Gay marriage: Bishops can’t be bullied with demands for “greater clarity and consistency”

As the College of Bishops gathers in Oxford today, the world might be forgiven for thinking there was just one item on the agenda: the liturgical blessing of same-sex unions (sometimes called ‘gay marriage’), which is considered by many to be necessary for “full inclusion” of LGBT (LGBTI/LGBTIQ) people. Letters have been flying around urging the Bishops to make “unequivocal” statements one way or the other, often couched in the manipulative language of urgency and injustice, harm and hurt – either to individuals or to the church’s apostolic heritage. If the Bishops move toward revisionist demands, the Church of England faces schism. If the status quo is sustained, harm and hurt are perpetuated through disapproval and exclusion. Equality is a theology of rocks and hard places.

Whatever the media distortions and obsessions, it’s important to note than no shouty lobbying group speaks for the Church of England (or, indeed, for the Worldwide Anglican Communion). There’s a perception of a ‘hard right’ conservative-traditionalist lobby, represented by GAFCON and the views of people like the former Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, for whom “marriage between a man and a woman is one of God’s blessings”. This is unequivocal. And then there’s the liberal-progressive lobby (rarely portrayed as ‘hard left’), represented by Changing Attitude and the views of people like the Rev’d Colin Coward, for whom the “homophobic” Church of England perpetuates “systematic prejudice” against LGBT Christians by resisting same-sex marriage. This, too, is unequivocal. Both sides want to hear some kind of great gay Chalcedonian definition coming out of Oxford this week. They will be disappointed.

The College of Bishops consists of all bishops of the Church of England – diocesan and suffragan – and a number of views will be represented. Some favour a bold shift toward full acceptance of gay marriage, as society has changed and they believe the church must adapt to the new relational reality. Others seek to sustain the church’s essential catholicity and traditional understanding of marriage. As the Archbishop of Canterbury explained, same-sex marriage involves a number of category errors and fundamental contradictions: “The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society.. is weakened.” Doubtless such views are considered homophobic by the Bishop of Buckingham.

Nothing will change this week, except that a hundred-or-so bishops will pray, explore, ponder and reflect on two years of ‘Shared Conversations’ around a myriad of complex issues of human sexuality. Some demands for greater clarity and consistency can certainly be met: there will be no change in the church’s marriage liturgy, and there is no problem at all in saying, unequivocally, that LGBT Christians are “essential to the health and future of our Church and mission to the wider world”. But the College of Bishops is not gathering to reach unanimity, or to be bullied into consensus, or to draft some kind of great ‘progressive’ Anglican same-sex declaration. Sorry to disappoint.

Perhaps, however, the Bishops might be nudged to repudiate the truthiness and hyperbole on both sides of this debate, which is the real cause of much harm and hurt. The Church of England is not a threat to the “basic wellbeing” of LGBT people. To seek to preserve the sanctity of holy matrimony is not to ‘hate’. To hunger for sexual orthodoxy is not ‘bigotry’. To argue for Christian tradition is not ‘homophobic’. To resist moral relativism and oppose cultural uniformity is not unloving. And to be orientated to the nurture of same-sex intimacy is not sin.