This last week has brought about the most unexpected of developments, with the Church of England choosing to accept openly gay clergymen in civil partnerships with the provision that they adhere to the laws of celibacy. On one hand this move can be seen as rather progressive indeed, but is still clearly problematic.
The Church of England’s relationship with homosexuality, and more broadly modernity, has at best been a tricky one. This has been no less the case in the past few months where three of the major stumbling blocks of the church have almost invariably been stumbled upon quite publicly.
Their re-entry into the sphere of prominent public debate was prompted last year with the religious question of female bishops and followed later by legal question of homosexual marriage, and neither answers from the church were what a liberal perspective would call victories.
Despite the majority in the vote for female bishops being overwhelming, it was through a quirk of the system that the majority was not overwhelming enough and so the progressive motion was struck down. Maria Miller MP would then later and separately outline the government’s plans to theoretically enable the institution of gay marriage with the only exception applying to the Church of England. While any faith making residence in the United Kingdom was free to prohibit or allow these unions, the Church of England was granted special protection and even had its position ratified in law. It is now illegal for the Church of England to marry a gay couple, versus the important distinction of once simply being disallowed by the church.
There were various reactions to these outcomes, the now former Archbishop Rowan Williams expressing his disappointment over the failure of his personal mission to bring female bishops into the fold, and generally a warm reception for Miller’s proposals, being seen as modernising despite the inherent issues of legally recognising an ecclesiastical standpoint.
The overall picture for the Church of England however was that the more traditional elements were winning the battle for its future, one that would surely be bleak in light of these implicit failures to recognise the direction in which the rest of society was moving.
By adopting special stipulations for homosexual couples, the Church is still making a statement akin to cautious acceptance of an irregular factor. True progress to many is the total acceptance of a group of people who are entitled to the very same treatment and rules as everyone else. Heterosexual clergymen and women have no contract of celibacy attached to their private lives and are able to enjoy the fully fledged definition of traditional marriage.
With Church of England attendance in the United Kingdom very steadily declining, arguably through the establishment’s attachment to what seem draconian values for a broadly modern British society, but especially younger generations to whom issues of sexuality are increasingly irrelevant, the Church of England is faced with a difficult choice of conviction or survival.