THE appointment of a new President of Churches Together in England (CTE) has been blocked because the nominee is in a same-sex marriage.
There are six Presidents of CTE, the Churches’ ecumenical instrument. They include the Archbishop of Canterbury and the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols. The fourth presidency became vacant in October 2018, when Billy Kennedy finished his four-year term.
In May, Hannah Brock Womack, an active Quaker, was formally appointed to the position by the fourth presidency group: Quakers in Britain; the Lutheran Council of Great Britain; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England; German-Speaking Lutheran, Reformed, and United Congregations in Great Britain; and the Church of Scotland.
On learning that Ms Womack had recently been married to a woman, however, a majority of the member Churches of CTE, through its enabling group, voted in September to request that the fourth presidency group “refrain from enacting its Presidency, leaving the Fourth Presidency as an ‘empty chair’ for the current term of office”.
The CTE was due to publish its decision in a statement today: “Over recent months CTE has been engaging with the reality of living with diversity, acknowledging that although so much unites us as Churches, we remain in disagreement over certain issues.
“Prompted by Hannah’s recent equal marriage, an ongoing process of discussion, listening and prayer has begun, recognising that churches hold different views regarding human sexuality, and that for many this is a very emotive and painful subject.”
Ms Brock Womack said on Wednesday that she was “very disappointed” but not surprised by the decision. “I have a sense of sadness and frustration, but not shock. I was brought up in a mainstream Church, I understand the issues surrounding human sexuality, but I am very disappointed, and I hope we continue to talk to each other about this. We are not going anywhere. It is a strange place to be in.”
The empty chair, the CTE states, “represents the lack of agreement within the Churches in England regarding human sexuality, and the reality that this dimension of the churches’ pilgrimage together is not yet complete. CTE commits to continue listening to the voice of the fourth presidency group and the Churches they represent and is working with them to find ways to ensure that, during this period, their voice in the collective presidency is still heard.”
Ms Brock Womack commented: “For me, it is a symbol of pain and separation, but it is also means that they are not ignoring it. It is better than pretending that we don’t exist. It is a good way of representing the current disagreement that we have.”
It would have been “strange hanging out” with Archbishop Welby and the other presidents, she said, but the CTE presidency should represent the diversity of Christianity in England. “In a way, just being appointed would be doing that. . .
“The Presidents at the moment are all older men, and I was really looking forward to bringing a different voice. I am not talking about my voice as a queer Christian — that is who I am — but I bring other things that are not represented in the group: I am a peace activist, a climate activist. Quaker leaders are not clergy: they are regular people who have been asked to serve in this way. That approach is not going to be there now, which is sad.”
The Recording Clerk for the Quakers, Paul Parker, said: “This is a deeply sad decision. Quakers in Britain value the fact that CTE seeks to encompass the wide diversity among Christians in England. It is important to us that the Quaker voice is heard in discussions between Churches.”
The Quaker representative to the CTE Enabling Group, Mark Lilley, who is clerk of the Quaker Committee on Christian and Interfaith Relations, said: “The grief this situation is causing [Quakers] cannot be underestimated by other Churches. Work must be done to heal the pain through creative conversations about our differences.
“We are confident that the ecumenical movement will continue to serve as a model of co-operation and mutual understanding that recognises the unique gifts of each member.”
The General Secretary of CTE, the Revd Dr Paul Goodliff, said: “CTE acknowledges the pain and sadness caused by this decision. We recognise and value the important giftings of the Churches of the fourth presidency group, and the significant contribution they make to our ecumenical family.
“The Member Churches of CTE are committed to continue walking together closely in our pilgrimage of unity and witness to our shared faith.”
Ms Brock Womack said: “I feel lucky to be in a Church community that affirms me. I have the strength, support, and love to stay in this position, though it is hard, on behalf of other people who don’t feel comfortable in their churches because of their sexuality.”
She concluded: “This has been a hard process for me personally, and for a lot of the people involved, but I am hoping it is also a gift to allow us to bring these things into the open. Everybody knows there is a diversity of views as to how we are towards gay Christians, and I hope this is an opportunity to address those questions and go forward in love.”