Church of England must make progress on LGBT+ rights

by Jeremy Pemberton | Church of England
Monday, 4 March 2019 10:52 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

True LGBT+ inclusion and equality in the Church of England are a long way off

Jeremy Pemberton is a former canon in the Church of England who, in 2014, became the first priest to marry his same-sex partner

This has been a strange few weeks in which to be LGBT+ and a member of the Church of England. The bishops of the church have commissioned a process called “Living in Love and Faith”. This will, according to its website, produce “resources that will help bishops” lead others in thinking about “what it means to be holy in a society in which understandings and practices of gender, sexuality and marriage continue to change”.

It is a slow process involving many experts and a report is expected in time for the global Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops next year.

In a meeting last month of the General Synod, which governs the Church of England, the project called for people to work against prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, lying and the use of power against LGBT+ people in churches.

All fine words. But what is the reality?

Looking positively first, gay and transgender people in the Church of England can be members of a congregation and join parish electoral rolls and stand for parochial offices.

They are also permitted to sing in the choir, ring the bells, do the flowers and be a part of study, prayer or teaching groups. They may also find that they are loved and accepted by the parish in many parts of the country.

However, on the flipside, they may also find that their gender identity or sexuality is never mentioned even in abstract terms and that their partners or loved ones are airbrushed out.

Certain churches might also prevent them from performing certain tasks, for example, working with children, because they are LGBT+. They might also discover that their vicar is unsympathetic if they come out to them.

Many might also find that there is no explicit advertising in their church that makes a welcome for gay and trans people obvious and that some same-sex couples find it hard to have children baptised.

In instances, some LGBT+ might have been refused communion. And finally that there is explicit teaching in some places about sinful same-sex relationships.

Therefore there are a few ground rules for those who sense a vocation to ministry. First, when offering for ordination they may well be treated sympathetically, but their reception will depend on each diocesan policy.

Second, that colleges try to accommodate and care for LGBT+ ordinands and that initial training placements (curacies) are mostly handled sensitively.

They will also be expected to train and be ordained in accordance with a 1991 House of Bishops statement that makes clear that clergy should not be in sexually active same-sex relationships. Bluntly put, this means they will have to either live in a celibate relationship, or pretend they are doing so.

They will not have the choice to marry and minister, and those clergy in same-sex couples who marry will not be employed or allowed to take services even on an occasional basis because of the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidelines of 2014.

Finally, clergy in civil partnerships will be able to find employment in some dioceses subject to the restrictions noted above and the policy of the individual bishop.

In conclusion, everyone needs to remember certain fundamental facts that underpin who the Church of England operates.

At the base of everything is the rule that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and this is the only approved context for sexual relations. Yet despite this, the church has accommodated divorce and has many divorced and remarried bishops and clergy; indeed divorce is no longer a bar to remarriage in church or to taking Holy Communion.

The Church of England fought successfully for exemptions to the Equality Act 2010. No same-sex couple can legally be married in a Church of England church, and it will require parliamentary legislation to change that.

The church still discriminates nationally and locally against LGBT+ people and shows no sign of wanting to give up the special privileges that allow it to do so legally.

The truth is simple: true inclusion and equality are a long way off.

This is the reality and this is the checklist against which we will measure progress. Not the fine words and phrases of a House of Bishops project group.