As same-sex marriage becomes law in England, the College of Bishops has asked the archbishops to commission a group of people to put together materials that can be used for ‘discussions’ about same-sex marriage across the Church of England (CofE).
The bishops in the House of Lords — the College of Bishops — had been debating the Pilling report, which published its findings last November and called on the CofE to recognise the gay members of its clergy and congregations and not exclude those who advocated same-sex marriage.
As a result, the College issued a statement in which it acknowledged the changes that had been made in society with regards to sexuality, as well as the ‘divergent’ views expressed among the Anglican community and within the Pilling report.
As there are so many diverse and entrenched positions, the archbishops have been tasked with getting a group to provide materials to help churches have productive conversations about the issues, in a ‘safe space for people to be honest about their own views and feelings’.
In the statement, the bishops said, ‘We are united in acknowledging the need for the church to repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke, and affirming the need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever and whenever it is to be found.
‘We are united in seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and the tradition of the church and in seeking to make a loving, compassionate and respectful response to gay men and women within church and society’.
The College stated that there would be no proposed change to the CofE’s current teaching on marriage, although the House of Bishops is set to meet later this month (March) to consider its approach when same-sex marriage becomes lawful in England.
However, Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said the softly-softly approach of the House of Bishops and the Pilling report was effectively allowing the church’s traditional teaching on biblical marriage to be eroded.
She said, ‘The report suggests that, while the Church of England should not change its official teaching on marriage and sexuality, it should enter into a period of “facilitated conversions”, to allow local clergy to bless same-sex partnerships informally, using unauthorised liturgies.
‘However, to allow informal blessings of same-sex relationships, while claiming not to change the church’s teaching, would in practice and in fact, change the church’s traditional teaching on the issue’.
Christian Concern’s comments are not unfounded. During Church Commissioners’ question time in parliament, Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, asked whether the Pilling report would ‘formalise’ what has already been happening in Anglican churches.
‘Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that the vast majority of Anglicans in this country would welcome a more generous approach to long-term, faithful, same-sex relationships?’
Responding, Sir Tony Baldry said, ‘I agree with the principle that everyone should be welcome at the communion rail.
‘The working group did not recommend a new authorised liturgy, but a majority of its members did recommend that vicars should, with the consent of parochial church councils, be able to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service’.