There will be no same-sex marriages in the Church of England

The issue has been discussed throughout the Anglican Communion for years. Is homosexuality a sin, can clergy be married to a same-sex partner, should they be celibate in such a situation, should women be ordained as priests? Debate about the controversy is ongoing.

It is a January evening. In front of Lambeth Palace, the London seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England, dozens of people have assembled with lighted candles in their hands. Archbishop Justin Welby stands to one side, calmly watching as the group protests against the decision he announced a few days earlier. Finally, he speaks:

"Let's do what we can and see what will happen. The introduction of marriage equality requires a change in the law [canon law]. A two-thirds vote in each of the three chambers of the Synod is needed to change the law. If we go too far, we face three years of wrangling and, quite possibly, failure at the end. As bishops, we want to do something together to avoid this. That's why we're discussing it."

The archbishop's pronouncement evokes emotions much more vivid than one might expect from so small a group of protesters because the issue concerns same-sex marriage. The Church of England, Archbishop Welby has made clear, does not foresee marrying same-sex couples since its position is that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. Nothing has changed with regard to this matter. As noted by the conservative weekly "Spectator", by way of consolation, the Church can only authorize the offer of a blessing to gay couples who enter into a civil union and prayers. It is left to each Anglican priest to decide for themselves whether or not to bless such unions. Nobody will be forced to do it.

"Live in love and faith"

While in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis causes a stir whenever he says that "homosexuality is not a crime, but a sin", or more precisely, raises a stir with every statement he makes about homosexuality, in the Church of England, the hottest topic of the day is that of gay marriage. The issue is one of many that have been discussed more or less constantly over many years, not just in the Church of England, but throughout the whole Anglican Communion. Is homosexuality a sin, can members of the clergy be married to a same-sex partner, should they be celibate in such a situation, should women be ordained as priests? Disputes over such matters have been going on for years.
The Bishop of London Sarah Mullally and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at a Church of England press conference following the decision to allow the blessing of same-sex partnerships. January 20, 2023. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images
With various results. Women, indeed, are now ordained as ministers, because even though the Church of England ruled such a move out initially, it was forced to relent under pressure from Parliament. However, it was the controversy about the proposed consecration of women as bishops that threatened to have the most serious consequences, since, as had been the case with the installation of the first homosexual bishop, it almost led to a split in the Church. That was why Pope Benedict XVI made it possible for Anglican male priests to convert to the Catholic Church, an offer that remains in place. A posting on the Church of England website dated September 2021, states that Jonathan Goodall, bishop of the Ebbsfleet diocese, did decide to take advantage of this opportunity.

     Archbishop Justin Welby's declaration amounts to a preview, the outcome of six years of consultations on the issue of faith and sexuality under the rubric "Living in Love and Faith." This is expected to take effect once it has been approved following four days of what are expected to be tumultuous deliberations during the General Synod, which got undereway on February 6.  No one believes the Synod would go against the decision of the head of the Church and support gay weddings, both for substantive as well as formal reasons. The decision, as the archbishop reminded the protest gathering outside Lambeth Palace, has to be approved by two-thirds of the members of each of the Synod's three chambers -- bishops, parish priests and laity.

The bishops themselves are divided to such an extent that it is deemed impossible to push through homosexual marriages. According to the Daily Telegraph, only one in three bishops is willing to accept the mover, a third is opposed, and another third remains undecided.

Synod participants will also consider the repeal of the 1991 sexual abstinence order for priests who live in a stable relationship with a partner of the same sex. The belief is that in this instance, the proposal will pass, although it is difficult to avoid seeing a certain inconsistency in this regard. The Synod is also to consider the formula of blessing for same-sex marriages and related prayers.

Pastoral, not canonical

It's hard to avoid the impression that the Anglican Church got into hot water on the issue more or less of its own accord. Protestant churches are modernizing -- and not in the best sense of the word -- by consistently accepting the changes brought about by new customs. By way of contrast, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, withstand such changes, almost as consistently. Anglican churches found themselves in the middle, with some wanting to move on with the times, while for others rejecting the old principles is something unimaginable.

Although Archbishop Welby says that he approaches the idea of blessing same-sex unions "with great joy", he will not do so himself. He took this decision out of respect for the differences within the Anglican Communion. Given that his authority is only titular, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no power over the churches that make up the Communion. Nonetheless, his position at the head of the Church of England is not insignificant. "I have a pastoral responsibility to the entire Community," Justin Welby explained. "I will not take advantage of the new opportunities so as not to harm it."

This aspect is also emphasized by the holder of the second most senior position in the Church of England hierarchy, the recently appointed Archbishop of York, Steven Cottrell. Although he himself intends to bless gay couples, he told BBC radio on the day the decision was made that "the road we have just entered is pastoral and not canonical". It was, he noted, still "a milestone for the Church, although there is still a long way to go."

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The Anglican Communion brings together 45 Churches (39 large, so-called provinces, and 6 small local ones) from all over the world, ranging from Brazil to Australia. And they are very different churches. At one extreme, can be found those in the vanguard of progress, one such being the American Episcopal Church, where 20 years ago Gene Robinson, became the first homosexual bishop [Bishop of New Hampshire].

At the other extreme, are the very conservative churches of the so-called global South, mainly African, working closely together as a group. African bishops reject introducing any moral changes into the Church, and often do not mince their words. Archbishop Welby, refuting accusations that he was too lenient towards church conservatives, reminded those demonstrating outside Lambeth Palace of how he had publicly admonished the Archbishop of Uganda, Dr. Samuel Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu, when the latter claimed that LGBT activists incite children to practice homosexuality, and that it would therefore be best to drown them all...

Incohesiveness and inconsistency

In their own English backyard, those discussing the issue choose their words more carefully, but the situation is basically similar. Bishops, parish priests and lay people associated with the Church of England are all divided. Recently, the Church itself admitted that this diversity of opinion is no different than in society as a whole. There are priests who live in homosexual relationships. There are those who have been suspended for so doing, but hope that the changes will pave the way for their return. Finally, there are bishops who call for a change in doctrine and gay weddings. The latter are led by Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, who, last November, was the first English bishop to say that the Church should do so.

"I have no illusions that our proposals go too far in the opinion of some, and insufficient according to others," Archbishop Welby said in announcing the bishops' decision. "However, I hope that what we have agreed will be accepted generously, in the name of the common good."

Opponents insist that blessing gay unions is a step too far. They see a contradiction between the declaration that the doctrine on marriage remains unchanged and the announcement that same-sex couples will be able to receive the blessing. Such an approach to the problem is, according to them, incohesive and inconsistent.

"This is the capitulation of the Church. It paves the way for same-sex marriage in every way but name. Although the Church of England formally does not change the doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman, it completely disregards the biblical teaching," Andrea Williams declared. She heads Christian Concern, the evangelical organization active in the laity associated with the Church of England.

Christians in minority

The Church of England is also facing the serious problem of de-Christianization. According to data collected in 2021 during the census in England and Wales, Christians today make up less than half of their respective populations. Only 46.2 per cent identify themselves as Christians, far less than ten years ago, when Christians accounted for 59.3 per cent of the population.
The head of the Church of England, King Charles III, talks with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at Buckingham Palace during a reception given to the spiritual heads of the churches of the Anglican Communion. September 16, 2022. Photo: PAP/PA
In Great Britain, the Christian religion still ranks first, and among Christian denominations, Anglicanism is at the forefront. The strong downward trend, however, is not without concern, especially since two other denominations are increasing at the same time: atheism (yes, yes! – it's a new religion) and Islam. Atheists take second place. They account for 37.2 per cent of residents of England and Wales (ten years ago -- 25.2 per cent). Islam is third -- 6.5 per cent (ten years ago -- 4.9 per cent).

Scholars of religious phenomena, however, believe that the numbers are less alarming than it would seem at first glance. This is because the situation differs at the level of religious practices from the level of spiritual needs. Although 26 per cent of the inhabitants of England and Wales go to church more than once a year, and only 9 per cent weekly, as much as 56 per cent of respondents declare that they feel the need to believe and that religion plays a role in their lives. This, according to the researchers, means that the majority are believers and religious people, even if they are not associated with a specific Church.

Nevertheless, the census data gave a boost to opponents of the Church, as well as to those who would like to change the status of the Church of England as the state religion. The head of the Church, should you need reminding, is the king, currently Charles III, while the Archbishop of Canterbury is only a spiritual superior, in the religious dimension.

However, this is a goal for the future. For now, dozens of militant MPs in the House of Commons are thinking hard about how to make the Church comply with the Marriage Equality Act, that was passed in 2013 giving homosexuals the right to marry and adopt children. Four churches, apart from the Anglican, also Catholic, Jewish and Quaker, are excluded from the Act's provisions. According to the MPs, this must come to an end.

"It's a black day for the Church of England," Labor MP Ben Bradshaw, declared on the day the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that gay marriage would not be legalized. "The majority of deputies, from various parties, believe that it is impossible for the state church to am sure Parliament will look into this."

–By Teresa Stylinska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (center) addresses LGBT+ activists and their allies as they gather outside Lambeth Palace in London demanding same-sex marriage in the Church of England. January 23, 2023. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images
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