Pastoral Guidelines the catalyst for dissent – and no witch hunts

The Pastoral Guidelines published by the House of Bishops are having totally unexpected consequences. Lesbian and gay clergy are going to marry and ignore the guidelines and there will be no witch hunts.

Before the Guidelines were published partnered lesbian and gay clergy and lay people knew that come 29 March 2014 they would be able to get married if they so desired. A number of lesbian and gay clergy couples had been waiting for the date to be announced just as others are still waiting to know when they can convert their civil partnerships to marriages.

The Pastoral Guidelines were the catalyst that made couples realise that they really did want to get married, will soon be able to marry, with the result that some lesbian and gay clergy WILL, whatever the House of Bishops say, get married.

Married lesbian and gay clergy

The Revd Andrew Cain calmly expressed this truth on the R4 Sunday programme two days ago. He said he was disappointed, hurt, slightly angry and felt rejected by the Pastoral Guidelines. He has been a Vicar for 14 years and in June he will marry his partner. He has been invited to meet his bishop, Peter Wheatley, the Bishop of Edmonton, this week. Andrew knows his bishop well and hopes for a good conversation and, perhaps, he said, a telling off.

The programme noted that he might face disciplinary action, be sacked or defrocked, and this would involve the loss of his home, his livelihood and his vocation.

On the same programme, John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, said he regretted the tone of the Pastoral letter. It didn’t really please anyone. He had written to clergy apologising for the tone of the letter.

Asked how he would respond to a gay or lesbian member of his clergy who chose to get married, he said he didn’t know how he would respond to each individual but there would be no witch hunts. He’s certainly not going to conduct a witch hunt. He’s trying to find a way to live as God’s people in God’s world in God’s way.

The interviewer tried to pin him down – if a gay clergy person got married, is he saying there would be no disciplinary action? Bishop John said he wasn’t saying there would be no action. He’d want to talk in a pastoral context and not a disciplinary context.

The legal commentator Joshua Rosenberg was then asked what the Church could do if a clergy person chose to defy the House of Bishops’ guidance. Rosenberg doubted that any legal action could be taken. It’s a question of doctrine rather than discipline, he said. He didn’t think the Church would take disciplinary measures against a gay priest who married. The request from the bishops is very broad, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate conduct for someone in Holy Orders to enter into a same-sex marriage. You almost got the impression, he said, that bishops don’t want to make a clear rule and say gay clergy can’t marry. The Bishop of Oxford’s interview confirmed this. Until the bishops  go further and make it Church law, Rosenberg couldn’t see that clergy who do marry within English law are going to be breaking Church law.

But that’s not how some of the traditionalists within the Church interpret the signals being sent by the bishops. Next to be interviewed was the Revd Andrew Symes, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream. Andrew disagreed with the Bishop of Oxford and Joshua Rosenberg. He expected and member of the clergy defying the guidance would face disciplinary action. It would be a clear challenge to the bishop’s authority. Disciplinary action will happen on a case by case basis and some bishops will be forced to do it, he said.

Clearly, Anglican Mainstream and Reform will almost certainly try and force some bishops to take disciplinary action against lesbian and gay clergy who marry.

The scenario is going to unfold over the coming weeks and months and the authority of bishops over their clergy is going to unravel.

Interviews between bishops and lesbian and gay clergy who have announced their intention of getting married or who are already in a civil partnership begin this week. We will learn more from the outcome of the interviews.

At least one interview is taking place between a priest who is intending to marry and his bishop who happens to be gay and partnered.

In a month or two the first lesbian or gay clergy weddings will have taken place. We will then discover whether members of Reform or Anglican Mainstream will lodge a complaint with the relevant bishop. Almost certainly it will be conservative evangelicals who try to initiate disciplinary measures. Those offering legal advice suggest that they will be unsuccessful.

The effect on ordinands and those testing a vocation

Less attention has been given to the effect of the Pastoral Guidelines on those testing their vocation to lay or ordained ministry and on ordinands and lay people in training.

Mature lesbian and gay people exploring a vocation may have been in a relationship for many years, may be planning to marry or may already be in a civil partnership and be planning to convert the CP to marriage.

Younger lesbian and gay people exploring a vocation may be single at present but want to hold open the possibility of marrying at some point in their life. Younger people don’t understand why the Church has a problem with gender and sexual diversity, apart, that is, from those committed the conservative evangelical teaching of their particular parish (and even then, many will dissent).

Many LGBTI people already feel anxiety in the selection and training process simply because of their sexuality or gender. Lesbian and gay people experiencing a call to ministry are potentially faced with an impossible choice – to follow God’s call to live out their faith as a minister of the Gospel or to follow God’s call to respond to the call of love in their hearts and marry the person they love. This conflict requires the urgent attention of bishops and Diocesan Directors of Ordinands, Ministry Division at Church House and Course and College Principals and staff.

The effect on lay people

Lay lesbian and gay Christian couples who want to marry will not be able to do so in church. The message sent by the Pilling Report and the Pastoral Guidelines is a very conditional and grudging acceptance – lesbian and gay couples are welcomed and can be prayed with but not blessed. Many will want a service of blessing and do not understand why the bishops disallow blessings. Thanks goodness many clergy will ignore the prohibition.

The couple are in any case already blessed by God because they have met and fallen in love and want to commit themselves to each other. The challenge they face is in finding a church and a priest willing to welcome them and bless them.

Changing Attitude needs to find a way of overcoming this hurdle. Many parishes and priests are already only too willing to bless lesbian and gay couples. We need an easily accessible register of these parishes. Changing Attitude’s list of Welcoming and Open congregations lists a small number of parishes compared with the many that are open to blessings. Persuading more of the value of registering is one way of overcoming this problem. Raising the finance to proactively identify parishes and clergy is another. There are hundreds of parishes which could be added to the register.

The triple lock

There’s a longer-term challenge to be faced – to overturn the triple lock which prevents equal marriages from being solemnised in church. I am convinced that practice on the ground – married lesbian and gay clergy and lay people – and the widespread blessing of gay relationships in church – will eventually undermine the ban. The only questions are, how long will it take and how do we hasten the day?


  1. says

    Knowing my status, somewhere in LGBT land, in late 1950s but wanting to be a priest, I prayed long and listened. Those were the times that the CofE was not as homophobic as African churches today but not much different in outcomes. I listened and learnt not to be a priest but to carry forward the work which God had for me. Being a teacher, my alternative, was not easy either as I could never come out but I was in a position to lead in a priestly way, retired early and have had many years of pleasure with my partner. So I know that God will support those who want to be in partnerships, will support marriages of any kind which are true and open to the partner and to God. The clergy,including bishops and archbishops, some of whom are my friends, know this too. There will be a time when all this will fade away and people will be treated as equals. Then we will all rejoice. God bless us all.

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