Last week, the Church of England’s House of Bishops published a pastoral statement regarding civil partnerships for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Among a host of other things, the statement repeated traditional Christian doctrine that sexual activity should be reserved for opposite-sex marriages only. Media outlets around the world seized on this teaching, presenting it as shocking or noteworthy — partially because the Church of England has been drifting toward support for same-sex sexual activity.
Following some backlash, the Church of England’s archbishops released a statement on Thursday apologizing for Christian doctrine and claiming the original statement “jeopardised trust” and caused “division and hurt.”
“We as Archbishops, alongside the bishops of the Church of England, apologise and take responsibility for releasing a statement last week which we acknowledge has jeopardised trust. We are very sorry and recognise the division and hurt this has caused,” the bishops said. “At our meeting of the College of Bishops of the Church of England this week we continued our commitment to the Living in Love and Faith project which is about questions of human identity, sexuality and marriage.”
“This process is intended to help us all to build bridges that will enable the difficult conversations that are necessary as, together, we discern the way forward for the Church of England,” the statement concluded.
In other words, “Sorry we’re so bigoted as to believe what the Bible says.”
The bishops had addressed the issue of civil partnerships because British law changed on New Year’s Eve 2019. On that date, opposite-sex couples earned the dubious right to enter civil partnerships, just like same-sex couples can. The distinction between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples was a holdover from the halfway measure Britain originally accepted on same-sex marriage. The Civil Partnership Act of 2005 allowed gay couples legal rights regarding property, inheritance, and tax benefits — but did not redefine marriage. In 2013, Britain legalized same-sex marriage.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that it was intolerable to withhold the essential right of civil partnerships from opposite-sex couples.
As for the Church of England, it has been moving in the direction of rejecting orthodox Christian doctrine on sexuality. The denomination allows clergy to be in same-sex civil partnerships provided they remain sexually abstinent (wink wink, nod nod).
But why did the church cave? As SkyNews reported, lesbian LGBT activist Jayne Ozanne, a member of the church’s General Synod, had attacked the statement reaffirming traditional Christian doctrine.
“I’m sadly unsurprised by the content of this statement but I’m deeply saddened by its tone,” Ozanne wrote on Twitter. “It will appear far from ‘pastoral’ to those it discusses & shows little evidence of the ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ that we have been promised.”
When one Twitter user asked why there was “such an emphasis on sexual intercourse,” Ozanne replied, “It seems to be the one thing these guys are obsessed by. For most of us it’s about love and commitment and faithfulness.”
The document itself does not overly emphasize sexual intercourse, however. In fact, it only mentions sexual intercourse or sexual activity six times in 5 bullet points of the 35 bullet points of the 2,344-word document.
In fact, the document explicitly warns that the church should not follow the assumptions of the broader society that close relationships must involve sexual activity.
“The Church should not collude with the present assumptions of society that all close relationships necessarily include sexual activity,” the document states. “The House of Bishops considers it would be a matter of social injustice to exclude from ministry those who are faithful to the teaching of the Church, and who decide to register a civil partnership. There can be no grounds for terminating the ministry of those who are loyal to the discipline of the Church.”
The document does indeed restate Christian doctrine on sexual activity in two places — bullet points 9 and 35.
“In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that ‘sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively’ (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings,” point 9 reads.
Point 35 insists that “with opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church seeks to uphold that standard, to affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.”
Even these bullet points do not suggest an obsession with sexual activity, but rather a desire to clarify that the historic teaching of the Church of England — and all churches that follow the clear commands of the Old and New Testaments — have not changed. Sexual activity is for marriage, a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.
Christian sexual morality may be surprising to non-Christians, but it should not be surprising that a church would hold fast to the standard it has always taught.
The truly newsworthy development wasn’t the original statement, but the archbishops’ apology. They had nothing for which to apologize.
Of course, activists like Ozanne are not satisfied with the apology.
"Whilst I am grateful for the Archbishops' apology… the fact is more than words is now needed. We await the evidence that they have truly heard & taken onboard our concerns by what comes out in Living in Love & Faith report…"https://t.co/YxNeSkYvHs
— Jayne Ozanne (@JayneOzanne) January 31, 2020
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.