Is the Church of England homophobic? 13 August 2013
When Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, argued against the same-sex marriage bill in the House of Lords in June, many revisionists within the Church of England were deeply disappointed. Indeed, one Anglican priest was positively furious, to the extent that he provoked controversy by referring to Welby using a very derogatory term on Facebook, in addition to calling for a petition to be set up urging his resignation. Meanwhile, many traditionalists who may have had their suspicions that Welby was a “liberal” will have breathed a sigh of relief.
Many people on both sides of this debate tend to identify a clear dividing line. Those who oppose same-sex marriage see themselves as among those who believe (or even “know”) that homosexuality is wrong in all cases and at all times, as is indicated by the Bible and natural law. Meanwhile, those defending same-sex marriage identify with those who believe in the equal value of all human beings.
One of the most important implications of Welby’s speech in the House of Lords is that the debate is not nearly as simple. Opposition to same-sex marriage does not, in every case, arise from an absolute condemnation of homosexual relationships. Nor, it must be emphasised, does it constitute “homophobia”. Undoubtedly those who are homophobic do oppose same-sex marriage, but to argue that all who oppose same-sex marriage are homophobic is to undermine the very notion of homophobia, which refers to a specific aversion to gay people, and often results in discriminatory or abusive behaviour.
Whilst many will have reacted with either delight or anger over Welby’s defence of marriage as exclusively heterosexual, they will have overlooked the significance of his pre-amble. He in fact agreed “that stable and faithful same-sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity, and the same legal effect as marriage”.
This statement must be viewed with some perspective: the Church of England is divided over the issue of homosexuality. Among non-religious progressively minded people, it will merely be dismissed as an archaic and irrelevant institution as it still includes people who oppose homosexuality. But bearing in mind that these disagreements still exist, it takes a bold leader to make any claims at all about same-sex relationships.
It must also be remembered that the Church of England’s current official view is that homosexual relationships are not on a par with heterosexual relationships, nor in accordance with God’s Created Order, as is stated in the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality, produced by the House of Bishops.
Set in this light, Welby’s remarks about same-sex relationships are both bold, and comparatively progressive. It would be difficult for the leader of the Anglican communion to go as far as to support same-sex marriage when all of its traditional teachings on marriage regard this instutition as oriented towards procreation, and its official statements do not regard homosexual relationships as inferior to marriage. This does not, of course, mean that the Church of England can never support same-sex marriage; it simply means that it would be a very gradual process for that to be achieved. First, the Church of England would have to reach a consensus on same-sex relationships, before it can consider revising its position on same-sex marriage.
There are a few indicators that such a reconsideration might even happen. In the same speech in the House of Lords, Welby also stated that “the Church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should”, something which he referred to with evident conviction as a “considerable failure”, and over which he expressed “sadness and sorrow”. This indicates a level of regret over the Church’s historical treatment of gay people and couples. Combined with his indications upon his appointment to the post that he would reconsider his own views on homosexuality “prayerfully and carefully”, and his willingness to meet with Peter Tatchell earlier this year, there may be potential, albeit in very primitive stages, for a formal reconsideration of the issue.
In the meantime, as trying as it can be at times for those who believe in opening up to same-sex marriage, patience must be exercised. After all, it is a virtue – indeed, according to the New Testament, one of the fruits of the Spirit.
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