Church of England to Vote on ‘Compromise’ Same-Sex Unions Policy This Week

By Catherine Pepinster
same sex unions compromise
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, front row center right, poses for a photo with bishops from around the world at the University of Kent, during the 15th Lambeth Conference, in Canterbury, England, on July 29, 2022. (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA via AP, File)

This coming week promises to be one of the most historic — and controversial — in the life of the Church of England, as its governing body, General Synod, heads toward a resolution of a long debate over blessings of same-sex couples.

After years of wrangling over how the church should deal with homosexuality, its bishops announced in mid-January that they would not agree to same-sex marriage but were prepared to bless civil unions. They followed with an apology for the way that LGBTQI+ people were treated by the Church of England.

Beginning Monday, the three voting houses of bishops, clergy and laity will discuss and vote on the proposals in an all-church body known as Synod.

The deepest split on the issue has been between evangelicals vehemently against moving away from what they call the biblical concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman and those campaigning for full equality, who are frustrated by the bishops’ willingness to recognize their mistreatment of LGBTQ members, while being unwilling to offer them marriage.

Also frustrated are members of the House of Commons advocating for the established church to endorse marriage for same-sex couples, which has been legal in England and Scotland since 2014. (Northern Ireland followed in 2020.) Last week 14 MPs met with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to express dismay at what they see as the church’s lack of equality.

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justin welby
Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, gives his first keynote address during the 2022 Lambeth Conference, held at The University of Kent in Canterbury, England, Friday, July 29, 2022. (Photo by Neil Turner for The Lambeth Conference)

The debate has grown so tense as Monday’s meetings begin that facilitators have been hired to help navigate the discussions.

The current proposal for blessing new civil unions and praying for those already in them comes after a six-year discussion project within the Church, called Living in Love and Faith. The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell — the English church’s second-highest ranking prelate — said that the bishops had opted for a pastoral rather than a legislative way forward: changing the church’s canon law on marriage would take years, he pointed out. 

“I hope that these prayers of love and faith can provide a way for us all to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships,” he said.

Welby, the primate of the Church of England and the ceremonial head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, acknowledged that the proposals were a compromise. “I am under no illusions that what we are proposing today will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others,” he said in a Jan. 18 statement.

The bishops also urged congregations to welcome same-sex couples unreservedly in their churches, advising that inclusion is founded “in Scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.”

Though the bishops’ middle course of blessing unions avoids the legislative wrangling of changing church doctrine, they are keen to win Synod support for the proposals, which can be bestowed with a simple vote. Heading into the week, the count looks tight. According to the Rev. Neil Patterson, chair of the General Synod gender and sexuality group, reformers will begin the week with 167 yes votes out of a total of 467, based on subscribers to the group’s pro-reform email list. 

The challenge will be convincing enough pro-LGBTQ members that the proposal goes far enough. “We would have liked rather more than the limited way that the prayers have been framed,” said Patterson. “But this is a step forward worth supporting. My philosophy is that we have to have a gradualist approach if we are to eventually accept same-sex marriage. If we have celebratory services at this stage we can get there.”

Evangelicals, for this reason, refuse to go even as far as blessings. The Church of England Evangelical Council has warned that the proposals will lead to what it calls “broken fellowship” and “a greater tearing of the fabric of the worldwide Anglican Communion” while also “compromising with prevailing culture.”

same-sex marriage
A church in Washington DC hosts a public LGBTQ celebration. (Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Earlier this week the CEEC’s director of strategy and operations, Canon John Dunnett, called the proposals a “lose-lose situation,” explaining, “The liberals don’t get what they want, and we have been dragged into a place that we can’t accept.”  

General Synod member Jayne Ozanne, a long-standing campaigner for marriage for all, said she could not accept the bishops’ plans as a halfway house and will offer an amendment calling for debate of same-sex unions in the near future. “I myself will not vote for them as I do not want to welcome something that I believe embeds discrimination into the Church of England and treats us as second class citizens,” said Ozanne.

But others who support equality are willing to accept the blessings for now. Dr. Charlie Bell, a psychiatrist, Anglican priest and author of the recently published book “Queer Holiness,” urged members of Synod to accept the bishops’ proposals.

“For me this is a clear stepping stone to equal marriage. Is it enough? Absolutely not,” Bell told media. “Does it make us second class citizens? Absolutely — but it gives us a seat at the table. We are not going to get to marriage through argument alone — we need to show that the blessings proposed won’t cause the roof to fall in, and will actually enrich the life of the church. Once it becomes normal to bless same-sex couples, it’s only a small step to recognizing that blessing as marriage.”

Beyond the Church of England’s decision looms a broader fight with other churches in the Anglican Communion. Bell wants the church hierarchy, especially Welby, to be more courageous in taking on conservative Anglicans who are not only opposed to same-sex marriage but condemn people for being gay. He described Welby’s decision, for the sake of the Communion, not to carry out same-sex blessings as “an absurd decision.”

“I am sick and tired of hearing about how the entirety of the ‘Global South’ opposes same-sex relationships — this is not even true insofar as the hierarchy is concerned, but it also ignores the lived reality of LGBTQI people in many countries with an Anglican presence that are facing obscene oppression, imprisonment, often violence and in some cases murder,” said Bell. 

But Welby may have greater concerns in his own backyard. The 14 MPs who met with Welby for private talks indicated that the issue raised the question of whether a church that rejected the legal status of married people in England could continue to be the established faith. Welby recently said he would rather accept disestablishment than to split the church itself.

Ian Paul, a theologian and vicar who is opposed to marriage reform, said, “The idea that the government should tell a Christian church what its doctrine should be is unprecedented.

“The Church of England is the established church but it has been self-governing since 1919. An intervention like this would be implausible, provoking a constitutional crisis,” he said.

Catherine Pepinster is a journalist, broadcaster, author, and contributor to Religion News Service.



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10 thoughts on “Church of England to Vote on ‘Compromise’ Same-Sex Unions Policy This Week”

  1. On Easter Sunday, 1974 I attended Durham Cathedral’s Easter service. I had no particular religious affiliation but before the service began I asked God to do something to show that the things associated with the building were real. Moments went by and nothing happened but I was fine with that. A few months later, I answered an altar call back home in California.

    I am now Eastern Orthodox. In 2016 my wife and I went to Britain and I took her to Durham and Seaham Harbour so she could see where I stayed during my coal mining research at Dawdon Colliery more than forty years before. It was wonderful being in the cathedral again and being able to venerate St. Cuthbert (he’s one of ours, you know!) We attended three services that Sunday. I had a conversation with a man in his fifties who had not gone to church until three years before. I asked him how he went from believing nothing to high church. He said he had read a biography of St. Cuthbert and concluded he had no choice but to believe. True story.

    My question is: if the Church of England decides to ignore Romans 1 as well as Holy Tradition – how can I ever go back to Durham Cathedral for anything again? Why allow a decadent culture to dictate what is good when historically it has been considered bad? What would the Church Fathers say about this now? Is the C of E so desperate for members that it must call what is not marriage, marriage?

    What’s next? Polygamy? There have been calls for its legalization in America, including same-sex polygamy. What of that? In for a dime, in for a dollar?

    1. “What’s next? Polygamy? There have been calls for its legalization in America, including same-sex polygamy.”

      Resorting to the “polygamy” slippery slope argument has been going on for decades, yet there hasn’t been the slightest indication that anyone, left or right, has the appetite to even seriously discuss the possibility.

      In a country of 350 million people, around 40,000 of whom are already belong to a polygamist cult, it’s not hard to find at least one publicity hound willing to express that sentiment, but by that standard, every extreme position, from far left to far right could be employed to the same effect.

      Just to pluck an example from the current headlines, would the people who are (rightly) upset about Ron DeSantis’s vendetta against the teaching of classes about black history and culture to ask “What’s next? A return to segregation? White supremacy? There certainly have been calls for a return to openly racist policies of our past.” And they’d be right. White supremacists are certainly looking forward to seeing where this might lead (even if they’re wrong to do so).

      The main problem with polygamy (which, ironically, has far more Biblical justification than gay marriage) isn’t its sexual mores, it’s the fact that those who practice it groom girls from a young age to accept their subservient position to the men they will eventually be married off to. It’s about control. It’s an obscene practice designed to remove all agency from women in society for the goal of satisfying the sexual fantasies of men. There’s a reason it’s only practiced in cults.

      This is the reason why the legalization of polygamy isn’t going to happen. This is why invoking polygamy as a slippery slope is a losing argument.

      1. Cynthia Norbeck

        Actually, Governor DeSantis has MANDATED the teaching of Black American history in Florida. CRT teaches it with a rather negative slant, one which promotes hatred of others. No thanks!
        And, please, in a culture containing people who think it’s okay to mutilate those confused about their gender identity, ANYTHING can happen next. It’s up to the Church to take a stand against such atrocity.

  2. Robert I Hitching

    Richard, This is a precious testimony which should be put in print. I would suggest that you and those of us who are in agreement with your position, should feel free to go to these sacred places not based on what they have become but on the basis of what they symbolise historically.

    The Eastern Orthodox Theologian from the 1950’s Paris School, Olivier Clement said that we should take the prophetic word of Christ into the darkest corners of the worlds madness. Please do not pull away but follow that lead.

    Speak prophetically into the dark corners.

    Bless you

    1. Thank you, Mr. Hitching, for your encouragement. I will read about Olivier Clement.

      I know there are Christians who would say to me that buildings don’t matter, that history doesn’t matter but Durham Cathedral stands as a reminder of what is true, even if people don’t believe. Whether one is out in the countryside somewhere or at the train station or on the opposite bank of the River Wear, it is there, reminding us of Christians who lived in an age of faith that wasn’t compromised by our hubris and insatiable, even recreational questioning of everything.

      One of my fondest memories of our 2016 visit was the service in the choir. It was so quiet and peaceful there. Those that aren’t familiar with the cathedral can find a diagram on the internet to see the location and then look for photos. Everyone there seemed to know exactly what to do. Each of us had our own seat and service books. It would be beautiful if every Christian at some point in their life could experience that.

      Thanks again.

  3. The immutable God has revealed himself and is very clear on human sexuality. There is no confusion in God’s requirements for Holy living. If a “Church” will not believe scripture they create in their mind a god that does not exist, which is an idol and powerless to save sinners.

  4. This article shows how out of touch the clergy is with regards to current sexual mores.

    Most couples whether hetero-sexual or same-sex are living together without marriage.

    So let me get this straight, a same-sex couple who are already living together are going to go to church to have their union “blessed”….. bologna … the same goes for the hetero-sexual couple.

    How can a pastor/priest/vicar “bless” a couple who are having sex outside of marriage.

    What is going on, is the church trying to remain relevant to a pagan culture but is failing miserably.

    I look at the evangelical church in the U.S. and it is having absolutely no impact on current sexual norms in the U.S.

  5. “The deepest split on the issue has been between evangelicals vehemently against moving away from what they call the biblical concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman and those campaigning for full equality…”

    It’s not “what they call the biblical concept of marriage…” It IS the Biblical concept of marriage. It is ok to speak truth while reporting. I understand the effort to remain unbiased in presenting facts. But facts should not be disregarded in the process. And Christians should be biased in our approach to conversations around Scripture.

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