A gay Church of England priest who married his partner in defiance of the church’s official line on same sex marriage has announced that he is gathering signatures for a letter to the House of Bishops, urging them to relax their stance on the matter. At least twelve other couples are understood to be willing to sign the document.
However, although the letters signatories insist that it is being written in support of the bishops in the hope that they will relax their stance on same sex marriage, critics say that in reality the authors are merely intent on creating division in the church, which is already moving towards a more liberal position on the matter.
The letter is being organised by Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who was one of the first priests to openly defy the ban on clergy entering same sex marriages when he married his partner, Stephen, in June 2014. He has announced that twelve gay clergy members currently in same sex marriages plan to sign the letter, although around half intend to do so anonymously.
The issue has been hotly contested within the church since the legalisation of same sex marriages in England and Wales by the coalition government in 2014. Following the change in law, the church leaders decided that those already within same sex marriages would not be eligible for ordination, while serving clergy would not have their licences renewed.
The church also set up a two-year initiative, known as Shared Conversations, to enable members of the church to work through the issue amicably, with a view to moving forward.
Foreshew-Cain has said that the letter will be sent to the House of Bishops in September to “support our bishops as they meet to consider what next after the shared conversations.”
The letter calls on the bishops to press for a recognised ceremony which allows same sex couples to have their marriages blessed when the general synod next meets. “We’re simply asking for action to back up the rhetoric of the Bishops about welcome and acceptance for LGBTI people,” Foreshew-Cain said.
However, speaking to Christian Today he admitted: “Long term, the goal is full equality in the Church [ie, same sex weddings taking place within churches].
“We want to support the bishops in coming up with a proposal that will move the Church on in its response to gay and lesbian people and their marriages. Clearly the Church needs to respond. There is a wide consensus that the Church cannot continue its current behaviour towards the gay and lesbian community. I would suggest that most of the Church’s attitude about homosexuality is ill-informed, cruel and hypocritical. I would suggest that the bishops themselves know it needs to change.”
Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was the first priest to wed his gay partner following the change in the law, is supporting the letter.
Canon Pemberton is currently testing the Bishop’s ruling in the courts, following the refusal of Bishop Richard Inwood to grant him an official licence in the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham required to take up a new job. Although his initial claim that the church was discriminatory in their actions was struck down by the courts, he has been given leave to appeal.
Posting on Facebook, Pemberton said: “It is important to understand that this letter is sent offering the bishops our support in the next moves forward. We are part of the solution. This is not about defiance, it is about moving forward.”
But Rev Peter Ould, an ordained minister in the Church who has written extensively on the subject of sexuality and the church, told Breitbart London that their rhetoric was hollow:
“This has got nothing to do with contributing to the debate, because they’re already contributing to the debate. Andrew Foreshew-Cain, Jeremy Pemberton, they were part of Shared Conversations; their voices have been heard; their situations are understood. This letter doesn’t add anything to that at all. The letter is a direct challenge to the House of Bishops. It’s basically: ‘What you going to do about it?’
“There is no other reason for the same sex marriage clergy to be writing the letter and to advertise themselves as being so unless they want to challenge the Bishops to do something about it.
“The answer is the Bishops will have to act consistently, otherwise their policy [of banning clergy from entering into same sex marriages] is dead in the water.”
But Rev Ould believes that the signatories are effectively throwing themselves upon the rocks. He says the Church of England is already moving towards adopting a more welcoming attitude towards people in same sex partnerships, and that the Bishops will not have their hands forced on the matter.
“Essentially they’re trying to drive a wedge through the middle of the House of Bishops. But what you have to understand about the House of Bishops in the Church of England is that they take collegiality very seriously.
“Behind the scenes they will have their arguments, but publicly facing they are one voice. No-one is going to break ranks until there’s a majority in the House of Bishops, so this won’t change things either way.
“We’re moving towards some sort of softening on having formal liturgies and blessings for services of thanksgiving and so on. We’re going to be having that vote anyway at some point, but this letter doesn’t make that more likely or convince people.”
He concludes therefore that the matter is in essence a trifling one: “It doesn’t matter if rules get broken in some sense – as long as rules are getting broken we know what the rules are. It’s when rules change that the Church of England will have shifted.”