Queer Christians have always known that Church of England bishops are too powerful

I wrote this article for the i paper, who published it on 26 January 2023. I had intended to post it on here before now. Sorry for my delay!

I am not sure I can remember a time when the Church of England was not holding a consultation process on sexuality. These processes end with reports or statements that some expect will bring change. Inevitably, the amount of change they introduce varies between almost nothing and literally nothing.

Each time, queer Christians such as me are expected to be pathetically grateful for the crumbs we are thrown from the table. Thankfully, fewer people now seem prepared to do this. The bishops’ newly announced and morally nonsensical policy of blessing same-sex couples but not marrying them has been rightly dismissed by many LGBT+ Christians.

Despite the vital work that many churches do (for example) to support people affected by poverty and to speak up about climate change, churches have managed to give lots of people the impression that their main role in society is to be a bastion of homophobia.

We might wonder why the Church of England’s position matters. There are many faith groups in the UK already carrying out same-sex marriages. The Methodist and United Reformed Churches have recently taken this step after genuinely complex consultations. Quakers, Unitarians and the Metropolitan Community Churches were holding same-sex weddings before they were even recognised in law. The Baptist Union allows each Baptist church to decide for itself whether to marry same-sex couples. The trickle of those voting to do so is turning into a flood. Reform and Liberal Jews decided to marry same-sex couples several years ago.

The difference is that the Church of England is the established church – in England though not in the rest of the UK. Its bishops get to sit in the House of Lords. This makes the UK one of only two countries in the world in which religious leaders are given a vote on legislation. The other is Iran.

Not only is this undemocratic in a multifaith society, it also restricts the freedom of Anglicans to make their own decisions. It would require legislation in Parliament for the Church of England to solemnise same-sex marriages. If the thousands of Anglican priests who support LGBT+ equality were to ignore the bishops and start marrying same-sex couples tomorrow, the ceremonies would have no legal status. In contrast, Scottish Anglicans are carrying out same-sex marriages without needing a change in the law (the established Church of Scotland is Presbyterian rather than Anglican).

Marriage law is complicated, messy and in desperate need of a thorough overhaul. Perhaps the registration of a marriage with the state should be a separate process from any religious (or non-religious) ceremony, giving all faith groups greater freedom and contributing to equality in law.

Reading the New Testament, it seems clear to me that Jesus did not teach his followers to demand privileges for themselves that they deny to others. He practised solidarity with people who are poor, marginalised, stigmatised or abused. Church leaders need the confidence to give up their privileges and embrace the commitment to human equality exemplified by Jesus. If Anglican churches were allowed to make their own decisions about marriage in the way Baptist churches do, there would be Anglican same-sex marriages around the country in a matter of weeks.

I admit I am biased as a member of a Baptist church that recently voted to marry same-sex couples. Being bisexual, I am delighted that I can be married in my own church regardless of the gender of my partner. Our discussions leading up to this decision were deep, difficult and at times painful. I have seen how Christians at the grassroots can listen to each other and make decisions together. But even those of us in denominations that are less hierarchical than the Church of England can be too ready to rely on church leaderships instead of learning from each other as equals and acting on our convictions.

As church leaders lose their social status in a multifaith society, Christians have an opportunity to recognise that the future of Christianity does not lie in institutions but in grassroots movements inspired by Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus seems to have had little patience with the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps we should be ready to follow his example.

4 responses to “Queer Christians have always known that Church of England bishops are too powerful

  1. Amazing that you mention Jesus and his teaching and his example. When Jesus encountered sinners he told them to stop sinning. You seem to want to ignore this and rewrite what sin is. God has made it perfectly clear. What will it profit you to smash the church and sow tares amongst the wheat if on Judgement day God looks you in the eye and says “I told you No. What made you think I changed my mind, Simon?” It was Isaiah who said something like ‘Woe to them who says good is evil and evil is good’. Woe to you, Simon. Stop sinning. God gets to say what is ok and what’s not, in his view, not you.

    • Thanks for your comment. As you say, it is for God to judge me, but you seem pretty keen on judging me yourself. God can see into my heart. You can not.

      Jesus indeed challenges us all to stop sinning. Jesus brings good news – that God’s grace can save us from sin, whereas adherence to laws and rules cannot do so.

      You say that I want to ignore Jesus’ teaching and not to follow his example. Which of his teachings do you think I am ignoring? I suspect we may have different interpretations of some of Jesus’ teachings. I appreciate that you may think that my understanding is wrong, that is no reason to accuse me of ignoring sin.

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