Church of England shift towards accepting LGBTI people

By Savi Hensman
July 24, 2017

Though the Church of England still discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, it recently shifted towards greater acceptance. There has been a backlash from a small but vocal set of members.

The General Synod in July 2017 heard from bishops about plans to look again at pastoral practice and teaching. It also passed motions against conversion therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation, and for welcoming transgender people.

Over the past century, many theologians have made a biblical case for affirming self-giving, committed same-sex partnerships. In recent decades, some have pointed out that gender identity is complex. Acceptance has also grown among churchgoers and the wider public.

The 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey showed that only 16 per cent of British Anglicans still believe that physically intimate same-sex relationships are always wrong. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24117) Scottish Episcopal Church clergy who want to celebrate marriages for same-sex partners will soon be allowed to do so. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24057)

The Church of England still does not allow even ‘blessings’, though ministers can pray with couples. But, despite pressure and threats of a split, it has taken a significant step in recognising that LGBTI people are loved by God and should be welcomed as church members.

Accepting orientation and identity, welcoming all made in God’s image

At one time it was common in the West to urge LGBT people to try to change their feelings and sense of self and to marginalise those who were intersex. Various means were used, from aversion therapy to prayer. However this usually proved futile and often did great damage, as health professionals came to recognise. So did less formal attempts to 'pray the gay away' or even conduct 'exorcisms'.

Some churches still ran ‘ex-gay’ ministries but many folded and leaders – even those not yet convinced of the rightness of same-sex partnerships – apologised. “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced.  I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change,” said Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, in 2013. “I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”

But a powerful alliance of Christians internationally was convinced that reality had to fit in with their own, much-contested, understanding of the Bible. “To opine that, unknown to humans, God had hitherto created some people to be homosexuals and lesbians (i.e., sexual orientations) is tantamount to creating God in our own image and introducing a cancerous element into the fabric of the African understanding of marriage and family”, claimed Peter Akinola, a now-retired Nigerian archbishop who helped to found the Anglican breakaway movement Gafcon. Like his successor, Nicholas Okoh, he championed the toughening of repressive laws in Nigeria, so that more LGBT people and those who called for their equal treatment could be jailed.

Some who think that being LGBT is the result of wilful defiance of God are especially harsh, condemning even those who make major sacrifices to comply. In early 2017 Luke Aylen, “a gay Christian who holds to a traditional understanding of marriage”, argued on the website of UK-based Premier Radio against boycotting the supposedly gay-friendly film Beauty and the Beast. He described the impact of silence around these issues in persuading a friend to break ties with him, when a vulnerable adolescent, because he confided in her that he was attracted to guys. This was deeply painful and could have undermined his faith.

Many who commented were open in their contempt and hostility. “It is impossible to be a ‘gay Christian’. You are either a despicable homosexual, living a wretched life of unforgivable sin and depravity, or you are a Christian”, one wrote. “Luke Aylen, you are not a Christian if you are gay because such is not just sin but abomination to God. The devil might have you fooled into believing you are a gay Christian but that is absurd and totally against what God's Word says”, according to another.

There are also people who accept that they, or others, may 'struggle' with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria all their lives but object to accepting this as an aspect of identity. They may say it is because their identity is only in Christ but are usually happy enough to identify as a citizen, spouse, parent, layperson or cleric too.

The anti-conversion therapy motion was brought by Jayne Ozanne, who, as well as medical backing, had personal experience of the damage done by such attempts. Chris Newlands, on behalf of Blackburn Diocesan Synod, brought the motion urging that transgender people “be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church" and the House of Bishops consider preparing a liturgy to mark a person's gender transition.

In the run-up to Synod, Gafcon consecrated Andy Lines as 'missionary bishop' to Europe. Some Synod members threatened a boycott because of an invitation to a Scottish bishop who helped to persuade Anglicans there to allow church marriage for same-sex couples. And, early in the proceedings, when the Archbishop of York moved a resolution on social affairs, certain Conservative evangelicals moved unsuccessful amendments to mould it more closely to their ideology.

These included Andrea Williams, a Synod member. She had become notorious in 2013 after travelling to Jamaica to oppose decriminalisation of gay sex, after a teenager’s horrific murder intensified calls for a change to the law. (Most UK ‘conservatives’ deplore legal persecution of LGBTI people.) She warned beforehand against Ozanne’s motion, stating, “We surrender our broken desires at the foot of the cross, and He, faithful to those who wholeheartedly seek Him, will bring about healing. But it requires saying 'Not my will, Oh Lord, but yours be done.'”

Sam Allberry, also on Synod, who is “same-sex attracted” and celibate, wrote, “The apostle Paul made a distinction between matters that were primary to the gospel, and issues that were not. In 1 Corinthians 15 v 3 he writes, ‘What I received I passed on to you as of first importance.’… we must regard the issue of homosexuality as being of first importance.” But what Paul actually wrote was of primary importance was Christ’s death for our sins, burial and resurrection, the first-fruits of those who have died, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Some moderate ‘conservatives’ were uncomfortable with these motions because, while wanting churches to be more welcoming, they feared these were too broad and might lead to more drastic change. However, both were agreed with the backing of almost all the bishops and over two-thirds majorities among both clergy and lay representatives. Indeed, the Archbishop of York said that a government ban on “so-called conversion therapy” would help him “sleep at night”. Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, made the point that “the world needs to hear us say that LGBTI+ orientation and identity is not a crime”, a “sickness” or “a sin”.

Criticisms and warnings

Afterwards Ian Paul, a Synod member and on the Archbishops’ Council, inquired “Is Synod competent?” on his blog. Susie Leafe, another Synod member and the director of Reform (UK), went further. In her opinion “In the space of four days, the General Synod of the Church of England have, in effect, rejected the doctrines of creation, the fall, the incarnation, and our need for conversion and sanctification.”

A more thoughtful piece by Rob Munro for Church Society expressed dismay that “The illusion of a gradual evangelical ascendency in synod was shown to be far weaker than people realised… In previous synods, the non-aligned middle, the roughly 1/3 of synod who don’t self-identify as either conservative or radical, could usually be relied on to be social[ly] conservative, to be slow to bow to the pressures that political correctness has always brought. No longer! It was clear that an unqualified inclusion agenda is now seen as the mainstream.” While this was an exaggeration – Synod still lagged far beyond most British Anglicans in inclusiveness – placating the most anti-inclusive had indeed become less of a priority.

Unsurprisingly Okoh, in his July 2017 letter as the Chairman of Gafcon Primates’ Council, lamented, “False teaching is restless and relentless, and the Church of England itself is in grave spiritual danger…  Although the Church of England’s legal position on marriage has not changed, its understanding of sexual morality has.”

Another Synod member, Chik Kaw Tan, wrote on the Gafcon site, “12 years ago when I first joined Synod, the LGBT lobby consisted of a little stand with a few people handing out leaflets…. 12 years on, they are the all-winning victorious juggernaut, crushing all in its path.” He anticipated a split in the Church of England.

By then, the misleadingly named Anglican Mainstream site had published a letter by Gavin Ashenden and a number of others, Free Church of England leaders among them. They said that they, “as some of those committed to the renewal of biblical and orthodox Anglicanism have already started to meet… to discuss how to ensure a faithful ecclesial future.”

A schism would be regrettable. However the refusal of this small group to allow any space for those who believe they are led by God towards greater inclusivity may mean that they end up excluding themselves. Meanwhile young (and older) people are less likely to learn from the church to hate or despise themselves or others. This is an important, if modest, achievement.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.