The Church of England and the mists of time

by Andrew Foreshew-Cain

Andrew Foreshew-Cain photoThe Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain married his partner of 14 years, Steve Foreshew, in 2014. One of the founders of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, he is currently Chaplain at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Back in 1993 John Major, sometime Conservative Prime Minister, conjured an image of an England of the past characterised by ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’, quoting George Orwell. It is a vision in which the Church of England (C of E), to which the maids were cycling, is of interest primarily to the elderly and the unwed, travelling a lonely road half hidden from view. For an increasing majority of the population it is a view of the C of E that may seem to match reality: the average age of worshippers has topped 51 for the first time and less than 15% of the population identifies with the State Church, falling to under 3% in those under 24. Given these statistics the reader might be forgiven for wondering about the press coverage of the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England (the C of E governing body) that filled all the major newspapers in the UK this past week. But sex sells, and the C of E has been embroiled in a very public and sometimes rather nasty debate about sex, who can have it and with whom. And given that the C of E is the Established Church, has 26 bishops sitting in the Upper House of Parliament, conducts over 40,000 weddings a year, and runs a quarter of all primary schools and over 200 secondary schools attended by a million children, what it says about sex and relationships is important and impacts on many lives.

Inevitably the sort of sex and relationships being discussed are those of gay and lesbian people. Marriage has been open to same-sex couples in the UK since 2014, and the C of E has officially refused to acknowledge such relationships, maintaining that marriage is solely for one man and one woman for life, though, of course, also permitting its clergy to remarry divorced (straight) people in church. That isn’t as obvious a step as might be assumed for a Church that in popular imagination came into being because a king wanted a divorce. Official ‘approval’ for such remarriages was only in 2002, though many clergy had taken such marriages before that date, using their freedom as registrars of civil marriages to do so, despite opposition from the bishops.

The bishops have also since 2014 made it clear that they will not employ (license) any priest who does marry a same-sex spouse and requires all prospective clergy to agree to this refusal. I married my husband in 2014 and was disciplined, leaving the ministry of the C of E in 2017, and cannot lead worship or take prayers in any C of E church. My current role as a chaplain in an Oxford college is outside the control of the local bishop. Clergy may be in a civil partnership (possible since 2005) but they must give assurances to their bishop that they are sexless, and that the priest and their partner do not touch each other in any way ‘unbecoming of a member of the clergy’. Quite what that means has never been spelt out by the bishops in sufficient detail for gay and lesbian clergy to be entirely clear about what is off limits.

However, despite episcopal disapproval a steady tide of support for gay and lesbian relationships has been growing in the C of E for many years, and other churches in the Anglican world-wide family of churches now fully accept and celebrate same-sex marriages. The Scottish Episcopal Church celebrated its first same-sex marriage in 2017 and the Church in Wales will soon follow suit. Other denominations have also welcomed us. The Methodist Church in Britain embraced same-sex marriage in 2021 and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) did so in 2022. These changes have sharpened the debate in the C of E.

Over several decades there have been any number of reports and discussion papers about same-sex relationships, many of which advocated a softening of the official stance. But the current journey to the recent debate began only in 2017 when the then General Synod rejected a report from the bishops that sought to conclude almost three years of intense internal discussion and divisions with a conservative restatement of the traditional position. The defeat was unexpected, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, then acknowledged the need for a ‘radical, new Christian inclusion’. What followed was a five-year process called ‘Living in Love and Faith’ which was intended to provide resources for Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. The bishops reported back, again to General Synod, on that process last week (8 February 2023) and this time recommended that prayers, which may or may not be blessings but certainly don’t imply approval, should be offered to gay and lesbian relationships in church. They promised to scrap a much hated document called Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) and apologised for the “shameful” times LGBTQIA+ people have been “rejected or excluded”. The bishops again restated the traditional position of the Church on marriage, and claimed that in offering prayers of blessing they were not changing that policy. They have said they will bring in new pastoral guidelines governing the freedom of conscience of clergy to marry, which seems to imply that priests such as myself will be able to serve again in the C of E, should we wish to do so.

Needless to say the proposals have caused a furore. For progressives they seem like crumbs from the table; they seek to cement the position of gay and lesbian people as second-class members of our own church, with our relationships held to be less than heterosexual ones. Our marriages are defined as ‘civil marriage’ as opposed to the gold standard of ‘holy matrimony’, which can only be formed between a man and a woman in church with a priest offering a blessing, whilst the prayers offered to us do not mention the form of relationship that a same-sex couple has entered and instead refer to ‘covenanted friendships’, omitting any reference to the exchange of vows and rings that form a central part of any marriage ceremony. Many of us have questioned how the bishops can apologise for ‘exclusion, rejection and hostility’ whilst at the same time continuing to exclude our marriages from church, rejecting their legal status and seeming to continue to be hostile to the reality of our lives.

For conservatives, of course, any whiff of prayer over what they believe to be sinful by its very nature has to be rejected, and the debate in Synod this past week included many dire warnings of the consequences of departing from the tradition of telling gay people that they are sinners and need to stop whatever it is that we get up to with each other. After nearly 10 hours of debate and procedural manoeuvring, which included a bishop suggesting gay marriages would lead to polyamory and another member of Synod likening Pride celebrations to paedophilia, the Synod approved the bishops’ proposals by a good majority.

I welcome the result. It isn’t enough; it officially introduces a confusing and incoherent distinction between holy matrimony (church, straight, good) and civil marriage (town hall/stately home, gay, less than ideal). There are going to be problems down the line, not least for one conservative bishop who is himself a remarried divorcee in a civil marriage and therefore not ‘officially’ in holy matrimony as his fellow bishops have now defined his relationship. But for the first time the C of E has admitted that there is good in gay relationships, in my marriage, and said that we can come to a C of E church and have that acknowledged in prayer and celebration. Optics matter and there will now be services in churches that to all intents and purposes look like weddings of two men or two women, and some of those will be of clergy who can go on to serve as priests in the C of E. The apology stands and with it comes a commitment to ensure that gay families are part of their local church community and not excluded or harmed.

This matters, not least because ‘local churches are one of the biggest sources of direct discrimination against LGB people and the biggest contributor of negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media’ as a 2020 report recorded. These changes will start to change that and make it harder for conservative voices to condemn and claim to be the only voice that matters. We don’t yet have marriage equality but we have moved, and we cannot go back.

I am a member of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England. Our aim is clear – we want gay and lesbian couples to be able to marry, in marriages accepted as equal to those of their straight friends and family, in church, and for clergy to be free to do so as well. We will not stop campaigning simply because the bishops have offered some prayers and an apology. It is clear from the debate and the voting on it that the mood is for greater change. It is going to take time, but we will get there, and one day, God willing, the statement about the Church as a source of discrimination and harm will seem as old fashioned and irrelevant as those aged maids and their misty bikes.