For more than a decade, the Church of England has engaged in an agonizing, divisive and often toxic debate over the status of same-sex relationships. While attitudes in the wider national culture have transformed beyond recognition since the 1980s, the country’s established church has gradually become an anomalous exception, stubbornly refusing to endorse same-sex marriages or the blessing of civil unions. His doctrine continues to conform to the idea that homosexual practice is “inconsistent with Scripture”.
Responding to the pain and grief this has caused LGBT+ members of its congregations — seemingly equal in the sight of God but second-class citizens in their own church — the C of E has, at best, wrung its hands with sympathy. To the deep concern of many bishops and much of the laity, the goal of maintaining unity, both at home and in the global Anglican communion, appears to have led to the perpetuation of a broken status quo.
Fortunately, a remarkable and high-profile intervention last week by the Bishop of Oxford, the Very Reverend Steven Croft – the first of its kind by a serving diocesan bishop – suggests that this crippled state of affairs may not last long. Ahead of a crucial December meeting of the College of Bishops, which is due to discuss the reform, Mr Croft published a groundbreaking 50-page essay in which he repudiates his previous opposition to the change. While arguing for a freedom of conscience clause for dissenters, the document calls for full recognition of same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian clergy, and for all LGBT+ people who wish to marry in their local Anglican church. Two other bishops immediately and publicly expressed their support.
The denial of equal status to same-sex relationships, Mr Croft writes, has created an unsustainable “dislocation” between the established Church of England and the society it is called and duty-bound to serve. The thought and the doctrine of the Church, he stresses, are not immutable; it has evolved many times in the past – for example, in relation to slavery, apartheid, divorce and, more recently, the ordination of women.
Strikingly, the document also challenges the opportunistic weaponization of isolated Old Testament passages in the traditionalist cause. Mr. Croft cites an episode of The West Wing, in which President Bartlet skewers a Christian fundamentalist quoting Leviticus asking for advice on how to sell his daughter into slavery – as sanctioned by Exodus 21:7. Christian truth more faithful to the gospels, writes the bishop, understands that “the fundamental trajectory of Scripture is to recognize…dignity, worth and equality”, and seeks to further extend these values in a spirit of radical inclusion. Preserving the “unity” of the Church is not a sufficient reason to avoid this task.
This is an important and systematic intervention by a senior member of the church. As such, it is both overdue and deeply welcome. At the busy conference in Lambeth this summer, Archbishop Justin Welby rightly acknowledged the extent of division in the global Anglican Communion over same-sex relationships. But it is high time for the C of E to recognize that its current state of fearful intransigence is untenable. A General Synod meeting early next year is to set a new direction of travel for the C of E. The Bishop of Oxford’s essay should be used as a map to help guide it.