Relationships, 40 years on

by Savi Hensman

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and lives in London. She is a writer and activist working in the voluntary sector, and is an associate of Ekklesia. This article was published in the Church of England Newspaper (CEN).

Forty years after a Church of England report made the case for affirming same-sex partnerships, change is long overdue, as I have pointed out in the Church of England Newspaper:

Relationships, 40 years on

God, in the Bible, is “directly concerned with the condition and needs of every individual, a concern which the Church, as an agent of his loving care, must also exemplify … we do not think it possible to deny that there are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage”, according to a 1979 Church of England working party report.

This reflected a gradual shift in thinking among biblical scholars and other theologians, as they strove to delve more deeply into Scripture while responding with love to God and neighbour. Church leaders’ reluctance, over the following decades, to allow clergy and congregations to act in line with conscience on this matter has left many feeling unvalued and also raised concerns about the seriousness of engagement with the Bible as well as tradition, reason and experience.

On various other issues where consensus is lacking, space has been opened up for differing practices. This exception gets in the way of sharing the good news with many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and their families. It also sows confusion about what, and how, Christians believe.

Homosexual Relationships in context

Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion emerged from a General Synod Board for Social Responsibility working party chaired by the then Bishop of Gloucester, John Yates. It was far from radical even then, affirming heterosexual marriage as the norm for sexual relationships and drawing criticism from campaigners for LGBTI equality within and outside the church. Nevertheless, some church leaders felt it went too far, while many others, even if they agreed with the Gloucester report, would not say so openly. However, the bishops’ unwillingness to back it did not make the controversy go away.

The idea that same-sex love could be in accord with Scripture and tradition was far from new but had gained a higher profile over the previous two-thirds of a century. The Church of England’s formal process of listening and study had begun a dozen years previously, leading to a report in 1970 that was suppressed. Though this was undecided as to the rightness of physically intimate partnerships, its call for better care for lesbians and gays and study of issues that affected them was deemed too controversial in the face of widespread hostility.

Anglican, Russian Orthodox, Lutheran and Quaker thinkers had previously taken affirming positions. In the 1970s, more theologians from various traditions took the view that committed, self-giving same-sex relationships were not necessarily sinful.

For example in 1977 The Church and the Homosexual, by John J McNeill, a Jesuit, appeared, followed a year later by a book from an evangelical perspective, Is the Homosexual My Neighbour?, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, both addressing biblical issues in some detail. Also in 1978, Humanity and Sexuality, a Church of England booklet, drew on “an inheritance of scriptural and doctrinal tradition” but also gave close attention to historical and present experiences of gender, family and community life.

In 1979, The Moral Teaching of Paul, by New Testament professor Victor Paul Furnish, argued for the ethical relevance of the Pauline epistles if read carefully and in context, at a time when ‘literal’ approaches were leading some morally sensitive people to jettison Paul (and sometimes Christianity). He cited a minister who ruled out women leading prayers or singing solos in church in the presence of men and, more extremely, the use of Romans 13:1–7 to persuade some German Christians to obey the Nazi regime.

Examining references often taken to rule out homosexual relationships and difficulties of translation and understanding, he argued that Paul’s disapproval of idolatry and sexual exploitation and excess could not be directly applied to relationships of a very different kind.

Yates was a former theological college principal to whom “Evangelism was not understood as Mother Church calling back naughty children … but as going out to meet other human beings on the basis of our shared humanity.”

Other working party members included Old Testament scholar Roy Porter, ethicist Peter Baelz and specialists from the fields of medicine, law and education. Examining relevant passages and themes in the Old and New Testaments, the report recognised the value of celibacy for those so called but was also supporting of adults who seek relationships of fidelity and constancy.

The working party suggested “a period of responsible and increasingly informed study and discussion, during which the differing convictions and opinions of concerned groups and individuals will be taken seriously and regarded sympathetically.”

Four decades after the report

Numerous publications have since presented a biblical case for acceptance, though some theologians remain unpersuaded. Several sister Churches allow freedom of conscience for ministers and congregations on whether to celebrate marriage for same-sex couples. Opinion among Church of England members has shifted: few now believe that same-sex intimacy is always wrong.

Yet bishops have repeatedly shied away from acknowledging this, though calling for LGBTI people to be welcomed. Unsurprisingly, many feel rejected, while pastoral needs remain unmet.

Some ‘traditionalists’ now accept that individual Bible passages cited in sexuality debates may be ambiguous and instead focus on broader arguments around gender, creation and mission ( However other theologians such as Robert Song see these biblical themes differently (

Sadly, many opposed to greater inclusion ignore such complexities, talking as if Bible extracts always offer plain guidance. Senior clergy have largely failed to correct the mistaken belief among much of the public that this is how Christians generally think. Scripture is not honoured by overlooking its intricacies. If people believe that, they may reply that we have no qualms about butchering babies (Psalm 137.8–9). It is not surprising if they reject faith.

It is time for church leaders to be upfront about the challenges of interpreting the Bible correctly, particularly on sexuality; and after a four-decade wait, allow those who are affirming or otherwise to follow their conscience on same-sex love.