On Saturday 12 April 2014 Canon Jeremy Pemberton and Laurence Cunnington married. The Church of England now has its first married gay priest, the first of many who will follow his example in the weeks and months and years to come.
Jeremy has confronted one diocesan bishop with a challenge, a bishop who is warmly affirming of Jeremy’s ministry and relationship. Jeremy confronts the House of Bishops with the reality that many partnered lesbian and gay clergy lived in committed relationships and wish to marry (with the drama and media attention surrounding Saturday’s wedding). Other gay priests have already announced their intention to marry.
One newspaper reported a senior traditionalist member of General Synod saying: “This will become a crisis if no action is taken. People are looking to the Church to enforce its teachings and discipline. The clergy have taken vows of obedience in public and they ought to live by that. Canon Pemberton should be stripped of his right to function as a clergyman. This is a test of the authority of the bishops and a critical test for Archbishop Welby.”
Prebendary Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, said: “If there is not clear discipline then it is the equivalent to saying ‘we really didn’t mean what we said.’ It will precipitate a crisis.” He warned that traditionalists “who stick by the biblical understanding” of marriage would be unable to accept a “messy compromise.”
Another conservative has said he will initiate action against any gay priest in the diocese of Guildford who marries.
A new era has arrived. Many Anglicans had already decided to ignore the Pastoral Guidance and marry their same sex partner and/or bless same-sex relationships. The Guidance has now been formally transgressed.
Archbishop Justin Welby’s warnings about the implications for Anglicans in Africa have been set aside as unproven. Archbishop Justin prioritised the protection of one set of people who are under threat by Moslems at the expense of another group, LGBTI African Christians, a group also numbered in the millions across Africa.
The level of risk for the House of Bishops is now significantly increased.
The House risks looking impotent if it fails to act against married gay priests in accordance with the Pastoral Guidance.
The House risks the wrath of those who believe the bishops may fail to uphold the doctrines of the Church about gender, sexuality and marriage.
The majority of UK citizens think the Church of England is prejudiced by refusing to celebrate the ministry of lay and ordained LGBTI people and refusing to affirm and celebrate loving, faithful same-sex relationships.
The House of Bishops will come under intense pressure at the General Synod meeting in July. There will be calls for a debate, a Private Members motion will probably be tabled and there will be pressure inside and outside the Synod chamber and in fringe meetings.
The Church of England enters a new era. If the House is pushed into taking punitive action against Jeremy (unlikely since he is a hospital chaplain) or any other gay or lesbian priest who marries, it risks alienating those members of the Church of England, General Synod and the House of Bishops who welcome and affirm LGBTI ministry and relationships and celebrate the gifts of partnered lesbian and gay clergy.
The members of the House and College of Bishops who are gay are under greater pressure to be honest and open especially if they collude in any action taken against lesbian and gay clergy who marry or clergy who bless married gay couples.
The structure of the Church of England was definitively changed on Saturday. We now have a married gay priest. The Church of England has been changed in defiance of the Men and Women in Marriage report, the Pilling Report, the Pastoral Guidance and the dire predictions of those opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people.
Many of us believe the Spirit of Christ is moving in the life of the Church and is moving human hearts and lives into deeper love and faith at a speed way ahead of the Church of England, overtaking the ability of the bishops to process what is happening in God’s creation. Even those we know to be warmly supportive are hamstrung and are unable to join with those who celebrate the transformation of the place of LGBTI people in society, among our families, friends and colleagues and all who are moving beyond the so-called Biblically normal constructs of gender and sexuality.