The Church of England has played an important role in the development of the discussion of human sexuality in English society and in the Anglican Communion. In the 1950s the Church of England, while being clear that homosexual acts were not morally right, led the call for the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. In England all male homosexual acts were a criminal offence until 1967 (there was no mention in law of female homosexuality).
The stance of the Church is summed up in Some Issues in Human Sexuality:
“The combination of beliefs that we find in the case of Archbishop Ramsey – a belief that homosexual activity between consenting adults should not result in criminal prosecution combined with a belief that the Church could not rightly bless homosexual relationships – remains the official position of the Church of England.”
In the context of some calls for a loosening of traditional teaching, the 1987 Synod passed a strong motion which affirmed that the only proper context for sexual activity was within a permanent marriage relationship. All Christians were called to be “exemplary in all spheres of morality” and it was stressed that “holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.”
This motion was followed in 1991 by the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality – a statement by the House of Bishops, which offered a pastoral application of the 1987 Synod motion. It endorsed the belief that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for human sexual activity. However, while it was made clear that due to the nature of their calling clergy should not enter into sexually active homosexual relationships, in section 5.6 it also argued for respect to be shown to those lay people who in good conscience believe God is calling them into “a loving and faithful homophile relationship” and that they should find “friendship and understanding.” The section closes thus : “Indeed, if this is not done, any professions on the part of the Church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homophile situation can be no more than empty words.” There is in these words, a clear call to engage with a listening process.
At the 1997 Synod Issues was commended for discussion with an acknowledgement that it was “not the last word on the subject.” The publication in 2003 of the substantial report Some Issues in Human Sexuality, which has been widely read and studied around the Anglican Communion, was produced to assist in the process of study and reflection. It neither changed nor sought to change the policy of the Church of England but rather to map out how arguments had developed. It looked at how a debate could be handled in a way that was both theologically rigorous and pastorally sensitive.
In the context of the 2005 legalisation of civil partnerships for same sex couples, the House of Bishops reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexual relationships. As the new partnerships were not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship, the House did not preclude clergy from contracting such a partnership provided that they were prepared to give assurances to their bishop as to the nature of the relationship. The House ruled out associated services of blessing for same sex couples. The General Synod of 2007 acknowledged the diversity of views within the Church of England on whether Parliament might better have addressed the injustices affecting persons of the same sex in other ways and noted the intention of the House of Bishops to keep their Pastoral Statement under review.
In the last few years there has been a move from debate about sexuality to processes of listening to people and their experiences. These have happened in dioceses, deaneries and parishes. There has often been little publicity around such encounters as attempts are made to create safe places for all Christians to be heard.
Dioceses have reported a huge variety of approaches and responses. Some dioceses are aware that they need to do more. Others are pleased with how they have moved on the subject. One diocese has developed a listening process with their companion link diocese in Nigeria and has built on this experience.
The Church of England is aware of its unique place within the Anglican Communion, with one of the primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, being also the Focus of Communion. In this context the General Synod of 2007 commended efforts to ensure that discussion of human sexuality did not lead to disunity in the Church of England or in the Anglican Communion. It recognised that nothing should be done that could be perceived as qualifying the Church of England’s commitment to the Lambeth resolutions of 1978, 1988 and 1998 and the opportunities they offered to engage in an open, full and Godly dialogue about human sexuality. The Synod also affirmed that “homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church” and acknowledged “the importance of lesbian and gay members of the Church of England participating in the listening process as full members of the Church.”