to my husband. Recovering any kind of permission to officiate seems unlikely at the moment, unless and until my situation changes, or the attitude of the House of Bishops changes.

I was in my place in the choir for today’s service. I had not been looking forward to seeing the Archbishop, but I have a job to do as a singer, and, in any event, I love that church and I am part of the body there. So you can perhaps imagine my discomfort at the Peace when I saw the Archbishop look in my direction, confirm in a whispered conversation with the Dean that it was me he could see, and then head towards me. He held out his hand; “Peace.”

I have never before, as far as I know, refused to share the peace with someone. I take seriously what it means, and the importance of maintaining it. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t share the Peace with Archbishop Sentamu. Because there had been no conversation, no opportunity to say how deeply I had been hurt, or for him to tell me how distressed or angered he had been by my actions. It was as if he wanted to cut through all that and, in a stroke, pretend that that had never happened. To be honest, I felt he was attempting to manipulate me. I said to him, ” No. I do not have peace with you.” And I did not shake his hand. He moved on.

I daresay for the Archbishop it was intended simply as a friendly gesture. No hard feelings. But then he has the power, and the security, and the freedom to think that a little local difficulty more than five years ago is surely something that should be put behind us. Sharing the Peace with me would symbolise that.

But it is much more than that to me. For me, the reality I live with is the dishonouring by my church of my marriage, which is a source of love and life not just for me, but for many others who know us. It is living with a punitive attitude to gay clergy who marry, with no prospect of my punishment ending. That, surely, is a marker of a disproportionate and unjust response in almost any circumstance.

So the peace I would love to see restored cannot be done by a simple exchange of Peace in a Eucharist. Not by one archbishop reaching out. My refusal to engage in what he offered was not about hardness of heart. It is simply a recognition of a brokenness in the Body that desperately needs mending. I hope that I did not share the Peace because it was not there to be shared. There is a lot of work to be done with many LGBTI+ Christians before they feel that the peace we all long for, the peace that is proper to the Body of Christ in all its diversity, has been restored.

Our gospel reading was about the lost sheep. Many of us know what it is to have that sense of having been found and loved and brought home to God. It is the shepherds of the church who manage to make us feel pushed away.

I may be wrong. Perhaps I should have shared the Peace with the archbishop. Fake it till you make it, they say. But that is about the things that you can change yourself. This fracture will take all sides to work hard to make the changes we are called to. Not sharing the Peace was a painful symbol of where we are.

In Praise of Method and Application

A propos the priesthood, Giles Fraser writes in praise of Incompetence in his latest Unherd blog. He talks movingly and rightly of the dangers of any priest ever pretending that they are “successful”. And of how the grace and love of God uses the unlikely, the odd, the incompetent to advance the cause of God’s love and justice. The Bible and our faith’s history are littered with fine examples of how great things have been done on a large and (perhaps much, much more importantly) a very small-scale by those you would least expect to do so. All of this keeps us humble and reminds us of the truth of Paul’s telling us that we have this treasure in jars of clay.

I want, however, to raise a flag for hard work and organisation. I have been a priest since I was twenty-five. I never had a career before I was ordained. I was lucky to be a fairly naturally hard-working person, and had a dutiful sense that I was under an obligation to do my best. But over a long ministry as vicar, rural dean and chaplain I have noticed many colleagues who did not naturally have this drive.

The trouble with being a clergyperson is that you are paid a stipend. This is an allowance sufficient to allow you to live and to perform the duties of your office. But you are not paid a wage or a salary. Your work is not tied to time. You work when you want to and need to in order to fulfil your responsibilities. This is a tricky business to manage.

The naturally lazy can spend a long time doing very little indeed. Or taking an inordinate amount of time to do relatively simple tasks because they were poorly organised. But provided they turn up at church and take the services they must and don’t do things so badly that the archdeacon is complained to, then they can drift on for years unguided and unmanaged and unimproved. I have known clergy exactly like that – who did a few services a week, visited the one or two parishioners they liked for a bit of gossip, and pottered about reading or in the garden.

Conversely there are the clergy, who, because of the unbounded nature of the role, work themselves to a standstill because they can never do enough, and the jobs are never finished and the to do list remains ever full. There are many clergy marriages that have foundered on overwork and burn out. Thankfully, places like the Society of Martha and Mary exist to support and help the clergy who do work hard discover some balance.

I want to suggest, however, that hard work is not always well-directed, or well-organised work. In the 1990s and 2000s I was rector first of five parishes and then of a team of thirteen parishes in Cambridgeshire. I worked hard, very hard, to manage and to grow the spiritual life of the villages I ministered to. But two people helped more than I can say, and I have never properly acknowledged what they gave me. I won’t name them, but they will recognise themselves. They were both colleagues in the Team Ministry I led.

One was my curate. I had the fortune to be asked to train a man who had worked for Parcel Force before he trained for the ministry. What that meant he brought to his ordained life was a real ability to organise methodically pieces of work that needed doing. The classic case was working out how we were to have all the meetings that we needed in a benefice of thirteen parishes without clashes and confusion. The answer, which my colleague provided, was to devise a spreadsheet which booked all meetings eighteen months in advance, so everyone knew in very good time, when and where everything of that kind was happening. It was a big piece of work – but once done could be easily updated.

I was initially a bit resistant to this. It seemed rather unministerial to me. But I was soon converted – there was in his method a truly liberating truth – getting organised frees you to do other things and stops you wasting time sorting out messes.   That spreadsheet made for hours more pastoral contact time with all kinds of people. He completely converted me to forward planning and organisation in one spreadsheet. I am forever grateful.

Another colleague had been a senior HR manager in IBM and now farmed. He offered to take me through an appraisal process. I agreed and he very gently told me of some of my greatest failings. They were mostly about prompt responses to communications. He helped me find a system that made sure I responded fast to people who wanted to get hold of me without letting their needs overtake me. I learnt how to do my job better. I improved. I will always be hugely grateful to him for what he gave me in that process.

The lessons they taught me have never left me. I used them extensively in Chaplaincy. Now I run my own business in celebrancy. I rely on my reputation to earn my living. My bookings come almost entirely from Funeral Directors recommending me to families and then booking my services. I have to be both hard-working and organised as well as pastorally sensitive, or I would get no work. If I messed up it would reflect on the Funeral Director and I would never be asked to take a funeral again by that company. And word soon gets around.

The benefits of applying oneself with method and organisation are not primarily for myself. I think that what makes them really important things to hold on to as we labour is that they are both, in ministry, ways of showing that we truly care for other people. If I want to love my neighbour as myself, then the dreary virtues of being well-organised, punctual, and prepared show that I value the people I am going to see. Working from a snowstorm of paper on my desk will impact on how I take care of people or not. Easy for the naturally well-organised, not so much for some of us. But these are things that can be learnt, can be bothered with. And in so doing we bother about other people, and we show them that we do.

Of course, it is God who is at work in us however we work, however lazy or shambolic we are, when something extraordinary and gracious and life-transforming takes place. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in the Power and the Glory taught us that. But that is no reason not to try our hardest or seek to be as well-organised as we can. The same Paul who tells us so often that the initiative is God’s in working in us and through us also says. “leaving what is behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal”.

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 :