Theo Hobson

The Church of England needs a compromise on gay marriage. Here it is

How to break the Church of England’s great deadlock

The Church of England needs a compromise on gay marriage. Here it is
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It is a wearyingly obvious observation, but the Church of England remains crippled by the gay crisis. It is locked in disastrous self-opposition, alienated from its largely liberal nature. Maybe the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has a secret plan that will break the deadlock: there is no sign of it yet. The advent of gay marriage has made the situation look even more hopeless. It entrenches the church in its official conservatism, and it further radicalises the liberals. A few weeks ago the church issued a report clarifying its opposition to gay marriage, in which it ruled out the blessing of gay partnerships. This was not a hopeful move: it ought to be keeping these issues separate.

The ending of the turbulent Williams era is an opportunity to take stock, rethink, take a step back. What we see is that, for more than 20 years, the church has tried and failed to reform its line on homosexuality; and this failure has been amazingly costly. The church used to be good at gradual reform. Why did it fail so dismally this time?

I blame the liberals. In the 1990s they had the chance to nudge the church towards an official acceptance of homosexuality, which was already unofficially semi-accepted through most of the church. And they blew it. They chose gay-rights radicalism over careful gradualism. Because they failed to forge a moderate-liberal consensus, the evangelicals won. It’s time to admit this, and to have another crack at a moderate-liberal third way.

But is there such a thing as a moderate-liberal position on God and gays? Isn’t it either-or: either homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, or it’s fine, and the only problem is our inherited bigotry? That’s the standard assumption, promoted by both strident sides of this grim debate, but I don’t quite buy it. A narrow third way is possible.

My position on the issue, over the past decade or so, has been broadly liberal, with reservations. At first I felt my reservations were stylistic: the campaign for gay equality within the church often struck me as tediously self-righteous, and prone to dubious theological emphases. Some gay Christians seemed to heroise their cause, as if it were a special expression of the gospel, a way of recovering its radicalism. (Gene Robinson, the openly gay American bishop, embodies this attitude.) But gradually this uneasiness led me to a more careful assessment of the substance of the issue. I began to feel that it was not as simple as both sides assumed and endlessly claimed. There was a complexity to the dispute that it was not in the interest of either side to highlight. There was, in fact, some middle ground in this battle, but both sides chose to deny its existence.

The middle way consists in affirming gay priests, and stable gay relationships, but balancing this with another affirmation: of heterosexual marriage as the norm, the ideal. Can you have it both ways? Why not?

Of course gay-rights campaigners will object to such talk of ‘the norm’ and ‘the ideal’, claiming that homosexuality is of equal worth to heterosexuality, and that to cast doubt on this is homophobic. They must be told that, in the context of this church, such a claim is divisive — in a sense, just as divisive as the evangelicals’ biblical legalism. Have I offended everyone yet? Good.

The church was in fact inching towards this sort of third way in its report of 1991, Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Stable gay relationships should be affirmed rather than condemned, it tentatively proposed. But this principle should not be extended to priests: ‘To allow such a claim on their part would be seen as placing that way of life in all respects on a par with heterosexual marriage as a reflection of God’s purposes in creation.’ In other words, actively gay priests, with relationships blessed by the church, would pose an intolerable challenge to the tradition of heterosexual marriage.

This attempt at a compromise was frail and incoherent, in its claim that lay people could enjoy gay relationships but not priests. But it was something for liberals to build on. Their task was to argue that, if lay gay relationships were acceptable, so were those of priests — and to reassure the man in the pew that heterosexual marriage would remain the ideal. Not an impossible task. But they preferred to put empathy with gay people before everything else, to denounce all compromise. Before long, the window for building a moderate-liberal consensus closed: at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, evangelicals from around the world showed a new determination to win this fight, and the debate further polarised. A few years later the two poles went to war. And the liberals were -humiliated.

Part of the problem is that the British liberals have wanted to imitate the success of the American liberals; they looked at Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire and saw a lesson in sticking to your guns. But the two churches inhabit different worlds: in the American church the liberals have no serious evangelical competition. Here, they do. Also, the American liberals find it natural to graft themselves on to the civil rights tradition, and make nondiscrimination into an absolute principle. Here, that move has less authority. Britain needs a moderate-liberal position around which mainstream Anglicans can rally. It’s fine if gay-rights activists call it a sell-out — that will give moderate evangelicals permission to consider it.

The essence of the moderate-liberal third way is that it that makes a firm but limited affirmation of homosexuality. It affirms the ordained ministry of homosexuals, and it affirms stable gay relationships (which the church should bless). But instead of implying or asserting that homosexuality has equal status with heterosexuality, it upholds the old-fashioned view that heterosexuality is normative, and more worthy of idealisation, celebration.

This proposal is a waste of breath, some will say, for the evangelicals are firmly committed to seeing homosexuality as sinful. But some are less committed to this position than others; a large proportion surely see the need to climb down from their intransigence, knowing that this dispute is wrecking the Church of England. And barring a miracle in which God sets all gays straight, the crisis won’t end until gay relationships and gay priests are officially sanctioned. So let’s please pursue a third way. Maybe Justin Welby is among the evangelicals hoping that this sort of third way gathers force, and breaks the current deadlock. God help us if he’s not.