At the beginning of the month, the Scottish Episcopal Church announced that 6 of its 7 dioceses have voted in favour of changing their rules on marriage to allow same-sex marriage in church. This was the second of three stages in changing church rules, and the final step will be put before their General Synod in June. If the proposal gets a 2/3rd majority, then the Anglican Church in Scotland will be the first part of the UK to marry same-sex couples, whilst also protecting clergy who in good conscience feel they cannot embrace this.
Then Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Chelmsford) addressed his Diocesan Synod on 11th March calling directly for services of thanksgiving for LGBT couples in the Church of England. “There is no reason why prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships cannot be offered” quoting Genesis 2 that “It is not good for human beings to be alone.” For a Diocesan Bishop to make such an unequivocal statement to his Diocese is a major step forward.
But then, just as light appears to be breaking, it appears that bishops in the Church in Wales have vetoed an openly gay man in a celibate Civil Partnership from being appointed Bishop of LLandaff. This is especially shocking as the Church in Wales has been among the most supportive Anglican province of LGBT people in the past.
According to a letter published by Jeffrey John, whose appointment was blocked, the reason was anti-gay discrimination. Despite unanimous support for Jeffrey among the appointed representatives for the Diocese of Llandaff, and a reminder by the presiding bishop that being in a Civil Partnership was not a bar to appointment, 2 of the 5 Bishops objected to his appointment on the grounds of his sexuality, effectively blocking the appointment. In his letter Jeffrey John notes that, “This is the way that anti-gay discrimination always works.”
Indeed, such discrimination is nothing new in his experience. In 2003, Jeffrey John was forced to withdraw from being appointed Bishop of Reading by the then Archbishop of Canterbury because of his sexuality. In 2010, substantive leaks followed the process of appointing a new Bishop of Southwark. One of the members of the appointing group (the CNC) died the following year, and his daughter made his account of the meeting public. Jeffrey John’s appointment had been blocked by a ‘bad tempered Archbishop’ who left a number of the members of the CNC in tears.
After the appointment of Nicholas Chamberlain to be Bishop of Grantham last year, and the subsequent revelation that he was in a long term same sex relationship, it appeared that change had finally come. Current events have shown that to be a false dawn.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue…
Words can only be believed if they are backed up by action. For all the warm statements about LGBT people being welcome in Anglican churches, about saying sorry for the way they have been treated in the past, and about opposing homophobia in all its forms, Jeffrey John’s treatment has shown that some things have not changed.
Jayne Ozanne, former Director of Accepting Evangelicals has referred to this as institutional homophobia. It’s the kind of homophobia that comes from an institutional culture rather than a bigoted individual.
It also demonstrates the difference between ‘saying sorry’ and true repentance. Saying sorry is an expression of regret, but Christian repentance involves a change of direction. It involves a desire and a commitment to do things differently in the future. Sadly, the Church of Wales has fallen short of this standard and its actions speak louder than its words.
For the Anglican churches in the UK to genuinely redefine themselves in relation to LGBT+ people, it is repentance that is needed. It is a willingness to change the habits of a lifetime and not to fall back into well-worn ways of thinking. Otherwise each small step forward will be followed by a long stride back.