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.