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Why opt-outs are not enough

06 January 2023

Introducing same-sex marriage would require substantial structural changes, argues Ed Shaw


AN EAGLE-EYED reader of the booklet Together in Love and Faith by the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, will have noticed that it called for the Church of England to introduce same-sex marriage and for “differentiation of provision and oversight” to be provided for the many who would not be able to accept any change to the Church’s current doctrine, liturgy, and pastoral practice (News, 4 November). Both are controversial calls for a senior diocesan bishop to have made. More attention has, perhaps understandably, been given to the first.

But why will such differentiation be needed if same-sex marriage, or even just the blessing of civil unions, is introduced? Surely, a simple opt-in or opt-out conscience clause for clergy and churches will be enough to keep the Anglican show on the road? Why complicate things with talk of revised structures, which could range from new patterns of episcopal oversight to new provincial arrangements?

Here is some context: Dr Croft has made his call for differentiation off the back of three years of behind-the-scenes conversations with people who would really need it, as I would. I am grateful to him for championing our cause, even as I grieve over his departure from apostolic teaching.

I still hope and pray that the Church of England will reaffirm the Bible’s beautiful and life-giving story when it comes to relationships, marriage, and sex. But I also recognise that the time might soon come for a comprehensive settlement that allows the introduction of same-sex marriage alongside new distinct structures for those of us who cannot affirm same-sex sexual relationships.

AS A Christian who attempts to live according to the Bible, I would need some form of differentiation, because I believe that the holy scriptures (1 Corinthians 5.9-13, for example) require me to separate visibly from other believers who are saying or doing things that are significantly wrong and harmful and are not repenting.

As a gay, celibate Anglican, I would need episcopal oversight and care from bishops who do not patronise me by commending my self-sacrifice while teaching that it is not necessary.

As a lay leader in a Bishop’s Mission Order that is serving confused younger people from sexual minority groups, I would need to know that I have my bishop’s full backing for the biblical content of my preaching on sexual ethics, and the compassionate pastoral care that, I trust, flows from it.

As a complementarian, I already know what it is like to be in a minority that is, theoretically, protected, but that consistently loses out on appointments, funding, and curacies because of its members’ consciences. I will need a place of greater safety than has been provided by the quickly broken Five Guiding Principles.

As the ministry director of Living Out, a charity that helps people, churches, and society to talk about faith and sexuality, I know how important it is for individuals to know where churches stand, so that they can make an informed choice about which one to join. Visible differentiation would make it far easier for people to be part of a church that would be supportive of the choices that they have made and the views that they hold.

If same-sex marriage (or anything looking like it) is introduced by the Church of England, I and many others across the country, both laity and clergy, ranging from ordinands to bishops, from gay to straight, and from small rural congregations to large suburban ones, will all need some form of imaginative new structure to demonstrate clearly our visible differentiation from those whom we believe to be departing from our apostolic inheritance.

BUT such talk of visible differentiation is not schism in disguise. In fact, from my point of view, it rests on an understanding that we are still sisters and brothers in Christ but, sadly, need to separate temporarily, in the hope that, at some stage in the future, we can reunite.

The purpose of the sort of differentiation talked about in 1 Corinthians 5 is that it leads to repentance by those who have turned their back on apostolic teaching. Part of why I would like still to be in the same denomination is that I would be hoping and praying that the need for structural differentiation would end some day soon. The new structures would need to allow this to happen, but only when all are united in wanting this.

In the mean time, all those considering the Church of England’s future position on same-sex marriage need to realise that any move in the direction of accepting it will require substantial structural changes to protect my and other faithful Anglicans’ precious consciences and continued ministry. I would like to thank Dr Croft for being the first publicly to recognise this. I hope that others will soon follow.

Ed Shaw is a lay member of the General Synod from the diocese of Bristol and a co-chair of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC).

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