The Guardian view on the C of E and same-sex marriage: kicking the can down the road | Editorial

The Guardian view on the C of E and same-sex marriage: kicking the can down the road

The move towards blessings for civil unions is a step forward. But next month’s General Synod will be fraught

The archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell

During a Lambeth Palace press conference last week, the archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, told the sad story of a close friend who failed to smuggle a reading from the Song of Songs into his civil partnership ceremony. Prevented from marrying his same-sex partner in church, the priest in question was also banned from expressing his faith in a secular context.

New recommendations on same-sex relationships, just published by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, hopefully herald an end to such cruel absurdities. After a tortured process of reflection and debate, the bishops have proposed that clergy should be allowed to bless civil unions in church should they choose to do so – as is the case in Wales. A ban on same-sex civil marriages for clergy will also be reviewed, along with celibacy requirements that have fostered corrosive suspicion at parish level. Mr Cottrell was justified last week in describing these proposals – to be discussed at next month’s General Synod – as a “real step forward” in the journey towards recognition for LGBTQ+ Christians.

Nevertheless, progress towards true equality remains painfully, unacceptably slow. And there are signs that Lambeth Palace’s instinct to seek compromise solutions at all costs is misreading the room, both inside and outside the church. By sanctioning “blessings”, but refusing to allow same-sex weddings in church, the House of Bishops presumably hoped to maintain a fragile equilibrium. Instead, its recommendations have merely antagonised all sides of the debate in equal measure.

Progressive Anglicans have naturally condemned the decision to continue to treat LGBTQ+ believers as second-class members of the church. Theological conservatives see the prospective blessings as the thin end of the wedge, and an assault on scripture-based orthodoxy. As they prepare to dig in, there may eventually be a clash between the established church and parliament over canon law, unless it catches up with equality legislation.

It is a mess that requires decisive leadership rather than prevarication. But in the spirit of kicking the can down the road, the bishops have committed to undertaking yet another review of the issue in five years’ time. It is possible that by then the two-thirds majority needed to change canon formularies might be more achievable. But as the former second church estates commissioner Tony Baldry has pointed out, a precedent for more radical reform already exists in plain sight. Despite fierce conservative opposition during the 1980s and 90s, Anglican clergy are now free to choose whether or not to marry couples in which one or both partners are divorced. In the case of same-sex marriage, priests should be granted the same power of discretion.

Faced with falling congregations and a financial crisis, the Church of England desperately needs to finally resolve and move on from this rancorous and toxic debate. In a YouGov poll earlier this year, more than half of self-identified Anglicans backed same-sex marriage. In the country at large, there is no longer even a debate to be had. Among younger people in particular, the Church of England’s reputation risks irreparable damage from the ongoing controversy.

At next month’s synod, an amendment to the bishops’ recommendations will be tabled, calling for immediate legislation to provide for equal marriage in church. Assuming it is discussed, this would be the first such debate in synodal history. But sadly, it almost certainly won’t be the last.