Tensions flare at Church of England General Synod over plan for blessings of same-sex couples

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 10, 2023
General Synod panel

Church of England leaders speak July 9 at General Synod about their efforts to develop a plan for offering blessings to same-sex married couples, as seen in a General Synod video of the session.

[Episcopal News Service] With the Church of England’s General Synod underway July 7-11 in York, the continuing debate over blessing same-sex married couples took center stage in a weekend session that revealed lingering tensions over the church’s shifting approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

The afternoon discussion on July 9 was billed as an “informal update” on a February vote, in which General Synod accepted its bishops’ plan to allow priests and congregations to bless gay and lesbian couples who already are married under British civil law. The Anglican province’s plan to offer blessings does not include liturgies for same-sex couples to marry in Anglican churches in England.

Since February, groups of church leaders have met to begin developing prayers and pastoral guidance to facilitate the plan, referred to as “Living in Love and Faith,” but they do not expect to have a plan in place sooner than the next scheduled General Synod meeting in November, fueling complaints about perceived delays in the process. General Synod is the Church of England’s primary governing body.

The groups have faced challenges “in trying to give expression to the resolution that this Synod passed in February,” Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen said in introducing the discussion at General Synod, partly because of the “diversity of views” across the church.

Bishop of London Sarah Mullally summarized the recent history of the church’s efforts to welcome LGBTQ+ people more fully, particularly through a churchwide discernment process called “Living in Love and Faith” that launched in 2017. Mullaly alluded to church fault lines between Anglicans advocating for policies more aligned with secular British values and conservative Anglicans who worry the church is straying from its traditional beliefs. Those fault lines became even more apparent after the February vote. Same-sex marriage has been legal in England under civil law since 2014.

“I know that some of you will believe that we are dragging our feet. Others will still feel that we are moving too quickly,” Mullally said. “However, I still feel that this is about discerning in an environment of uncertainty and disagreement, and therefore the best timelines are not always fixed. What I believe is that we need to get this right, rather than get it done quickly.”

Mounstephen and Mullally, as co-chairs of the steering group that is overseeing the process, also submitted a written update on Living in Love and Faith that can be accessed here. Additional coverage of General Synod can be found at the Church Times.

The Church of England’s move to offer same-sex blessings has been closely watched by leaders across the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces. The Anglican Communion is made up of autonomous, interdependent churches that have historic roots in the Church of England. Some provinces, including the United States-based Episcopal Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church, have approved marriage rites for same-sex couples, though this is still rare in most other provinces.

Conservative Anglican bishops, particularly those from the region known as the Global South, have strongly objected to General Synod’s February vote, saying that because of it, they could no longer accept the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s role as a historic “focus of unity” in the Anglican Community.

Some LGBTQ+ Anglicans, on the other hand, have called the England bishops’ proposal for blessings insulting. They say the change leaves in place the Church of England’s other teachings on marriage and sex that marginalize the lives and relationships of gay and lesbian couples.

The prayers under development would invite God’s blessing on a couple’s committed life together. They include rites that resemble marriage in the profession of lifelong commitment, though the word “marriage” is never used. In describing the prayers, bishops have acknowledged that some of the relationships being blessed will be those of sexually active gay couples, who would be violating the church’s teaching that sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage.

Tensions were evident during synod’s July 9 question-and-answer session. Some questioned whether the church was still moving too slowly – or, on the flip side, too quickly to accomplish a solution. One speaker lamented a general lack of trust in the process. Another suggested the views of the church’s laity had been overlooked or disregarded.

Other questions centered on core, and sometimes opposing, theological beliefs, raising the possibility that such profound disagreements cannot be adequately reconciled.

Jayne Ozanne, an LGBTQ+ activist, expressed fatigue at having to again defend herself and others like her simply for being who they are.

“The world out there looks in and shakes its head and doesn’t understand what on Earth we’re getting ourselves into such a twist about. People like me exist; we’re not going anywhere,” Ozanne said. “Some of us, sadly, have actually left the church, but most of us believe that God has called us to be witnesses, to be the grit in the oyster that tries to shape the church into something that truly believes in the love of God for all.”

Later in the session, Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson-Wilkin expressed her own exasperation with what she saw as the church’s disproportionate focus on sexual relations and its perpetuation of anti-LGBTQ+ doctrines.

“My brothers and sisters, my heart is breaking listening and hearing this kind of conversation when there are real issues out there in our world,” Hudson-Wilkin said, while also noting the church’s double standards toward heterosexual and same-sex couples seeking to marry.

“I want all people to be able to walk in and to receive God’s grace,” she said. “Can we make sure that, at the end of the day, God’s love is what is on the table and that we do not allow people to feel that they are less than human?”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.