WHAT are the broader fruits of the Church of England’s current position on human sexuality in contemporary culture, holding to the view that it is wrong to bless same-sex unions, to allow clergy to marry their civil partners, and to prohibit clergy and ordinands from an active sexual relationship?
The fruits of our practice have become all too visible in recent years. For individuals, there are feelings of shame and unworthiness on the part of many LGBTQ+ people within the Church; despair, loneliness, and desolation leading to depression, and, sometimes, attempted suicide; efforts to change sexual identity within oneself or others; failed or damaging marriages for those trying to be something that they are not; and a failure to acknowledge the reality of sexual identity, which leads to dishonesty.
In our culture, there is a growing alienation between the institutional Church and much of society, because of a perceived lack of love and fairness. On the other hand, what are the fruits of loving, faithful, same-sex relationships? Many and various, as I perceive them. Christian people are enabled to live better and more fulfilled lives, make a more valuable contribution to our wider society and culture, provide stable families for children, and be a greater blessing to the communities in which they are set.
Is there bad fruit from acceptance of, or the blessing of, these relationships? If there is, I cannot see it. To be sure, a relationship between two people of the same sex can go wrong, just as a relationship between a man and a woman can. But overall, our society has been enriched, not diminished, by the encouragement of stable same-sex unions.
We, therefore, now have a profound dislocation between the Church of England — the established Church, aiming to serve the whole of our society — and the society we are called to serve.
This dislocation is about more than an attitude to some forms of partnership or sexual expression, it is a fundamental disagreement about justice and fairness: we are seen to inhabit a different moral universe.
The next decade seems to me to be a cultural crossroads for Church and society, and the Church of England’s own response to the question of same-sex partnerships and marriage is critical. There may still be time (just) for the fissure that has opened up to be healed, or at least for the healing to begin. But if we delay further, I fear that the consequences for the future mission and life of the Church, for our relationship with the nation, and for the future course of the Christian faith in this country, will be severe.
We have a culture now in which homosexual orientation is viewed in a similar way to being left-handed. It is simply seen as a given. To discriminate against a section of the population on the grounds of a given characteristic (such as the colour of their skin or a disability or sexuality) is unlawful, and is seen to be deeply wrong; a further reason to re-examine our scriptures and the tradition to see if we can find a better way.
HERE is a paradox. The more the Church commends the goods of permanent, stable, and faithful relationships for heterosexual people in marriage, the more difficult it becomes to justify denying those goods and blessings to people who happen to be homosexual.
In classical Christian teaching, the goods of marriage are threefold (following Augustine). In the words of the most recent marriage service: “Marriage is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are [born and] nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort and grow to maturity in love” (Preface to The Marriage Service, Common Worship).
Mutual love and support, sexual intimacy, and the foundation of family life are undoubtedly good things. They are what make the costly and demanding vocation of Christian marriage worthwhile. The interrelationship between the three goods is important. Mutual society and comfort are enriched by intimacy and together provide a strong foundation for family life.
Note that the marriage service does not restrict family life to the conception and birth of children: older heterosexual couples (and some younger ones) may marry and not be able to conceive, or choose not to do so. Couples find themselves as step-parents to children of previous marriages or by adoption or through fostering.
THE more we emphasise and proclaim these goods, and there are excellent scriptural reasons for doing so, the more sharply the question is raised within and outside the Church: So what exactly is the reason for attempting to withhold the goods of such partnerships from people who happen to be homosexual?
Is it fair to say that the Church is “withholding the goods of marriage”? Perhaps not, since civil marriage for all is now an option. But the Church continues to withhold the public blessing of such unions from those who enter into them, denying them a Christian validity before family and friends.
Alongside this withholding of good things through our present practice, it is unclear to me what is the harm that (allegedly) flows from the blessing of same-sex unions or marriage. I can see harms that flow from general sexual promiscuity and from other forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. I can see harms that can come from a careless or hasty change of practice that doesn’t pay due attention to the scripture and the tradition.
But I cannot see evidence of actual harms in the lives of those who have entered into same-sex civil partnerships or civil marriage with the intention of forming permanent and stable lifelong unions: either to the people themselves or to our wider society.
The opposite is the case. Even to raise the question feels improper in our present context.
Dr Steven Croft is the Bishop of Oxford.
This is an edited extract from his booklet, Together in Love and Faith: Personal reflections and next steps for the Church. It is available to order here.