An Aff Cath press release View Online



Response to “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations:  A Report from the House of Bishops”
GS 2055;
February 2017
This was no doubt a difficult report to write, and it is hard to respond to it.  The difficulty reflects the fact that the Church of England, like the Anglican Communion, holds together a range of different views on questions of sexuality, reflecting different readings of scripture and understandings of the relationship between church and society.  Affirming Catholicism wishes to commend the clear acknowledgement that, on questions of sexuality, “over many years, serious study of scripture and theology has reached conflicting conclusions in the way we handle the faith we have inherited” (para 3).  The reminder that “the question of proclaiming the gospel within culture must take account of the widely differing cultures around the world, where human sexuality is often a touchstone issue, but in contradictory ways” (para 3) is also helpful.  That the report is premised on the assumption that different theologically legitimate views of these questions exist will be for many a long overdue recognition.  This is combined with an explicit and welcome acknowledgement that “existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited” (para 18). 
However, it is unclear how the key recommendation of the report can be reconciled with its promising beginning.  The proposed way forward is: “Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church” (para22).  Specifically, this would involve retaining the Church of England’s canonical definition of marriage as
a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’ (Canon B 30.1).
Whilst recommending the retention of the traditional doctrine of marriage, the bishops also – and importantly – recognise the need for:
establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church (para 23a).
This new tone and culture are intended to “communicate welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and for those who experience same sex attraction, and also promote mutual understanding across the Church as a whole” (para 29).
To support this, “a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships” is proposed (para 23b).  This document will:

  • Affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church, making their voices heard both within the document and in the life of the Church. …
  • Consider the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing…
  • Affirm the role of single people and solitaries, as well as those in committed relationships (including marriage) within the life of the Christian community.
  • Include a theological exploration of friendship…
  • Explore the meaning of marriage within society, the family, and the Church and consider marriage in terms of vocation.
  • Reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life.
  • Explore the distinction that has opened up between the state’s conception of “equal marriage” and the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony, and consider the implications of this. (para 34)
Revised guidance should be provided to clergy about “appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples” (para 23c).  The report recommends that this should [stop] short of either Authorized or Commended liturgies” (para 43) and there is no proposal that clergy might be legally allowed to solemnise the marriage of two persons of the same sex, or that civil partnerships might be registered in Church of England places of worship (para 39).
Finally, new guidance should be provided “about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle” (para 23d).  The report suggests that
any questioning about sexual conduct should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form – establishing that the person concerned understood the Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage and that they understood the principles of clerical obedience to the Church’s teaching. (para 54)
Anyone who is aware of the history of the Church of England’s engagement with divorce may find themselves experiencing a profound sense of déjà vu on reading these proposals.  It is patently clear that the report’s continuing emphasis on the canonical definition of marriage as “a union permanent and lifelong” no longer matches the experience of the many divorced people who are now able to be (re-)married in church.  Moreover, all who regularly conduct weddings are aware that the “Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage” belies the reality that the vast majority of those who come to be married in church now live together – often for a considerable period of time – before making that decision.  The report’s failure to acknowledge and engage with the pastoral realities of today’s heterosexual relationships does not position it well to engage sensitively with the question of same sex relationships.
In particular, the processes by which this report was drafted do not live up to the promise of the report’s thoughtful beginning.  Once again, the bishops of the Church of England appear to have talked about rather than talked with and listened to those most affected by this report.  No LGBT people were involved in the drafting of this report.  This is particularly disappointing given the process of shared conversations, which encouraged many people of all shades of opinion to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their experiences.   Despite its mention of case studies, the bishops’ report shows little sign of engaging with the experiences that were shared.  It is unclear what case studies were considered.  It is also unclear why the possible alternative ways forward outlined in annex 1, relating to possible “Authorized or Commended” forms of service for the making or blessing of same sex relationships or for amending canon law to allow clergy who have entered into marriage with someone of the same sex to minister without finding themselves in breach of canon law were not recommended.  The result of the latter decision is to leave a small but significant number of clergy who have taken the legal step of into a marriage with their partner of the same sex, and to some extent also those who have entered into a civil partnership, in a very difficult and vulnerable position.  (Again, there is a clear parallel with the situation of clergy who married after divorce.)  The proposed way forward does nothing to clarify their situation.  Nor does it offer much help to same sex couples who wish to have their relationship blessed in church.
Also problematic is the language: the report refers to “lesbian and gay people and those who experience same sex attraction.”  This contributes to the sense of engagement with an “other”, which poses a problem.  The report’s introductory affirmation that “all human beings are made in the image of God” seems sometimes to be lost in this process of “othering”. The parallels identified above with divorce indicate too clearly an underlying sense, despite all that is said about tone, that gay and lesbian people fail to live up to an ideal in a way which is somehow more problematic than the normal human inability to fulfil God’s calling.
The report defines no time scale for the drafting of the report for which it calls, and consequently, lacks any sense of urgency.  This is a particular problem given the mission implications.  The report is very much focussed on internal church cohesion, with the aim of achieving maximum consensus across very different interpretations of scripture and theological understandings of marriage.   However, young people are now being educated to accept gay and straight people – and men and women – on equal terms.  This report will encourage them in the view that the church is discriminatory, unkind, and uncaring, quite the opposite of the loving Body of Christ it is called to be. 

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