The Church of England has reached a turning point on gay marriage

Inclusion doesn’t represent the weakening of tradition, but the fraying of evangelical control

February 22, 2017
Activists from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement outside the General Synod at Church House in London, where a Church of England report on same sex marriage is due to be discussed ©Dominic Lipinski PA Wire/PA Images
Activists from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement outside the General Synod at Church House in London, where a Church of England report on same sex marriage is due to be discussed ©Dominic Lipinski PA Wire/PA Images

“Church of England could split over homosexuality” is a headline that occurs with the reassuring regularity of the shipping forecast. As with the boy who cried wolf, we hardly listen any more. But last week’s vote in the General Synod, in which the clergy voted against a bishops’ report that said only a man and woman can marry in church, is a genuine turning point.

The Economist followed a well-trodden path by presenting what happened as the triumph of modern liberalism over a “traditional” Christian view of marriage. It’s more illuminating to turn this view on its head. In effect, clergy rebels returned the Church of England to the position it had reached in the 1980s before it was diverted into a “family values” agenda—one which owes more to modern culture wars and the rise of fundamentalism than to tradition.

Traditionally, Christianity has supported vastly different kinds of family structure and taken a rather grudging view of sex and marriage as second-best to celibacy. The Church of England was founded on reason and tradition, not just the Bible, and was embedded in the universities and other institutions of learning. It has been a societal Church for the whole nation, not a sectarian one for purists.

By the 1960s the Church was, not for the first time, rethinking its attitude to the family and sexuality. Like its cousins, the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, it had accepted contraception, played a role in the liberalisation of the law allowing divorce (1969), and was reconsidering its position on “gays.” In response to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, a Church working group chaired by the Bishop of Gloucester recommended modest reform.

Looking askance at these developments was a cadre of male conservative evangelicals with close links to American fundamentalism. Many of its leaders were trained by the Iwerne Trust, a charity which ran holiday camps in the 1970s and 1980s. Iwerne recruited boys from the top public schools and prepared them to enter the Church and parliament to spread their influence. Archbishop Justin Welby, an Etonian, was one of their number. The Trust hit the headlines this month for allegedly covering up grooming and physical abuse by John Smyth.

Then in 1970 something happened which inadvertently played into the hands of this movement: the creation of “General Synod.” Before then, parliament had oversight of Church affairs and kept things under democratic control. The Synod broke this centuries-old tie between the Church and society, and offered the perfect stage for religious enthusiasts of all hues.

The coup came in 1987. A report was being prepared which would call for greater acceptance of homosexuality in the Church, but in wider society there was growing panic over Aids. The conservative evangelicals saw their moment. A motion proposed by Tony Higton, an Essex vicar, which said that sex should only take place between a married man and woman, and that “homosexual genital acts” should be repented was passed by the Synod.

In the decades that followed, the “Higton motion” was given a massive fillip by the increasingly networked and well-organized opponents of “gays and liberals” across the Anglican Communion. From Lagos to Texas they threatened to leave if their views were ignored. After he became Archbishop in 2002, even Rowan Williams, who had previously written a powerful theological defence of homosexuality, wobbled and changed his mind.

Despite these developments in central Church circles, the views of the English, including the roughly one-third who still identified as “CofE,” continued to move steadily in the opposite direction. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2013 sealed the shift. Recent polling finds that more Anglicans are now in favour of same-sex marriage than against. My own surveys show that many CofE evangelicals, including many evangelical clergy and so-called “conservatives,” agree.

So the Synod vote last week is a sign not of the weakening of tradition, but of the fraying of conservative evangelical control. What’s startling for the bishops is to find themselves on the wrong side of the moral debate. They had presented themselves as defenders of Christian ethics, but find themselves reflected in their opponents’ eyes as defenders of the indefensible.

This is Justin Welby’s most testing moment as Archbishop. Given his background, he could become the conservative reformer who leads a cross-party consensus to return the Church to the path it had been following before the 1980s. His best hope is to follow the example of the Church of Scotland and approve a “mixed economy” in which clergy and parishes are free to follow their consciences on the gay issue. But to do so he will have to abandon his previous stance, overturn his bishops’ report, and risk a walkout by opponents across the Communion. His predecessor Rowan Williams decided not to take the risk. The difference this time is that it is those in favour of the inclusion of gay people who are calling the shots and claiming to speak in the name of Christian tradition and values.