The Church of England yesterday announced moves that could lead to approval of same-sex marriages.
Church leaders have produced a 480-page book, with accompanying films, podcasts and education courses to explore the issue.
The Church has been deeply divided over gay rights since 1987, when its parliament, the General Synod, first voted to reinforce traditional teaching that gay sex is sinful. Earlier this year bishops restated the teaching that sex is for married couples only and that civil partnerships should be ‘sexually abstinent friendships’.
Same-sex civil marriages were introduced in 2014 and their predecessor, civil partnerships that carry the rights of marriage in all but name, were brought in in 2005. However the legislation gave faith groups an effective opt-out.
Archbishop Welby said in a foreword to the book, written with the Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, that the Church should be ashamed of causing hurt to gay people.
They said: ‘As soon as we begin to consider questions of sexual identity and behaviour, we need to acknowledge the huge damage and hurt that has been caused where talk of truth, holiness and discipleship has been wielded harshly and not ministered as a healing balm.
‘Especially amongst LGBTI+ people, every word we use – quite possibly including these in this very foreword, despite all the care we exercise – may cause pain.
‘We have caused, and continue to cause, hurt and unnecessary suffering. For such acts, each of us, and the Church collectively, should be deeply ashamed and repentant. As archbishops, we are personally very sorry where we have contributed to this.
The Bishop of Coventry, the Right Reverend Christopher Cocksworth, who helped produced yesterday’s new material, said: ‘There is no doubt that there are certain decisions in 2022 that the Church will have to face.’
He added: ‘There are some who feel this doctrine of marriage is ripe for development.’
Discussions are expected to be completed next year and to lead to ‘a timely conclusion in 2022 which would then be put before Synod.’
The Synod has the power to enact legally-binding rules but its deliberations are lengthy. They could mean the first Church of England same-sex marriages would be solemnised by 2025.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, attempted a reform in 2017. But his scheme, which would have allowed blessing services but not marriage for gay couples, went down to an ignominious defeat in the Synod. It satisfied neither gay rights supporters nor conservative evangelicals, who combined to defeat it.
The years since have been devoted to the secretive production of yesterday’s book and films, called Living in Love and Faith.
The archbishops added: ‘Defensiveness is felt, and aggression is experienced, both by those who long for change and by those who believe, sincerely, that change would be wrong and damaging.’
A further statement signed by all the CofE’s bishops said: ‘Disagreements are to be found among us as bishops. We do not agree on a number of matters relating to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.
‘Some of those differences of view relate to the ethics and lifestyle of opposite sex relationships and some relate to questions around gender and pastoral provisions for transgender people. Most pressing among our differences are questions around same-sex relationships, and we recognize that here decisions in several interconnected areas need to be made with some urgency.’
Any new deal on gay rights and same-sex marriage may follow the same pattern as the row over women priests and bishops, which also ran for decades and ended in compromise. While women are now appointed as both priests and bishops, parishes where traditionalists hold sway continue to maintain men-only clergy.
Jayne Ozanne, a prominent LGBT campaigner and former member of the Archbishops Council, told the Telegraph she welcomed the Archbishops’ apology, adding: ‘But, listening and learning is not enough. We need to act now to ensure that safeguards are put in place to protect LGBT+ people.’