The Church of England will on Wednesday debate contentious plans enabling priests to offer blessings to same-sex couples, amid deep Anglican divisions over the issue in Britain and beyond.
Hundreds of members of the General Synod — the Church’s elected governing body, which meets two or three times a year — will discuss and vote on the proposals unveiled last month by bishops.
There is no change to rules banning Anglican priests from officiating at weddings of same-sex couples. But under the proposals, they could offer “God’s blessing” for civil marriages or civil partnerships in a church.
In an open letter, bishops also issued an unprecedented apology directly to LGBTQ people last month for the sometimes “hostile and homophobic response” they have faced in parishes.
The steps follow nearly six years of internal debate but have sparked criticism from both those who support and oppose same-sex marriage, as global fractures within Anglicanism surface.
A Synod member and LGBTQ campaigner, Jayne Ozanne, issued a stinging condemnation of the belated apology.
“We’ve had years of apologies from our bishops but no action,” she told AFP, ahead of Wednesday’s five-hour scheduled debate.
“It’s like an abusive relationship where someone keeps hitting you and then says ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’.
“Until the discrimination and the abuse stop, we don’t want to hear more empty words. We need action first.”
– ‘Broken fellowship’ –
But the conservative Church of England Evangelical Council has railed against the reforms.
It says they will create “further division and broken fellowship” within the Church, and “a greater tearing of the fabric of the worldwide Anglican Communion”.
“We believe that the responsibility of the Church of England is to serve the nation by proclaiming the gospel, not by compromising with prevailing culture,” it said in a statement last month.
The Church of England has been under political pressure to reform its approach to same-sex marriage ever since it became legal in England in 2013. Although dozens of other countries have legalized same-sex unions, homosexuality remains banned in many parts of the world.
That includes highly religious and conservative countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which help make up the Anglican Communion of 43 Churches in 165 countries.
It boasts around 85 million members and is the third-largest Christian communion after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
– ‘Passionately held differences’ –
A rift appears to have emerged between Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and some of these Anglican churches, which often support tougher curbs on the LGBTQ community rather than liberalizing existing doctrine.
“We have deep and passionately held differences,” Welby conceded Monday as he opened the four-day Synod.
“But let us not fall into caricaturing those among us who don’t agree with us as being those who are trying to construct their lives away from God. The evidence is far from that.”
Welby went on to warn that “too many people, especially around sexuality, have heard the words of rejection that human tongues create”.
Although the plans to be debated Wednesday afternoon do not change Church of England law, and so do not require formal Synod approval, members will vote on a motion of support and amendments put forward.
A rejection of the proposals could make it practically impossible for them to proceed.
The Church of England is not the only major Christian communion confronting major tensions on the issue, with the Catholic Church also plagued by divisions.
Pope Francis has stirred controversy with his relatively liberal attitude towards sexual orientation, which is at odds with the beliefs of many Catholic conservatives.
But the pope has also frustrated modernisers by sticking firmly to Catholic teaching that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.