Private Eye used to run a parody of the Church of England’s now forgotten book of dreary modern language services, the Alternative Service Book, called the Alternative Rocky Horror Service Book. This would send up achingly trendy liturgical fads with a perfectly pitched combination of worthiness, bathos and pomposity. As so often, reality has now overtaken parody, with much of the General Synod’s time in York this summer being taken up with an earnest campaign to introduce liturgical provision for recognising gender transition. It might be thought that the number of people in England seeking liturgical recognition for their sex change would be vanishingly small, but this would be to mistake what this is all about. A proxy war is going on, and the bishops, although desperate to keep the damage minimal, are unsure how to contain it.
Historically, the Church of England and the Tory party have had similar problems when it comes to addressing homosexuality. Both have always been broadly sympathetic, but both have struggled at certain junctures to create coherent policies which every faction can get behind. In response to the Wolfenden Report and decriminalization, the Church came out of the 1960s with a commendably thoughtful attitude to the issue of homosexual rights. But in 1987, just when the Thatcher government was contemplating article 28, the article which forbade “intentionally promoting homosexuality or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, the General Synod felt compelled to pass the so-called Highton motion – which effectively declared all homosexual activity to be immoral.
Yet, as campaigners like Peter Tatchell often point out, in spite of Article 28, the Thatcher years of economic liberalism actually transformed the homosexual community into an affluent market. Similarly, in spite of its official policy, the Church has been moving steadily in a more inclusive direction over the last 30 years. In other words, in both organisations, the official position has not spoken for reality.
This came to a head in February of this year, when a proposal by the bishops to continue the last gasps of the Highton position was defeated in the Synod, and the Archbishop of Canterbury declared a new era of ‘radical inclusion’. The Bishops are now pledged to produce a new teaching document on human sexuality by 2020, but they have no idea what to put in it, and the vacuum is being filled with some serious synodical lobbying.
There is not the necessary two thirds majority in the current Synod to change anything substantive, and even if there were, the conservatives still have too much money and too many people in their churches to be defeated. But they can be humiliated, and two key votes in the current Synod, one to ask the Government to ban therapies that purport to change sexual orientation, and one to ask the Bishops to consider devising liturgies to mark gender transition, went through with big majorities.
Where will all this lead? Anglican churches elsewhere in the British Isles have all moved in a liberal direction on homosexual relations, largely it would seem, so that their imminent expiry should present to the world an impeccably politically correct corpse. Christians are meant to believe in marriage, and of course gay marriage is now here, but the bishops are caught between wanting to be nice to homosexuals, and maintaining that Christian marriage remains heterosexual. But they can only do this by accepting sexually active gay relationships that are not – to them – real marriages. They have another three years to work out how to square this circle.
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It was perhaps a relief for them on the last day of the Synod to give succour to the Protestant Underworld by sanctioning the abandonment of liturgical vestments in churches that request this. You won’t have to put up with this at your daughter’s wedding, but from now on a lot more Sunday mornings in the Church of England will look like an outtake from the latest Boden catalogue – the ubiquitous hipsterish chic of the younger evangelical clergy, complemented by the off-duty housemaster look for the older men, marches relentlessly on.
Robin Ward is a priest of the Church of England and the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, a theological college in England.