*** DEBUG END ***

The united front

03 February 2017

ANYONE expecting any sort of solution from the House of Bishops to the Church’s seemingly endless dilemma over same-sex relationships has allowed hope to triumph over experience. The group of bishops chosen by the Archbishops to help their peers reflect on the issue was more than usually conservative; and the House and College of Bishops now contain younger members who have done little thinking outside their particular traditions. As the Bishops’ document says, the matter is “not open to easy, painless, or rapid resolution”. That the different parties in this debate are prepared to contemplate a little pain for their opponents is merely a measure of the frustrations now being felt about an impasse that already causes pain to many.

In the absence of such a solution, the fact that the report was agreed nem. con. by the Bishops suggests only one thing: that each party sees something to its liking in the document. This has been achieved by separating doctrine from pastoral practice. The doctrine of marriage, enshrined (a telling word) in Canon B30, has been reasserted, as being “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”. This pleases the Catholics, to whom doctrine is their link with the received deposit of belief and the universal Church, and the Protestants, who like things to be stated plainly and unambiguously. At the same time, both these parties, with liberals, welcome — perhaps even relish — the freedom to respond to difficult pastoral situations in ways that do not challenge the doctrine directly, but which might, in effect, set it temporarily aside. An analogy has been been made to second marriages. The doctrine of a permanent union is preserved, since that is certainly the intention of the couple at the time of the wedding.

There are, perhaps, two reasons why the report is so modest about a solution. The first is to do with the changing nature of Anglicanism. In a farewell interview, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, lamented the loss of an Anglican Communion that valued diversity: “that some Churches could say: ‘This is where we stand on human sexuality, but you stand somewhere differently — but that’s OK; we can cope with that.’” Any whiff of permissiveness in the Communion has been jumped upon by conservatives around the world as undermining their own Church’s reputation. It is for this reason that the Bishops’ report should be seen as yet another holding position: all will depend on the details in the teaching document that has been promised, to replace the 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality.

The other reason is more serious: the growing gap between what is being formalised here and how people in the general population, including many in the Church’s pews, understand marriage. We appear to be heading towards a two-state solution: “marriage”, a permanent-ish agreement between two people of either sex contracted for their mutual flourishing, with sexual intimacy (whatever that means) likely, children optional/possible/present at the ceremony; and “holy matrimony”, something churchy for straight people because the Church believes gay sex is wrong. For an example of what happens when pastoral practice and doctrine come apart one need look no further than the birth-control fiasco in Roman Catholic countries. Those who see Christianity as a counter-cultural movement would see no problem here. For those who believe that the Holy Spirit works in wider society as well as in the Church, such a divorce is pastorally disastrous in ways too many to mention.

Much rests on whether the Church takes note of the stern language used in the report about homophobia in any form. It is no small thing to know that all the bishops have committed themselves to a “fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people”. If people are asking themselves what good the two years of Shared Conversations did, it is perhaps here. If attitudes to same-sex relationships are to change, and we believe they must, it will come about when theoretical opinions are tested against real-life situations. Having to consider actual case-studies has clearly had an effect on several of the bishops, and could prove significant in the forthcoming General Synod discussions.

The best way to regard the Bishops’ report is to take it on its own estimation, as a search for “tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community”. In this way, attention can move swiftly towards a new teaching document, informed by theologians, sociologists, and experts in pastoral care; new guidance for clergy about what pastoral provision for same-sex couples might allow; and a new approach to those preparing for ordination. If these next steps can convince the population at large that the Church is no longer motivated by homophobia, this latest report will have proved its worth.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Forthcoming Events


Put asunder?: a Church Times Webinar

20 February 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses the introduction of Prayers of Love and Faith and blessings for same-sex couples.

Online Tickets available


Keeping faith in Journalism: a Church Times Webinar

11 March 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses trust between the media and the public

Online Tickets available


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available



Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)