Questions about gay marriage the Church of England needs to consider

There are questions for the Church of England which needs to be asked – questions which the House of Bishops and the authorities at Church House do not seem to be considering.

In two years time there will be married gay couples in church (some of whom will have converted their civil partnership to a marriage). There will be lesbian and gay families in church, children to be baptised and welcomed into Sunday Schools, Junior Churches, Youth Clubs and Church Schools and eventually young adults in gay families seeking confirmation. Couples will be celebrating anniversaries and birthdays in their church family.

What place is there in the Church of England for faithful lesbian and gay Anglican couples who wish to marry and commit themselves to a loving, lifelong, faithful, covenantal relationship in the sight of God? How is the Church of England going to respond pastorally?

I think this might be the single most important question to ask our bishops. We can all ask them, Changing Attitude formally and you, church members and clergy, in a letter or email and whenever a meeting with a bishop happens.

It is a question which parents and siblings, friends and colleagues, and members of congregations where gay and lesbian couples worship, may justifiably want an answer to. How, given the quadruple lock granted the C of E in the proposed equal marriage legislation, is the Church going to respond pastorally and prayerfully to the desire of many to see their gay and lesbian friends marry in church and be welcomed as full members of the congregation?

The question came to mind as I read the penultimate chapter of William Stacy Johnson’s book about same-sex marriage, A Time to Embrace (highly recommended). The chapter explores how American civil society might welcome same-sex marriage.

Johnson refers to Martha Nusbaum who argues that liberal freedom includes a broad understanding of human flourishing and emphasises the importance of the body, the emotions and the intimate bonds of companionship that go to make human life worth living. Society (and, I would suggest, the Church) has an obligation to support individuals in making a life that is truly human (p227).

Andrew Sullivan, gay and conservative, suggests that allowing gays to marry would promote the very sort of fidelity, commitment and care for others that traditionalists claim they want to see.

Johnson says that without the imprimatur that marriage connotes, the basic recognition gay couples seek will always be compromised. Without being able to claim the status of “spouse,” full equality of rights for gay families will remain elusive.

Secular commentators like Zoe Williams who writes in today’s Guardian, are saying that on gay marriage, Anglicans have blown it. The Church has successfully protected itself from challenge under equality law but is an abject failure in terms of representing ordinary, person-on-the-street decency, with 73% in favour of same-sex marriage. Christianity is disintegrating, she says, not because anything’s happened to make God’s existence less likely, but because, as a badge of cultural identity, Christianity no longer cuts it.

In pursuing exemptions from equality legislation and same-sex marriage, the Church not only communicates that it excludes and is prejudiced against particular groups which society now recognises as rightfully to be integrated; the Church of England sends a message that it no longer wishes to be the pastoral hub of a community, the established Church which is there to respond to every member of the local community whatever their status.

In this context, the House of Bishops and members of General Synod need to urgently resolve what status married gay couples and their families and children have in the life of the local church.


  1. John says

    Not just a question for the future, there are married gay couples worshipping in the the CofE… it is possible to get married in other countries. Also many gay couple, whether in civil partnership or not, who regard themselves as married before God (perhaps having taken vows before God and exchanged rings).

  2. Susannah Clark says

    I challenge the statement by the Bishop of Leicester, which the so-called “Church of England” endorsed in its polarised statement(s) this week that ignored many of its members:

    ““our concern here is not primarily for RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE or the protection of the Church of England’s position, but rather a more fundamental concern for stable communities”

    I thought the objectors to Equal Marriage have argued all along for “RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE”.

    If churches, on grounds of conscience, don’t agree with the proposed law of the land, they have argued they should be allowed to exercise that conscience, through exemption.


    Then what about the “RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE” of priests and local Anglican churches that believe their church communities SHOULD welcome and celebrate in marriage couples who love and care for each other, regardless of gender or orientation?

    Considering the REAL Church of England is completely divided on the issues around gay and lesbian sex, why should *one* half of the Church demand “RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE” for itself, but not allow and respect the same right of “RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE” for other Anglicans? Why not just let each local Anglican church act on religious conscience?

    Frankly, the time is coming for active dissent and courage by those in the Anglican Church who in all good CONSCIENCE cannot close the doors of sacrament on LGBT couples.

    If lay people, priests, religious, really believe in equal marriage, then on grounds of RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE it is time to peacefully disobey, subvert, and repudiate the entirely polarised authoritarianism of this so-called “Church of England” that keeps making statements in our name, and at the same time making the Church seem idiotic, out of touch, ungenerous and a complete embarrassment.

    There are a range of actions that will be possible rather than simply comply and defer – this is a justice issue of our day. It really is time to embrace decency and say “We will marry people anyway” in ways that show the public quite clearly that there is NOT this “one” Church of England position that has so preposterously been asserted, to the national disgrace of all Anglicans.

    If Anglicans don’t act (and not just speak) then they’re presenting the public with a status quo that excludes many decent people from the most precious sacrament and communal recognition of marriage.

    Many Anglican communities may (and ought and should) decide that in THEIR churches, lesbian and gay couples are welcome, and recognised as married, and MAY celebrate marriage in the midst of the caring community.

    The Anglican spokespeople and the authoritarianism has gone far enough. It is way past time courageous Anglican churches took this matter into their own hands.

    I am positive, if orchestrated and signed up to, it can be done as a fait accomplis in all sorts of clever ways, to show the secular public in OUR local communities, that the mythical “Church of England” that has been issuing polarised statements against equal marriage, and resisting national decency and change… is a ‘party’, not the whole of the Church.

    If a local Anglican community decides, on grounds of RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE, to embrace Equal Marriage, it is going to be a pretty pilloried bishop who closes them down. You’re basically not going to close down a community’s church. Local churches can just decide they’re going to welcome Equal Marriage anyway.

    If many churches commit to these principles, then it will in time become a fait accomplis. It really does now, on grounds of CONSCIENCE, need to become that principled and non-compliant. In the past too many priests and churches deferred to authority on issues like slavery, women, or the rights of human beings in nazi Germany.

    The Church of England is legendary for its rather middle-class “niceness”. This is not a time for niceness, but dissent. Local Anglican communities should stop complaining and get on and do it.

    The Church of England is not a clique of Church House administrators, but a network of local churches serving local communities, many of whom are willing to endorse people’s love in sacrament and full recognition, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

    • David Head says

      Dear Susannah,
      This may seem like a fudge, but the problem is not that simple – and I just got an unsigned piece of hatemail calling me a bigot and a homophobe for pointing it out in a letter to the Times.
      To go further than the letter: as an Anglican Priest, I am a registrar in my parish. Until the law changes, even if I marry a gay couple as a protest, they will not legally be married, and I cannot register the marriage. Until the Church of England disestablishes, there is always the possibility that those clergy who do not wish to celebrate a same-sex marriage, because of their personal conscience, may be forced to do so.
      I am extremely liberal, and do not believe in compulsion, nor in exclusion. Your suggestion, that the end point should be that the marrige of same-sex couples should be entirely down to the conscience of the relevant cleric/church, seems eminently sensible to me.
      But the piece of hatemail made me wonder. Is it actually the position of Changing Attitude that all clergy should be forced to marry same-sex couples? Am I being called homophobic because I think that gay people ought to be allowed to choose, but that bigots ought to be allowed to choose too? That’s what I intuit, but it turns the argument into “anyone who is not absolutely with us is against us.”
      Why would gay people (or anyone) want to marry in an unwelcoming church? Colin Coward is probably right, that gay people will go to other churches to marry. But in the long term, what will move the Church of England more surely is examining and altering its legal constraints, and not giving up on it. You already identify that there are many who are with you.

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