Social critic Bethel McGrew shares her thoughts on recent proposals by the House of Bishops to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages
Sandi Toksvig would like Archbishop Justin Welby to come out. No, not like that. She explains what she means in a new short video message, recorded shortly after a coffee date with the bishop – a tea date, strictly, because this is all very English. They made the date last summer, when the broadcaster wrote to express her anger that Welby had reaffirmed the Church’s 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution on the sinfulness of gay acts. A lesbian herself, Toksvig minced no words in condemning the bishop’s choice to uphold, in her eyes, a hateful, bigoted theology that has long passed its social expiration date. Welby immediately replied that he would love to sit down and talk things through with Sandi over a nice cuppa.
Fast-forward to January 2023: Things are beginning to shift, but still not fast enough for Sandi. Indeed, liberals like her are enjoying a rare moment of unity with their conservative counterparts, as everyone joins hands and comes together to agree that the Church’s choice to bless gay couples without formally marrying them is yet another classic Church of England fudge: resolving absolutely nothing, pleasing absolutely no one. To quote Peter McGraith, half of Britain’s first married gay couple: “The Archbishop cannot be all things to all Anglicans.”
Nevertheless, Welby persists, announcing that while he is pleased with the compromise, he will personally not be using the new same-sex blessings going forward, because he wants to remain a “figure of unity” for the Church. This indicates that he does in fact understand this “compromise” tilts decidedly in one direction over the other. Otherwise, why would he consider it less than perfectly “unifying” for him personally to carry it out?
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Not far enough?
Over tea with Toksvig, he was deferential and apologetic, attempting to reassure her that the Church is “moving forward,” just not at a pace that will please her. In response, she pressed him that now is the moment to stand up and say the quiet part out loud. The new “compromise” rests on a distinction without a difference, after all.
The spokesman for the Global South has likewise minced no words in declaring that the Church of England will place itself outside the Anglican communion if the new compromise is accepted at next month’s General Synod. So, Sandi wonders, why not lead by example? Why not cut to the chase and openly embrace the fact that the good ship CofE is charting a leftward course, and thereby, from Sandi’s perspective, “come out for love”?
The Archbishop of Canterbury is free to make his choice here, as others are free to draw their own conclusions about it. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of York does plan to perform these new rituals and enthusiastically looks forward to a future where the Church has departed even more explicitly from a biblical sexual ethic. He is “really pleased” that things are “changing” for his gay friends, even if it’s “not enough” for some, for which he is very sorry.
Oxford bishop Stephen Croft made his own similar position clear in a 52-page pamphlet last November, dubiously titled ‘Together in Love and Faith’. He used to come down on the conservative side of the question, but he has since changed his mind. Significantly, the pamphlet’s first half is a pure argument from emotion, only turning midway through to what scripture might have to say about it.
Croft then proceeds to recycle various revisionist talking points, admitting that while passages like Romans 1 do unambiguously forbid gay sex, they reflect the “science and knowledge” of their time, which have since “moved on”. He reminds us that this has happened with evolution and cosmology after all, as we’ve learned, among other things, that “Earth is not at the centre of the Universe”. (Biblical citation to the contrary not included.)
Croft does acknowledge, briefly, that for all the “pain” caused to LGBT people who seek full affirmation of their lifestyles, there is another group of people who will be left in just as much “pain” by liberal compromise: same-sex attracted Christians who struggle with the burden of their own unwanted desires, yet are committed to chastity and biblical fidelity in their own personal walk with Christ. What is to become of them if the Church “progresses” leftward? Croft murmurs some sympathetic words, then quickly moves on. But their simple presence makes all his arguments from “pain” ring hollow, for “pain” is unavoidable no matter what. It’s just that in the final analysis, some people’s pain must inevitably count less than others’.
Already too far
Vaughan Roberts, rector of St. Ebbe’s in Oxford, wrote a response pamphlet to Croft that has almost the same title, plus a question mark: ‘Together in Love and Faith?’ Roberts is open about his own experience of same-sex attraction, though he carefully declines to identify himself as a ‘gay Christian’. His pamphlet is polite, perhaps to a fault, full of warm words for Bishop Croft that describe the dispute as “a debate between Christians” which both men have “sought to engage…Christianly”. Nevertheless, in a meeting where Croft expressed a desire to go on “pastoring” all the priests under him, Roberts recalls that he found himself blurting out: “But you can’t pastor me!”
Roberts’ personal integrity is commendable as he seeks to lead the Church by example in faithful chastity. Like many good CofE pastors, he is now being forced to shepherd souls while picking up the pieces of an ungodly mess – literally. But with all due respect, I would submit that the CofE is in its current state partly because too many conservatives have been too willing for too long to treat this issue as “a debate between Christians”. Perhaps Roberts is quietly beginning to feel this, even as he still strains hard to make gestures of good faith in the liberal clergy’s direction – gestures which, at this point in time, are not only unnecessary but actively unhelpful.
And it’s been a very long debate, indeed. None of the arguments currently being trotted out by ‘progressive’ priests and bishops are new, except that such priests and bishops now have more societal “advances” to point to while insisting that the CofE needs to get with the beat. Some old liberals like Richard Holloway didn’t bother waiting, choosing to perform clandestine ‘wedding’ ceremonies as far back as the 90s. Celebrity ex-vicar Richard Coles has revealed that someone conducted a similarly illicit ceremony in 2010 for him and his late lover David Oldham, who was also a vicar. There can be no doubt that clergymen and women like them have been a powerful motivating force in the CofE’s slow but sure leftward tilt.
Particularly pernicious is Coles’ assertion that the conservative paradigm is “based on a completely specious and nonsensical view that somehow gay people are less estimable in God’s love and grace than anyone else”. This is sophistry at its most shameless. It is true that some sexual desires, of their essence, are intrinsically disordered. But like any besetting temptation, these desires may be mortified to the glory of God, and God’s love and grace are no less available to those who experience them than to anyone else.
Coles knows perfectly well that the Anglican communion is full of compassionate Christians who nevertheless continue to hold this biblical line. Of course, what he really means is that he would like them to betray their consciences by utterly redefining words like ‘love’ and ‘sin’. It just sounds better in The Times to say that conservatives are stuck in ‘the Dark Ages’ and hate gay people.
The way forward
So what does the future hold for faithful conservative Anglicans in the Church of England? I write and speak as an American, so I won’t pretend I can precisely parse the fallout of what seems like a looming ecclesial rift. However, from my side of the pond, the arc of the CofE’s decline is certainly not unfamiliar. While we may not have an established Church, we have mainline denominations that once functioned as ‘default churches’ for your average middle-upper-class ‘American who might not believe much but feels vaguely obligated to go to church’. The ‘where are they now’ for these churches turns up a bleak landscape. The Episcopal Church may provide the closest blueprint – a denomination that became so dominated by liberal theology that schism was inevitable, resulting in bitter feuds and church building disputes that continue to this day.
The crowning irony is that by embracing liberalism, such churches signed their own death warrants, if their current attendance records are any clue. Vaughan Roberts cites these statistics in his pamphlet with the fear that the CofE is “sleepwalking towards a similar disaster”. I would agree, except that it seems clear many in CofE leadership are decidedly not sleepwalking towards disaster. To the contrary, they are racing to meet disaster halfway and greet it with an unholy kiss.
But the future may be brighter for those churches that chart the narrower course. That was my friend Rev. Dr Jamie Franklin’s hopeful prediction when he addressed the new compromise on Times Radio. Asked by his very unsympathetic hosts what he thinks the “end story” is here, Franklin calmly maintained that while compromising churches will drive themselves to extinction, uncompromising churches will “flourish”. We may hope and pray this is indeed true for such churches, including the church under Rev Franklin’s own able care.
It is also worth remembering that, as Glen Scrivener pithily puts it: “The average Anglican in the global communion is a woman in her 30s living in sub-Saharan Africa on less than four dollars a day.” Once, Britain led Africa. Perhaps the time has now come for Africa to lead Britain.
At the end of the day, the CofE’s liberal wing can accuse the conservative wing of not “caring” or not being “pastoral” all day long. But the words of Joseph Ratzinger, or as he became better known, Benedict XVI, still ring true: “…[D]eparture from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”
For more on this topic, join Justin Brierley on Tuesday 7th February for an online live webinar with Andrew Bunt and Charlie Bell discussing sexuality, gender and identity. Register for free here.
Bethel McGrew (formerly known by her pen-name Esther O’Reilly) is a widely published social critic, with bylines in outlets including The Spectator, The Critic, World Opinions, National Review, and First Things. She keeps up a Substack at Further Up and tweets @BMcGrewvy.
Her Substack is bethelmcgrew.substack.com.