Wednesday, February 15, 2017


In a stunning move today, the General Synod of the Church of England voted "not to take note" (read: to reject) the Bishops' Report on Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships. The bishops' had said that marriage in the church could only be between a man and a woman. This is a significant victory for marriage equality.

The vote to "take note" required majorities in each of the three houses. The House of Bishops voted 43-yes, 1-no. The House of Clergy voted 93-yes, 100-no, 2 abstentions. The House of Laity voted 106-yes, 83-no, 4-abstentions. The rejection in the Clergy meant the failure of the vote. The pro-homosexual rights parties declared victory. Interesting enough, some conservative elements did too. In their view the Report had not gone far enough to defend traditional marriage.

In the end, it was the ordinary boots-on-the-ground vicars who stood up for the people against the lordly bishops. Hooray for democracy, says this American cousin. 

The Church of England appears to be in disarray concerning the issue of homosexuality. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

We Americans can empathize. The Episcopal Church went through turmoil from 1976 to 2015 trying to come to grips with this issue. The matter really had/has three parts: the question of morality, the issue of the ordination of openly homosexual persons, and the Church's blessing of same-sex relationships. The second and third, of course, evolved from the first. Thus, the great question was whether homosexual behavior is immoral, as the conservatives insisted, or morally neutral, as the liberals said. The Episcopal Church never really had a great debate on this question because it was simply too disruptive. The second part, on ordination, was much easier to address. And, this is what happened in TEC. At first General Convention said the ordination of open homosexuals was "not appropriate." This was the stand through the 1970's and 1980's. By 1990, however, the bishops of Newark were ordaining open homosexuals. This forced the issue onto the General Convention. The 1991 GC was the most contentious in memory, tempers flared in the House of Bishops. The Church was roughly divided into thirds, one against ordination, one for, and one neutral. The war was for the neutral middle. In 1994 GC resolved that homosexuality could not be an obstacle to ordination. In 1996, an ecclesiastical court ruled that there was no Church doctrine to impede the ordination of homosexuals. This broke the back of the anti side which made a last stand in the 1997 GC. The next year, 1998, the ultra conservatives joined with the equatorial African bishops to push through the Lambeth Conference a resolution against marriage equality. Having lost the fight in America, they were going over the heads of TEC to try to get the Anglican Communion to make TEC back off. The ploy failed.

The third part, the Church's blessing for homosexual couples derived from the victory on ordination. The defeated conservative minority was too weak to block this. In 2012, TEC adopted a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples. In 2015, it adopted same-sex marriage. 

The nearest TEC ever came to a thoughtful, deliberate approach to the issues of homosexuality came in March 2003 with the House of Bishops' Theology Committee report called "The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective." This was a monumental compilation of careful considerations of Church leaders and academics. In conclusion, the report asked for time for the Church to reach consensus before legislative action. Unfortunately for the Report, it came out just before Gene Robinson was elected bishop. The vote to confirm would have to be taken up in the General Convention of 2003. This trumped the Report's recommendation. The cumulative effect of the various Church measures opening up ordination to open homosexuals and the landslide affirmation of Robinson as a bishop was to recognize homosexual behavior as morally neutral. The liberals won the war. They got both this and the ordinations. We all know what happened next. Five dioceses voted to leave TEC. 

The full inclusion of women and homosexuals into the life of the Episcopal Church came by action, by civil disobedience. The issues were presented to the Church which acted on them, and in the moment of crisis decided to approve both. 

In an ideal world, reasonable people can reach reasonable consensus agreements. Unfortunately, too often this cannot and does not work. Read Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail. So, good luck to the Church of England in reaching a consensus on marriage equality. At this point all the pro party is asking for is the blessing of same-sex unions in the Church. I am certain they will get at least this in time.

Civilization is moving toward full inclusion and rights for homosexual persons. GAFCON and Global South know they have lost the war. The GS and GAFCON primates' shrill denunciation of marriage equality of October 6, 2016, was just a desperate rear guard action. Same in the Diocese of South Carolina and the ayatollahs-of-Coming-Street's new Draconian decrees requiring everyone to sign oaths against marriage equality. Numerous Anglican provinces are moving inexorably toward marriage equality. Scotland appears to be next.

I especially recommend to you the Archbishop of Canterbury's eloquent statement on today's vote. Find it here . The Archbishop, who had just been humbled by his upstart clergy, conceded We need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. Amen. (South Carolinians will remember Bishop Lawrence's pre-schism crusade against "indiscriminate inclusivity.")

For the C of E official report on today's vote, find it here . For newspaper reports see here and here . 

Thinking Anglicans has the best guide to today's action. Find it here .