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Sexuality ‘fudge’ sticks in critics’ throats

28 February 2014

NORTH NEWS/DURHAM UNIVERSITY

Northern light moment: Dr Sentamu with Jewish and Christian students in Durham last week

Northern light moment: Dr Sentamu with Jewish and Christian students in Durham last week

THE Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, has described the House of Bishops' pastoral statement on same-sex marriage, which he signed a fortnight ago, as "Anglican fudge".

The Bishops have also been challenged over the accuracy of their guidance, issued on 15 February. In it, they reiterated the ban on same-sex marriages in church, and stated that clergy may not enter into gay marriages ( News, 21 February). Several priests have publicly declared their intention to defy the Bishops.

Dr Sentamu, speaking at a meeting of Jewish and Christian students in Durham in the middle of last week, said that the Church of England's position was that "a clergy person has a right, an expectation, to live within the teaching of the Church, but for lay people and others they should be welcomed into the Church.

"Immediately, when you say that, people say that I'm homophobic. You can't win on this one. How can I, on one hand, uphold the teaching of sexuality as I see it in scripture, and yet, at the same time, say - this is Anglican fudge - that people's sexual orientation cannot lead to discrimination because they're human beings just like anybody else, and God loves them deeply?

"As far as I'm concerned, whatever the sexual orientation, gay people are people, and they need to be given the same protection."

The Bishops' guidance repeats the ban on a formal blessing for a same-sex couple, though it does give clergy licence to pray with them informally, a move that has drawn criticism from conservatives.

By far the greatest criticism, however, has come from the other wing of the Church. The LGBTI Anglican Coalition said last Sunday that it was "appalled" by the House of Bishops' guidance.

"In this document we see no acceptance of disagreement at all, but instead a heavy‐handed and legalistic imposition of discipline."

The Coalition said that it was "ludicrous" to assert that the Church welcomed LGBTI people while it was impossible to have a C of E gay wedding or a church blessing for same-sex couples.

The Coalition also criticised the production of the pastoral guidance in the light of a professed desire for dialogue. "The statement was made without any consultation with openly gay people, and fails to acknowledge that some of the bishops who are signatories are understood to be gay themselves. This heightens the corrosive sense of hypocrisy and cynicism with which this issue is surrounded in the Church."

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, said in a letter to clergy in his diocese on Wednesday that regretted how "divisive" the statement had been. 

"It's quite clear that these conversations take place in a wider context of deep sexual confusion in society with everyone making up their own script, and the result is much chaos and pain," he wrote.

"We have a responsibility to model something better in the way we handle principle and practice, disagreement and hope."

Bishop Pritchard also said that he accepted most people would not change their minds during the facilitated conversations recommended by the Pilling Report. 

He described the House of Bishops' statement as an "inevitable train crash" but assured the clergy there would be no "witch-hunts" in the diocese.

In addition, a group of 21 academics has stated that a statement in the Bishops' guidance "is wrong". The guidance suggested that the legalisation of gay marriage meant that, "for the first time" civil law and C of E doctrine of marriage diverged.

The academics, who include Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor David Martin, and Professor Linda Woodhead, call this "inaccurate and misleading", arguing that the Church's understanding of marriage has differed from civil law since at least 1857, around questions of divorce and second marriage.

In reply, the secretary to the House of Bishops, William Fittall, wrote this week that the bishops knew that canon law and statute law had not been identical for years.

He maintained, however, that the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partners was of a different order of disagreement.

He also said that the point about a divergence between canon and statute law was not essential to the bishops' theological case.

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