Savitri Hensman, writing in the Guardian, says Archbishop Justin Welby can follow up his appreciation for faithful gay relationships with “practical measures, he could strengthen the Church of England’s credibility in sharing the good news of God’s love for all.”
Welby was formerly a conservative evangelical with rigid views, but his openness to learning and growth has led him to value other traditions and re-examine his stance on sexuality. When his appointment was announced, he declared that “we must have no truck with any form of homophobia”, and pledged to “listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully”.
In his interview this week with Iain Dale on LBC radio, he went further. “I know plenty of gay couples whose relationships are an example to plenty of other people,” he stated. He would not suggest that the love between gay partners “is less than the love there is between straight couples, that would be a completely absurd thing to say”.
When asked if he would be open to discussion on government proposals for marriage equality, he replied: “We are always open to discussions.” But the historic teaching of the church, “and this is where I remember that I’ve got 80 million people round the world who are Anglicans, not just the one million in this country – has been that marriage in the traditional sense is between a man and woman for life”.
However, he added: “I think we need to find ways of affirming the value of the love that is in other relationships.”
There is much he could do, despite the restrictions of the Church of England’s official position on sexuality. This is under review and a report is due in late 2013, which may open the door to further progress.
The current stance, set out in 1991 by the house of bishops, recognises that Bible passages must be read in context, sexual orientation does not usually change and, among gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples, “there are those who grow steadily in fidelity and in mutual caring, understanding and support, whose partnerships are a blessing to the world”, and who achieve “heroic sacrifice and devotion”.
While celibacy is advised for those attracted to the same sex, it is recognised that some lay people may, in good conscience, take a different view: the church should be a welcoming place for them. Those who enter physically intimate partnerships should be encouraged to form faithful lifelong relationships. To avoid scandal and uphold church teaching, clergy should not have this freedom, according to the 1991 publication, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, but they should not face “intrusive interrogations”.
More theologians now recognise that same-sex partnerships can be morally right, including the lead author of Some Issues, as do most Anglicans in Britain. Yet, while many congregations are welcoming, some are not, and church leaders’ public statements alienate many LGBT people and their families and friends.
Welby could start by taking action to protect LGBT lay people in every parish, celibate or otherwise, from discrimination, and clergy from invasive questions. There are disturbing instances where people are made to feel unwelcome or humiliated and this should stop.