The idea is not to reach agreement – 30 years of wrangling have established that this is quite impossible – but to try to bring people on both sides of the debate to see their opponents as fellow Christians. Conservative evangelicals have denounced the scheme as an attempt to manipulate opinion, which of course it is. The question is whether it will work.
What’s new about this approach is that the manipulation that Justin Welby’sstrategists have in mind is not to be carried out from the top down. It is hoped that the process of facilitated conversations will allow the church’s activists gathered in the synod to take note of the social changes that are happening in their own congregations and their own families, where acceptance of gay people is becoming much more common.
This week a book of evangelical reflections on sexuality was published in which the bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev Paul Bayes, announced he had been “profoundly changed” by encounters with lesbian and gay Christians in his own family. The former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who was a tireless campaigner against the recognition of practising gay Christians in the 1990s, told a journalist last year that he had attended a gay wedding. Services of blessing, very hard to distinguish from marriage services except to the eye of a church lawyer, are quietly spreading through the Church of England.
None of this will soften the hardcore of conservative evangelical resistance to change, and it may indeed harden it. But Welby’s strategy is becoming clear: he may not be able to change the church’s official doctrine, but he can hope to minimise the threatened formal split by softening and dividing the evangelical vote. That seems to have been the process that he personally went through: 15 years ago he was a hardline evangelical vicar, but he wrote after the massacre in Orlando this month that “as Christians we must speak out in support of LGBTI people … We must pray, weep with those affected, support the bereaved, and love without qualification.”
The plan is that the conversations in the synod will be followed by an agreed statement on sexuality from the bishops, which will open the way to a more open acceptance of gay people in the congregation by making the issue one on which Christians can disagree in good faith. At that point, perhaps two years off, some of the genuinely homophobic congregations will leave, as they have been scheming to do for years. But if that number can be restricted to 20 or 30, the organisers will consider they have won.
A more even split would reflect the balance of opinion within the church at the moment, but in the opinion of one of Welby’s strategists would lead to a disaster for both halves of the divided church, which would each shrivel into insignificance.
In the wake of the Orlando Massacre of LGBTI people in Florida, the Archbishop of Canterbury is requesting the Church of England, at its forthcoming General Synod in July, to empathise with this significant minority in the Church, His plea for tolerance is here expressed in this article by Andrew Btown in the Guardian:
” Welby’s strategy is becoming clear: he may not be able to change the church’s official doctrine (re the binary basis of Marriage), but he can hope to minimise the threatened formal split by softening and dividing the evangelical vote. That seems to have been the process that he personally went through: 15 years ago he was a hardline evangelical vicar, but he wrote after the massacre in Orlando this month that “as Christians we must speak out in support of LGBTI people … We must pray, weep with those affected, support the bereaved, and love without qualification.”
In the light of British society’s new openness towards the efficacy of Same-Sex Marriage – and, in other Anglican Churches (The Episcopal Churches of the U.S. and Scotland) towards this prospect of accommodation of Same-Sex relationships being Blessed in their Churches – the Church of England may find itself under pressure to do something positive about the provision of a rite of public affirmation of Same Sex couples in its congregations. How General Synod deals with the outcome of its ‘Conversations on Human Sexuality’ at the G.S. Meeting will obviously influence the prospects for future unity in the Church of England.
However, it is important to recognise that this outcome for the Church of England – like the British decision to leave the European Union will affect its relationships with other European countries – will have some ongoing effects on other Churches of the Anglican Communion. In fact, decisions made at the C. of E. General Synod may well become a catalyst for the re-orientation of its filial relationships with other Churches of the Communion – especially those of the Global South, some of which (the Gafcon members)) have expressed their solidarity with one another in opposing the inclusion of LGBTI people in their Churches.
Out prayers go up – that God’s sovereign will be done in this important matter!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand