Last Saturday I was privileged to preside at the blessing of a Civil Partnership of two long-standing friends, one a Changing Attitude trustee, at a small village in Yorkshire. Two hundred people attended the service held in a marquee behind the village hall. Local clergy were guests at the ceremony but felt unable to preside or allow the service to be held in church for fear of repercussions from the diocesan and area bishops.
The friends and family members present couldn’t understand why it wasn’t taking place in the parish church with the local priest presiding. Nearly every resident of the village came, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins came, friends came – straight supporters of Leeds United, members of the local hunt. All were totally supportive, many referring to the occasion as a wedding. They donated over £2,000 to be shared between Shelter and Changing Attitude.
Their reaction to a Civil Partnership followed by a Christian service of blessing is typical – what’s the problem with the church? Why is it unable to accept that lesbian and gay people fall in love and want to marry just as heterosexuals do?
The gulf between the views of the huge majority of the UK population and the views of conservatives in the church who oppose gay relationships is vast. People can’t understand why the church upholds tradition and proof texts from the Bible as reasons for not allowing blessings to take place in church. They know that there are thousands of lesbian and gay priests, Readers and lay people in the Church of England. They respect and value their faith and ministry. They think the bishops are being dishonest and deceitful.
There is a similar if less extreme gulf between senior CofE bishops and the majority of the House of Bishops, suffragan and area bishops. The majority have no problem in ordaining and licensing faithfully partnered lesbian and gay priests and people. They do it. They would almost certainly be more content if they knew their partnered lesbian and gay priests had contracted a Civil Partnership and made life vows to each other.
The views of the majority do not necessarily make something right. In the case of lesbian and gay couples, Changing Attitude thinks that the church should change its attitude and affirm faithful, loving relationships. When the gap between the views of the majority of the population and the official teaching and practice of the church becomes so great, the church’s claim that it is right to be counter-cultural becomes counter-productive.
I think the conservative groups holding the church to ransom on gay blessings and the ordination of women bishops are doing untold harm to mission and evangelism in this country. The arguments for a change in teaching are as strong as those in favour of the abolition of slavery, the ordination of women, the acceptance of divorce and contraception. Change in teaching and practice is driven by Gospel imperatives of love and justice.
The general population and the majority of CofE members have got there more quickly than the senior bishops. The bishops are being held to ransom by the demands of other Provinces in the Anglican Communion and conservative pressure groups in the UK and North America.
The recent interventions by the Archbishop of Canterbury and even more so by the Bishop of Durham have been disastrous for the Church of England, alienating it even more from the people inside and outside our churches. People yearn for spiritual resources, creative worship, integrity in leadership and truthfulness in preaching and teaching. They perceive the church to be prejudiced and dishonest.