Church of England’s General Synod gets underway, with questions about same-sex marriage looming

By Egan Millard
Posted Feb 6, 2023

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby delivers his opening address at General Synod in London on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo: Geoff Crawford/Church of England

[Episcopal News Service] Bishops, clergy and laity from across the Church of England gathered in London on Feb. 6 for the start of a particularly consequential meeting of General Synod, the church’s governing body. Among several topics being discussed, one is drawing attention from the British public and Anglicans around the world: the debate over how the church will recognize same-sex relationships.

After a yearslong process of discernment over whether to perform same-sex marriages – which have been legal in England since 2014 – the House of Bishops released a proposal in January to offer blessings, but not marriage, to same-sex couples. That decision has drawn backlash from many Anglicans and even some members of Parliament, who are considering legislation to force the English state church to offer same-sex couples the same access to marriage that they have under civil law.

In his opening address to the meeting, which runs through Feb. 9, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby did not speak at length specifically about the proposed liturgies or the impact they have already had, but urged all Christians to welcome LGBTQ+ people unequivocally.

“To those driven into doubt, or disbelief by the raucous hammering at each other in all our churches around the world … which seems to reject people for their sexual identity … we must say, ‘God himself has come for you. God himself cannot bear to be apart from you. He binds himself to you. He invites you to participate in his divine life and he sets you in his church where all have a cherished and essential place.”

However, he also referred to the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel to criticize the use of language for “the imposition of one’s will, the means to bring coercion and dominance,” and suggested that unity for its own sake is not always ideal

“They want to make a name for themselves, and so choose to attempt self-created unity. They do it not with mutual love, but by coercion,” Welby summarized. “We constantly face this temptation – to make something of ourselves, or to seek to impose our own unity through rules, hierarchies and structures which become a way of controlling others.”

In proposing the new prayers that celebrate same-sex relationships – titled “Prayers of Love and Faith” – the bishops wrote that the church’s centuries-old teaching of marriage as the union of a man and woman had not changed. Since it is the introduction of a liturgical resource and not a change in church doctrine, it does not technically need synod’s approval to go into effect, some bishops and observers have noted.

However, Bishop of London Sarah Mullally will introduce a motion on Feb. 8 to “welcome” the bishops’ proposal for the new prayers, as well as their commitment to revise the church’s rules for clergy’s personal lives, which currently require all LGBTQ+ clergy to be celibate. The motion also includes an apology to LGBTQ+ people for mistreatment by the church.

Synod member and LGBTQ+ advocate Jayne Ozanne told the Church Times that she will introduce an amendment to that motion in protest. The amendment would call on the bishops to “end discrimination on the grounds of sexuality by bringing forward immediate legislation to provide for equal marriage in church for review” at synod’s next meeting in July.

When the detailed proposal for the liturgies was released, Welby said he would not personally use them due to his role as the ceremonial head of the Anglican Communion, which is facing its own internal divisions over LGBTQ+ issues. The Anglican Communion is made up of autonomous, interdependent churches that have historic roots in the Church of England. Welby has been criticized by some conservative bishops in other Anglican provinces for being too accommodating of churches that allow same-sex marriage, including The Episcopal Church; some have threatened to leave the communion based on Welby’s actions, though the Church of England’s internal policies have no effect on other Anglican provinces.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at