Homosexual behavior will remain a sin for the Church of England for now, the House of Bishops declared in a document entitled: Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage scheduled for release on 15 February 2014. However, the bishops stated the church also believed that those experiencing same-sex attractions were beloved by God and were not to be dismissed out of hand as sinners despised by the church.
Set against the swiftly changing social landscape of England, the document seeks to remind the church of the virtue of chastity and the need to regulate sexual appetites in accordance with right reason, the revelation of Scripture and God’s design for mankind.
The introduction later this year of same-sex marriages in England, however, made it incumbent upon the church to clarify the practical aspects of what was permitted, what was not, and why.
The statement dated 15 February 2014 upholds the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality and reaffirms the Anglican Communion’s understanding of human sexuality is articulated in statement 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
The bishops further noted that they would not sanction clergy entering into same sex marriages nor would they permit those who had contracted same-sex marriages to enter the ordained ministry.
The statement appears in two parts: a letter to the Church of England from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and an appendix from the House of Bishops on the Church of England’s Teaching on Marriage.
The archbishops noted the House of Bishops was “not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church’s response” but was united in stating the “Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.”
The archbishops sought to distinguish between the church’s teaching authority on the moral issues surrounding same-sex marriage and the pastoral needs of Christians who experienced same-sex attractions.
The church was not saying the experiences of those living in same-sex relationships had no value, the archbishops said, noting that “same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity …. two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage.”
However, the presence of these virtues in same-sex relationships and in Christian marriage did not mean the two states possessed the same moral sanction. The church committed itself to paying “particular attention to the lived experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.”
But it also believed the “Christian understandings of sexuality” also had a place in “our society’s conversation about human flourishing.”
The pastoral guidance provided by the bishops forbad clergy from solemnizing same-sex weddings or gay civil unions. Partnered same-sex couples would be welcome to worship in the Church of England and there would be no bar to the baptism of their children.
Clergy could also offer private pastoral support to those who had entered into same-sex marriages but “any prayer” offered to such couples “will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching” along with a questioning of the couple for “their reasons for departing from it.”
Reaction to the statement from gay rights campaigners was swift and harsh. The Rev Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude told the Telegraph the document was a “dog’s breakfast.”
“Many inside the Church know perfectly well that significant numbers of bishops already break the guidelines [by ordaining non celibate gay clergy]…. The reality is that dishonesty and hypocrisy is becoming more and more apparent,” he said.