Why gender and sexuality is an Anglican problem

Anglicanism, uniquely among the main Christian denominations in England, has not been able to make any progress on matters of sexuality and gender because of the way that these matters are treated nationally.  I will not consider Roman Catholicism here, because matters there are treated either globally from the Vatican or locally from a particular bishop.

In the Baptist church, the church model is congregationalism.  Individual congregations have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to believe and practise.  They come together in the Baptist union as an overarching model, but are independent of each other.  For example, if one congregation chooses to take a particular stance on the ministry of women, then it does not have to consider the impact on the Baptist congregation in the next village or their views. 

All Baptist churches in England have the right to register as premises for same sex marriages and are legally allowed to perform those weddings. In practice not many Baptist churches have decided to register, but whether or not a congregation chooses to do so would not be seen as a schismatic act.

Methodist churches have a different structure and work in circuits and districts.  Major decisions are taken by the annual Methodist conference.  Some delegates are elected to participate for one year, some for three years.  The chair of the conference changes annually.  This prevents the build-up on power by certain individuals, as does the fact that the laity places at Conference outnumber the clergy places.

When the 2021 annual conference decided to allow Methodist churches to perform same sex marriages in their churches, they did it in a way that moved forward by respecting conscience.  There had been a working party, the Marriage and Relations taskforce, that produced a report – God In Love Unites Us – available at The 2019 Marriage and Relationships report (methodist.org.uk)  This document was written to reflect the mind of the church, that the present position was no longer tenable, so it was written for the middle ground, looking at compromise and ways to move forward together. 

Each district was asked to study the report and the proposed resolutions and vote if they were in favour or not.  29 out of 30 districts voted in favour.  The annual conference passed the change.  It also passed a resolution condemning conversion therapy.  It is now up to each Methodist church or group of churches to decide if they wish to register to conduct same sex marriages.  They can decide as they wish, but no church is forced to do something it votes not to do.  Likewise the Methodist structure means that each church has a designated person to conduct marriages, who may be a lay person.  Conscience is respected, but movement forward can happen where it is wanted.

The Anglican church has taken a different approach.  It has been producing documents and resolutions and having working parties for around 50 years and is nowhere near a way forward.  Reading the major reports in sequence, it is very obvious how the material has become increasingly polarised.  The compromise positions of material like the Osborne report are missing from new material which favours the ‘some people think this and some people think that’ approach in more recent material.

By documenting position A and position Z and trying to show both sides of a debate, the middle position is lost.  Most people are not at position A or Z, but somewhere between B and Y.  The Church of England is moving away from the exploration of compromise positions or ones that will allow those of different views to move forward together.  The extremes will never be able to work together, let alone agree on something.

This perpetuation of polarised views just prolongs the debate and makes schismatic options more likely.  People feel they need to defend their position because the alternative is so unacceptably extreme in their view.  It is an all or nothing approach.  No other denomination has polarised the debate as the Anglican church has done, to the Church of England’s cost. 

The latest, Living in Love and Faith has taken the polarised approach too.  Each ‘side’ will find things that they find totally unacceptable and therefore are triggered to defend their views, and because of that they are not willing to find common ground or compromise. 

The Next Steps group of bishops has announced there will be a new resource entitled ‘The Gift of the Church’ to be published in September 2022.  Let’s hope those producing it can follow the lead of their Methodist colleagues and publish a less polarised document that does represent the mind of the church and allows us to move forward.  They could start by reading God in Love Unites Us.

Why inclusion is an Anglican problem

I was at a church talk earlier this week about inclusion, based on the work of Inclusive Church.  The church where the talk was being given was particularly  concerned with certain aspects of inclusion, such as hearing and sight loss, the provision of wheelchair accessible toilets, or even toilets in general, as well as provision for those who are neurodiverse.  It touched on visibility, use of websites, disability conference, resources etc.  All very helpful and with a lot of useful discussion and support.  Even ethnicity and women did not create a ripple.  Then someone mentioned sexuality…

The problem was not that those present had a problem with people having different sexualities, but they knew that if the church wanted to make moves towards being more visibly inclusive that they would get push back and opposition from other people and even other local churches who were opposed.  This is a peculiarly Anglican problem.  Denominations like the Baptists or the United Reform Church have a congregational understanding of many issues anyway and would see it as an internal matter.  The Methodists have agreed that there are some issues decided by their annual conference and then the individual circuits and churches can decide exactly how to proceed for themselves. 

Anglicanism does not accept that level of diversity.  It can certainly be argued that congregationalism is not an Anglican way of doing things, so there should be uniformity in what is done and taught.  Except that the Church of England has already made some very large exceptions to that already, where individual congregations can vote to diversify on certain matters.  For example, those with alternative episcopal oversight because they do not accept women priests or those who espouse male headship under the bishop of Maidstone.  Before that whether or not to allow the remarriage of those who had been divorced was left to the individual member of clergy who had a conscience opt out. 

There is already a great diversity of worship styles, from those who do not wear vestments and have a monthly communion service to those who have full robed choirs and clergy with several masses each week, and a whole spectrum in between.

Unfortunately, reasoned debate on inclusion and diversity in being hampered by an almost default belief in certain Anglican circles that somehow ‘inclusion’ is a secret codeword for ‘gay rights’ and a move towards inclusion would put them on a slippery slope to same sex marriage in church.  Consequently there is resistance to even the idea that a church should be moving towards more visible inclusion.

Inclusion is Biblical.  Nobody throws away their Bible to be inclusive.  It is about studying the Bible, particularly the ministry and teachings of Jesus and the early church.  Jesus went out of the temple to meet and eat with the marginalised where they were.  The early church went beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish people and admitted gentiles.  They instituted a new form of admission – baptism – that was open to anyone.  No longer was initiation to the faith just for men through circumcision.  Those who could not live up to the purity codes of Judaism could find a home in their faith in Jesus.

It is time that the contemporary church in this country caught up with the early church and recognised that the great commission was for everyone.  Inclusion is about everyone, not just those who have different sexualities.  If Samaritans could be included along with gentile widows, so can many of our excluded and marginalised groups.  Frankly, some in the Church of England need to stop trying to fight a non existent enemy.

Let’s see a church that truly wants to be inclusive.  One that is open and safe.  Not one that is obsessed with sexuality as the sole test of some sort of ideological purity.

How safe is your church?

Sunday October 10th is the Church of England’s first Safeguarding Sunday.  Some would consider this to be long overdue.    Giving a particular Sunday in the liturgical calendar for a specific theme is a way of signalling that the Church of England takes an issue seriously.  It sends a message of ‘pay attention to this’.

Unfortunately this message is too little and should have been done a long time ago.  It is the reality that many people do not feel safe in their places of worship.  Not just people who are LGBTQ+, but people who are vulnerable in other ways.  Women can have a particular vulnerability when male headship is preached and some domestic abuse is ‘justified’ by reference to the Bible.  It is true that ‘Bad Theology Kills’.

Feeling unsafe in a church starts with the preaching and goes through a lack of transparency to exclusion and othering.  How a church sees itself is fundamental to how it sees the church members and the community it serves.  Where a church embraces something like ‘faithful remnant’ theology or a theology that prioritises some people’s status in God above others, then it is a short step to treating some people as less than others and starts a slippery slope to abusive behaviour and language.

There are churches where the preaching is that being LGBTQ+ is a sin.  Preaching that as a certainty, rather than acknowledging the range of views on the subject can lead to the situation where anyone who is LGBTQ+ in that church has to adopt the ‘single and celibate’ position in order to remain in that church, albeit at the level of being tolerated rather than being fully part of the church.  Forcing people who are not called to celibacy to be single and celibate for life is harmful.  As human beings, made in the image of a loving Creator God, we are called to love.  Indeed ‘God is love’ but denying us the experience of loving others means it is an easy step to not loving yourself.  In Matthew 22.39 Jesus gave his second commandment of love, that we should ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.  If you are not allowed to love your neighbour because you are being taught that your capacity for love is a sin, then you cannot love yourself as God intended. 

Some churches can say that they welcome all people into their communities, but their idea of welcoming people who are LGBTQ+ is to encourage them to ‘put their sexuality under obedience to God’, in other words ‘to give up their gay lifestyle and go back to being straight’.  Also known as conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy needs to be banned by the government right now.  No more delays and consultations and certainly no religious exemptions.  The government has shown no hesitation in banning other harmful practices that are ‘justified’ on religious grounds, such as female genital mutilation.  Just because the harm is being done by Christians should not cause the government to hesitate or prevaricate. The recently published Copper report – available here The Cooper Report 2021 – Ozanne Foundation – has legal experts showing the government how to introduce the necessary legislation for a ban. 

But women are also at risk from bad theology. The recently published book The Bible doesn’t Tell Me So by Helen Paynter shows how selective and out of context Bible quotes are used to abuse women.   It shows that way that domestic abuse is ‘justified’ as ‘wives submitting to your husband’ with no understanding of the Biblical teaching to husbands on how they should treat their wives.  The theology of ‘no divorce’ is used to tell wives that they must not leave an abusive husband.  The Bible is rarely used to tell husbands that they must not be violent with their wives. 

Similarly a theology of male headship can be used to disempower women in a church.  It can justify patriarchal attitudes in church that would not be tolerated in a work place.  The line between patriarchy and misogyny can be a very thin line indeed.

The church needs to do better.  It needs to be a place where all people can feel safe.  It has to tackle bad, abusive theology and be willing to follow Jesus to create God’s kingdom on Earth, for all God’s people. 

Resources for Safeguarding Sunday can be found at  Support Safeguarding Sunday | The Church of England