It restates Anglican teaching on marriage and sexual relationships, explaining that
‘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 … sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings. The introduction of same-sex marriage … has not changed the church’s teaching on marriage or same-sex relationships.’
More pastorally, it adds: ‘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.’
The response to this statement in the Press and on social media in the past week has been extraordinary. Most have been some combination of hostile to this restatement of traditional Biblical teaching and incredulous that the C of E has not moved with the times.
A number have accused the Church of being ‘obsessed with sex’ – which is rich coming from a society saturated in it. In fact, the Church of England almost never makes public interventions on the subject, doing so almost entirely in response to major legal developments, the last time being in 2014, with the introduction of same-sex marriage, which is partly why this one has caused such a stir.
I suspect what people mean, though, is that the Church has a teaching on sex which is much stricter than their own beliefs and the prevailing norms. But if the Church makes a simple statement clarifying its teaching for a new context, and the media and internet erupt in indignation and scorn and keep on writing about it for days on end, who are the obsessives?
We should also note the obsessives in the Church of England itself who want to see change and don’t want to stop talking about it until they get what they want.
Conservatives on the other hand would be perfectly happy to stop talking about it, save for the occasional reminder of what the Bible says and why it is such good news for everyone.
You may personally not be keen on the Bible’s sexual ethics – probably agreeing that marriage should be sexually faithful, but thinking it unnecessary to wait for marriage – but it has always been the C of E’s view, not least because sex makes babies and babies need stable families. The Church, following the Bible, has also never endorsed same-sex sexual practices, which are regarded as contrary to the created order.
The statement has been broadly welcomed by Biblically faithful believers both in the Church of England and outside it, while liberals have been dismayed by its content and tone, saying it ‘shows little evidence of the “radical new Christian inclusion” that we have been promised’.
The backlash in the Church has even included some of the bishops, with Rachel Treweek – the Bishop of Gloucester, and known for being the C of E’s first female bishop in charge of a diocese – writing that it was ‘perplexing and upsetting’ that the statement made no ‘mention of the Living in Love and Faith process’ currently underway to re-examine church teaching on sex and marriage.
More perplexing though is Mrs Treweek’s lack of familiarity with her own statement, since the statement clearly mentions Living in Love and Faith (LLF) in two separate places. LLF is due to report later in the year, but in the meantime the Church’s official position on sex and marriage is the same as it’s always been.
What may be contributing to widespread confusion, however, is that its pastoral guidance and practice have in recent years become very accommodating to those who do not live by Biblical standards, stressing that no one should be denied baptism, communion or participation in church life if they ‘conscientiously decide to order their lives differently’.
Further confusion is created by the various Church policies that have become very open to modern values around sex and gender. These include the scandalous introduction in 2018 of guidance on celebrating gender transition using baptism liturgy, the publication in 2014 and 2017 of pro-LGBT schools’ policy Valuing All God’s Children, with which Stonewall were involved, and the recent release of its charter for ‘faith-sensitive’ and ‘inclusive’ Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE), which seems to embrace moral relativism.
These developments reflect the influence of a large movement for change in the C of E, which flexed its muscles most visibly in 2017 when General Synod refused to ‘take note’ of a report from the bishops which, to their credit, reaffirmed the church’s traditional teaching.
The report was voted down by the liberal clergy, prompting the archbishops to declare the advent of a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ and initiate the Living in Love and Faith project to re-examine Church teaching.
More recently, in November, the elevation of Bishop Stephen Cottrell, a champion of the liberal agenda whom many conservative clergy have reported told them they ‘should follow their consciences and leave’, to be the next Archbishop of York has caused concern and consternation among many clergy and churchgoers.
This means that, while the new statement is certainly welcome, the future for the C of E remains uncertain. Many in the last few days have commented that with outdated morals like these, no wonder church attendance is declining https://www.express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/1233102/Church-of-england-justin-welby-sex-marriage.
But in fact it is churches which continue to believe in and teach the Bible that are doing much better than churches which abandon it to move with the times.
Is this because God blesses their faithfulness or because people are attracted to a faith that still has real conviction – or both? Either way, let us hope and pray that, for the Church of England, the future begins to look less progressive and gender fluid and more like the sound Christian teaching found, perhaps unexpectedly, in this pastoral statement.