MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — Bishops from the Church of England have approved the start of “facilitated conversations” on sexuality following a report recommending that gay couples should be permitted to celebrate their relationships in churches.
A Jan. 27 statement by the Church of England’s College of Bishops said that no change in the church’s traditional teaching on marriage would be “proposed or envisioned.”
But the 90 bishops of the college left the door open to relaxing the rules on the parish-based celebration of same-sex relationships by saying that the church’s liturgical practice remains unchanged “during this process of facilitated conversation” — without suggesting what might happen when the two-year process was concluded.
“We recognize the very significant change in social attitudes to sexuality in the United Kingdom in recent years,” the statement noted.
“We are united in acknowledging the need for the church to repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and affirming the need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever and whenever it is to be found,” it added.
It also acknowledged that the Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, published in November, was the subject of “strongly held and divergent views” across the entire Anglican Communion and within the Church of England and said the conversations were partly about reducing tensions.
“We acknowledge that one of the challenges we face is to create safe space for all those involved to be honest about their own views and feelings. This has not always happened and it must do so in the future,” the statement said.
“We recognize that we will not all agree and that this process is, in part, committed to seeking good disagreement that testifies to our love for one another across the church in obedience to Christ,” it said.
The bishops have effectively accepted the key recommendation of report — known as the Pilling Report because it was chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling — that facilitated conversations will go ahead. They said that in May they will begin to prepare materials and a plan for the process.
“We accept the recommendation of the Pilling Report that the subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would be addressed by facilitated conversations, ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level … to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture,” the bishops said in their January statement.
Their statement is ambiguous on public services for same-sex couples recommended by the Pilling Report, which had advised that no formal liturgy should be drawn up for such event, and is silent on the suggestion in the report that gay clergy should not be obliged to live celibate lifestyles.
Factions within the Church of England are hoping that the planned conversations will ultimately result in gay blessings in churches, then gay marriages and the appointments of sexually active gay and lesbian priests and bishops.
Neither the Catholic Communications Network of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales nor Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, co-chairman of Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, were available for comment when approached by Catholic News Service Jan. 28 and Jan. 29.
The Rev. Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, a group working for the “full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people” in the Anglican Communion, told CNS Jan. 29 he thought the statement was “striving to hold the line” between conservatives and liberals.
“What interests me about this statement is what is missing from it rather than what is there,” he said. “They (the bishops) are looking over their shoulders the whole time rather than looking at the truth and the future.
“The future in this country is quite clear. It is things like ‘equal marriage,'” he said.
But some bishops have warned the faithful that the issue could tear apart the Anglican Communion.
The statement by the College of Bishops came a week after Lord (George) Carey of Clifton, a former archbishop of Canterbury, warned the Church of England of the risk of breaking up over gay marriage.
Lord Carey, who stepped down as Anglican leader in 2002, said in a homily at a service for Christian unity that the Anglican church was being “shaken by seismic shifts and changes as a result of disagreements on ministry, marriage and human sexuality.”
“We must not allow ourselves to fracture under the colossal weight of dancing to the world’s agenda,” he said.
Speaking just minutes before the Jan. 19 event , in Chester, England, Lord Carey said the words “world’s agenda” referred to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013, which will legalize gay marriages in Britain beginning in March.
“This puts pressure on the church, or will put pressure on the church at some point, to offer rites of marriage to those who are in same-sex relationships,” he said. “Obviously, I would disapprove of that — but the pressure is on so many churches to do that.”