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Sex (again)

31 January 2020

THERE is no need to point out the exasperation that will be felt by readers of all opinions that, once again, the issue of sexuality has flared up, cementing the Church’s reputation as a judge­mental, sex-obsessed, and yet loveless body (and that’s just the view of some of the bishops). Anglican churchgoers have, by and large, colluded with the long-grass approach favoured by their leaders. True, there are the occasional flurries when one group or other fantasises about how everything would be clearer if only the rest of the Church came into line with its way of thinking about sex — which is always, of course, the Holy Spirit’s way of think­ing. But then they remember the other groups and other ways of thinking. Even if they are convinced of their opponents’ error, the memory of past rows, unedifying and debilitating, is enough to cause them to punt the topic back into the unmown bit of the Anglican playing field. Besides, everyone genuinely values being part of a worldwide Communion, and wel­­comes its awkward diversity of experience and views. Whether or not the release of the House of Bishops statement on opposite-sex civil partnerships was timed to appear shortly after the Primates’ Meeting, the very elements that have dismayed those concerned about mission in the UK will reassure conservative Provinces elsewhere that England has not entirely abandoned traditional doc­trine.

The statement, none the less, appears to be just another flurry, and it is astonishing that the Bishops should have succumbed to the belief that it would be uncontested. It was reasonable of the Bishops to treat the new civil partnerships as equal with the same-sex partnerships permissible since 2005, but they are not the same. Those early civil partnerships were contracted by many religious couples for whom marriage was unavailable until the 2013 Act. Since then, and now for opposite-sex partners, the draw of a civil partnership is largely because it is quick, cheap, legal, and non-religious. This lends weight to the view that the Bishops’ pronouncement was unnecessary: the people it concerns will be completely unswayed by what they have to say — most of all, the stipulation that civil partnerships should be sexless. As for clergy discipline, as Angela Tilby points out, the escape clause remains: as a pastoral response, clergy are free to answer requests for prayers after a civil ceremony, as after a civil wedding. Just don’t call it a service of blessing.

The question remains whether the Living in Love and Faith project, two years in gestation, can change the discourse. Despite efforts by those facilitating the project to dampen expectations, we hear hopes expressed that the project will conclude with clear teaching on sexuality which will both be true to scripture and attractive to secular enquirers. This is misguided. If its output re­­flects the energy that the steering group has put into representing the full range of views held by Anglicans, it will reflect the moral complexity surrounding this topic, unlike last week’s civil-partnerships statement.

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