Punishing married gay clergy is Church of England own goal

By Savi Hensman
June 23, 2014

A Church of England bishop has severely disciplined a priest for marrying his same-sex partner, while a gay vicar in another diocese has also got married.

Canon Jeremy Pemberton’s permission to lead services in the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham was withdrawn after he married Laurence Cunnington, though he continued to work as a hospital chaplain in Lincoln, employed by the NHS. Anglican teaching required “modelling” by clergy, said acting bishop Richard Inwood. Meanwhile Andrew Cain, a London vicar, married Stephen Foreshew.

Over the past seventy years or so, Anglican and other theologians in the UK and beyond have debated whether loving and committed same-sex partnerships are ethically acceptable. Ordinary church members have also discussed the issue, while lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have become more visible.

Since the 1970s, Church of England leaders have repeatedly set up processes for listening and reflection on sexuality. International Anglican conferences have also called for study and dialogue which takes account of advances in scientific knowledge.

During this time, attitudes have changed radically. There is now wide support for greater acceptance, especially among younger Christians. However bishops – even those privately supportive of partnered LGBT clergy – have (with few exceptions) been reluctant to offend the people most vocally opposed to full acceptance, within the Church of England and sister-churches.

By the early 2000s, vast numbers of books and scholarly articles has been published which contained theological arguments for a more positive stance, while many laypeople referred to LGBT friends and relatives in civil or informal partnerships as ‘married’. But when the UK government introduced legislation for equal marriage, senior clergy appeared to have been taken unawares and protested loudly.

In 2013 Men and women in marriage, issued by the church's Faith and Order Commission, presented a poorly-argued defence of the ‘traditional’ view which did not even attempt to engage seriously with other theological perspectives. At the end of the year the Pilling Report, by a House of Bishops working group on human sexuality, offered signs of a thaw, including calling for facilitated discussions.

However in February 2014 many felt chilled by House of Bishops ‘pastoral guidance’. This called for laypeople who got married not to be excluded from the sacraments but warned that clergy should not marry and claimed that “we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.”

Supposedly, “The Church of England's long standing teaching and rule are set out in Canon B30: 'The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord's teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’"

Each member of the clergy is expected “to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.”

However Canon B30 implies that the Church of England rules out even recognising as valid, let alone celebrating, the remarriage of divorced persons. This is not the case. The intention of permanence is not always fulfilled. Many people who have had a divorce remarry in church or have a service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage.

So this “teaching and rule” do not reflect what the church actually believes about marriage. What is more, some clergy may believe that getting married rather than having a surreptitious relationship is setting a wholesome example, and that following Christ involves standing up to injustice and exclusion.

Others wanting their marriage to be recognised in law may decide to wait until the end of the latest process of dialogue. But, given past experience, there is no certainty that even the most powerful pastoral, scriptural and other theological arguments for allowing freedom of conscience to those for, as well as against, equal marriage will lead to any practical advance.

In early 2014 the College of Bishops (which includes suffragan and other assistant as well as diocesan bishops) declared, “We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained. 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.”

However many LGBT people are feeling far from welcomed and affirmed. What is more, there has been no attempt by the bishops even to advise clergy in England on how to avoid promoting homophobia, for instance by praising overseas church leaders who push for LGBT people to be imprisoned.

The highly selective use of church teaching as an excuse to punish LGBT clergy who marry, which heterosexual clergy are free to do, is scandalising many in England and undermining attempts to share the good news of God’s transforming love. After this own goal, it is time for radical change.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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