The Church of England bishops’ proposals on same-sex marriage are intended to settle 40 years of painful divisions and often bitter argument.
But the compromise – rejecting same-sex marriage in church while backing clergy blessings of civil same-sex marriage – means the rift between theological conservatives and pro-equality progressives is likely to continue.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who has wrestled with the issue for almost 10 years since he became the C of E’s leader, acknowledged this. “I am under no illusions that what we are proposing today will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others,” he said in a statement released by the church.
The bishops’ proposal – which includes a review of the ban on clergy marrying same-sex partners, or even having sex within same-sex relationships – comes at the end of six-year internal process within the C of E, called Living in Love and Faith.
Clergy and congregations were asked to consider all viewpoints on sexuality and to download vast quantities of reading material and other resources provided by the C of E. Critics said it was a way of kicking the contentious issue into the long grass while the archbishops struggled to hold the church together.
On the one hand, orthodox conservatives argued for faithful adherence to the teachings of the Bible, that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that a man lying with another man is an “abomination”.
Campaigners for LGBTQ+ equality in the church said biblical teaching on slavery, adultery, apartheid and divorce had evolved; why not marriage? They pointed to opinion polls showing a majority of people identifying as C of E in favour of the church allowing same-sex marriage.
And most importantly, they said, continued discrimination and exclusion was actively harmful to LGBTQ+ people.
Next month, a four-day meeting of the C of E’s legislative body, the general synod, will consider the bishops’ proposal.
Full equality would need a change to canon law, requiring a two-thirds majority in each of the synod’s three houses: bishops, clergy and laity. The blessing of civil marriages and revoking the rules that apply to clergy do not involve changes to church law.
Steven Croft, the bishop of Oxford, who became the first bishop to openly back fully equal same-sex marriage in November, said there “simply wasn’t a sufficient majority” to get such a change through synod.
“The next few weeks leading up to synod are now really critical. The debate is absolutely bound to continue. For conservatives, this will be seen to have gone too far. And the calls for us to remove barriers to same-sex marriage in church will also continue,” he said.
Synod members could reject the bishops’ paper, as they did in 2017 when they narrowly threw out a report that upheld orthodox teaching on marriage.
But even if synod accepts the recommendations to allow clergy to bless same-sex marriage, it is unlikely to end the argument.
Andrea Williams, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage in church, said: “This is a landmark moment and will go down in history as a turning point in the decline and fall of the C of E – unless these proposals can be decisively resisted by the faithful in synod.”
The Rev Nigel Pietroni, chair of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the C of E, said the continued treatment of LGBT+ people as second-class was “not good enough”.
He added: “There is no sign that the bishops will set out a clear pathway towards equal marriage. This has always been a central demand of LGBTQ+ Anglicans and remains a priority for our continued campaign.”
The Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who was excluded from serving as a priest after marrying his husband, said the proposals “will please no one, neither the conservatives nor the progressives. It will not end the debate and the struggle in the C of E, and indeed may simply make it more difficult for everyone”.
Some MPs believe the national church has had long enough to debate its position, and now it is time for time for the C of E to come into line with the law of the land.
Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter and a former cabinet minister, said bishops were “heading for a major constitutional clash with parliament”.
He added: “It’s a very dark day for the C of E. I’m confident that parliament will want to take a very close look at this. The overwhelming view of MPs on both sides of the house is that it is not sustainable for our established church to be institutionally homophobic and to actively exclude a portion of the population, whom they have a duty to serve.”
In 2012, after the C of E synod voted against a proposal to allow women to become bishops, MPs summoned the archbishop of Canterbury and church officials to answer questions in parliament. The measure passed two years later.