As decision-making bodies go, the General Synod of the Church of England is one of the more complex. Comprised of three houses – Bishops, Clergy and Laity – and 467 individual members, this bureaucratic monster is responsible for overcoming the differences between the Church’s warring factions and attempting to impose some form of coherent governance. Every kind of Anglican voice imaginable is represented; catholics and evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, and everything else in between. This makes consensual decision-making hard, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that certain decisions can only be approved if they have the backing of a majority in all three houses. This makes progress painfully slow, as demonstrated a few years ago during the women bishops debate when the House of Laity vetoed the move to consecrate women despite the fact that over 70% of Synod members backed the measure. An instrument of revolutionary change, it is certainly not.
Nevertheless, the complexities of General Synod do sometimes work in favour of the Church’s progressive voices. This week, as Anglicans gathered once again at London’s Church House, the item at the top of the agenda was an old battleground that has pitted liberals and conservatives against each other for decades – LGBT rights. Last month, the House of Bishops produced a report on this issue in an attempt to clarify the Church’s stance and provide some form of reconciliation between the factions, but ultimately the report turned out to be a classic Anglican fudge that pleased no one and left everyone feeling let down. Conservatives were concerned that the report recommended the provision of ‘maximum freedom’ to recognise same-sex relationships, whilst liberals were saddened that the bishops continued to rule out full equality; after all, what use is ‘maximum freedom’ when it must be exercised within boundaries that are hugely limiting?
For years, the Church of England has done a lot of talking on the subject of LGBT equality and a lot of apologising for its homophobic past, but time and again it has failed to recognise the homophobia that it continues to propagate today. LGBT Christians are made to feel like second-class citizens within the Church, and the bishops’ report did not offer any real change to this situation beyond the usual shallow rhetoric; churches would still be prevented from hosting same-sex weddings, gay and lesbian priests would still be barred from getting married, and marriage would still be formally defined as being exclusively between a man and a woman. This thin gruel has never been enough for those who hunger for real change, and progressive Christians are no longer willing to swallow it.
The legal introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 forced the Church to rethink its position on same-sex relationships, and in recent months the bishops have claimed to be listening to LGBT voices through the much-trumpeted ‘shared conversations’ that have occurred at diocesan level. Their report dashed any hopes of immediate reform, instead proving that the most intolerant voices continue to hold sway, but this week General Synod has rekindled the optimism of progressives by striking down the report. In a result which was a mirror image of the frustrating battles over women bishops, two of the three houses voted to ‘take note’ of the bishops’ recommendations, but they were vetoed by the House of Clergy which voted 100 to 93 against. It is a result which highlights the deep divisions that exist within the Church on this issue, but it also provides fresh hope for a more inclusive future.
Speaking in response to the report’s defeat, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ centred on ‘love, joy, and celebration of our humanity… without exception.’ Such words are not particularly different from the usual language of inclusion that has proven to be so hollow when spoken by senior bishops, but maybe this time things will be different. After all, this was a decision that was made not by bishops, nor by the famously conservative House of Laity, but by the ordinary clergy who are sick and tired of being told that they cannot bless or marry same-sex couples. If Church leaders are serious about paving the way for greater inclusion, they must start by listening to their priests rather than continuing to issue edicts from above.
So what would this look like in practice? Well, the Church could start by giving clergy genuine freedom when it comes to celebrating same-sex relationships. Of course conservative congregations should not be forced to act against their beliefs, but those priests that do wish to bless or even marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so. In the same way that incumbents can decide whether or not to marry divorcees, the matter of same-sex marriage ceremonies should be in the hands of individual clergy, a policy which would allow liberal churches and conservative churches to conduct themselves in accordance with their own beliefs.
Likewise, the Church needs to urgently rethink its approach to LGBT priests whilst acknowledging the pain that has been caused by the current policy. Although gay and lesbian clergy are allowed to enter into civil partnerships, they are officially barred from getting married to a same-sex partner and are obliged to make a formal vow of celibacy. Another half-hearted Anglican fudge drawn up to give the impression of being inclusive, this policy is insulting, degrading and inhumane, giving more zealously conservative bishops an excuse to poke their noses into the private lives of their clergy. Whilst we must accept that we are probably a long way off from full equality, we cannot be content with the hypocrisy of the existing system, a framework which propagates the view that sexual acts between two people of the same sex are somehow unnatural, ungodly or inappropriate.
The Church of England has a long way to go, and the rejection of the bishops’ report is just a tentative step towards a more progressive and inclusive future. However, it was an important step nonetheless, and hopefully it will send a clear message to senior Anglicans who have falsely assumed that the status quo is sufficient to hold the Church together. Justin Welby and others can talk the talk when it comes to LGBT equality, indicating that they are willing to open the doors of the Church to everyone regardless of sexuality, but the time has now come for them to put those words into action and push for real change after years of meagre half-measures. The LGBT community, and indeed all progressive Christians, deserve much more than they are currently getting from their Church.