The Church of England, like many churches, has been agonising for a long time about homosexuality, and in the last few years has been though an elaborate consultation process. The report that emerged from that consultation essentially recommended no change. Last night it was voted on in General Synod, and rejected by the clergy.
It seems the authors of the report thought, probably correctly, they would not be able to carry enough support if they had recommended change. Now they have found that they can’t carry support for no change. It also emerges that the Bishops have lost the support of their clergy on this issue. Who would want to be a church leader?
All this is intertwined with the age demographics impinging on the church. Disapproval of homosexuality seems incomprehensible to most people in the first half of life, but is still common among older people, and the average age of church members is now over 60. Change is difficult for an ageing church, but no-change makes it difficult to attract younger members. (It may be relevant that the clergy, who rebelled last night, are the youngest of the three Houses of Synod.)
A Way Forward?
It is hard to see a way forward but I want to suggest one that is worth considering. It can be found in outline in a chapter on sexuality in a report of the Doctrine Commission on Being Human (published in 2003).
It starts from a brief and uncontroversial general Biblical theology of sexuality. It then shows in a very interesting way how it is possible to emphasise one set of features of that account and reach a tolerant view of homosexuality, but equally possible to emphasise a different set of features and reach the opposite view.
Both views have their own integrity and intellectual coherence. I suggest that it would be best to start from recognizing that situation, and for each side in the debate to respect and tolerate the integrity of the other, rather than battling it out for which is the right way.
Two Parallel Integrities
The church reached a similar impasse on the ordination of women bishops and priests, and found ways to let different churches go their own way, allowing for two parallel integrities. It could do something similar here on the question of whether there can be same-sex marriages in church.
Particular churches opposed to same-sex marriages could argue against it on grounds of theological conviction. Other churches could make the change and allow them. Through doing that, they would become more attractive to most younger people.
I would welcome comments on whether this seems a way forward. Time seems to have run out for the old policy of trying to keep the lid on the pressure for change.