A fly on the wall

by Charlie Bell

On Monday 6 September the Governing Body of the Church in Wales voted, after a passionate and moving debate, to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships in its churches, and authorised a liturgy to be used in these services. Charlie Bell reflects on what this means for the Church in Wales and the Church of England.

This week the Church in Wales did what was almost unimaginable just a decade ago and acknowledged there might be some good in same-sex relationships. By bringing in experimental liturgy for the blessing of both civil partnerships and civil marriages, it has very much opened the doors of the Church and allowed the Spirit in to do its stuff. Presumably, if things go well and the world doesn’t fall apart (and if the evidence from other Anglican provinces is to be believed, the world does indeed not stop turning), the Welsh Church will move to actually perform these weddings in church, not least because the current position is a bit of a theological mess, albeit an understandable one. At the wedding ceremony, the church is witnessing and blessing what two people are committing to and celebrating before God. While the ceremony is not yet taking place in a church building, it is very clear what the direction of travel must be, if only from a position of theological coherence – a blessing is a blessing is a blessing.

For Wales to be taking this step is significant. It is not that long since political machinations ensured the blocking of the episcopacy – for the umpteenth time – of Jeffrey John, and we can only hope that the Church in Wales might have the decency and honesty to apologise to him for the travesty of justice he has suffered at their hands. With a lesbian bishop, and with the extraordinary stories of faithful, committed, loving LGBTQIA+ people that suffused the debate in the Church’s Governing Body, surely – at last – things are changing for the better. God is working God’s purpose out as year succeeds to year.

What the Church in Wales has done, like others before it, including the Scottish Episcopal Church, is find a way to hold a number of different integrities together. For far too long (and even in this week’s debate) we have heard that accommodating those who support same-sex blessings will tear the church apart by making it inhospitable to those who hold non-affirming theological views. This has often been nothing more than an extremely thinly veiled threat, and in rejecting this blackmail the Church in Wales has shown where the Church of England might go next year. It’s time to stop believing the lie that refusing to move one inch is a compromise.

The Church of England, then, as it moves towards the final consideration of Living in Love and Faith, will soon encounter the same tired old tropes – and must take courage from its sister across the border.

But oh to be a metaphorical fly on the wall of the Church of England’s not-so-secret WhatsApp group this week. Because the decision in Wales now makes life rather uncomfortable for the Church of England, and most particularly for the policing of its clergy’s lives. It feels like a day of reckoning is very close.

If you are ordained, or considering ordination – and even, in some places and quite anomalously, a licensed lay person – in the Church of England, you will be severely punished for getting married to someone of the same sex, whether in a church of another denomination or in a civil ceremony. Thanks to a politically motivated, poorly argued and abysmally timed communiqué released by the House of Bishops on Valentine’s Day in 2014:

The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same-sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.

In practice, this means that bishops can, and mostly do, refuse to relicense any clergy who get married, meaning that if a clergyperson leaves their current role, then their ministry is in effect over. This edict remains in place, and while nobody in the current Church of England hierarchy is willing to take responsibility for how it is enforced, it continues to blight the landscape of LGBTQIA+ clergy. Bishops could vote to remove this, or simply ignore it – but they don’t. Several bishops have told me in private that they wish they weren’t bound by it, or that they think it is immoral, yet none will take a stand. It is a stain on the record of the House of Bishops – many of whom were not even in place when it was written. It does not need to be this way.

The difference now, though, is that Church of England clergy could go to either of the other two Anglican provinces in Great Britain, and either get married to someone of the same sex in an Anglican Church (Scotland) or have their marriage blessed (Wales). The very same clergy could then cross the border, and lose their job. This is an utterly absurd situation, and has to change – now.

Of course, many bishops will say that we ought to wait for the outcome of LLF and take things from there – the usual ‘wait a little longer’ argument that is very easy to make if you are straight, married, and unaffected by this misery. Yet we continue to hear about how much clergy wellbeing matters and how valued clergy are in the wake of Covid. Actions speak louder than words – it is nonsensical and unnecessary to continue this charade, in which LGBTQIA+ clergy are told they are valued and yet have the sword of Damocles hanging over them. If we are committed to a Church in which everyone is valued, and a Church in which different integrities are to be held together, then we need to make this simple change immediately – one which requires no Act of Synod, and which could be made by bishops willing to put their head above the parapet.

If we are to go into the decisions following LLF with integrity and with a genuine commitment to listening to one another and respecting difference, then now is the time to end this nonsense. Now is the time to stop punishing LGBTQIA+ clergy for making their commitments to one another formal. Now is the time to stop sacking clergy for getting married in a church.

It can be done – it can be done simply, and it can be done now. It is time to stop making excuses. It is time to set the clergy free.