Hopes that the Church of England might be able to discuss its deep differences over gay people looked sillier yesterday after the conservative evangelical group Reform pulled out of conversations. It was upset over the failure to “admonish” a prominent liberal, while gay protestors led by Peter Tatchell heckled the archbishop of York over his backing for sanctions against a gay priest who has married his partner.
Reform’s press release dropped in first. The group is upset by three things. The headline is that it wants the bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, to stop calling conservative evangelicals (that would be Reform) “homophobic”, and to renounce his public support for gay marriage. Then it wants a crackdown on those priests who have married their partners. This is extremely difficult legally, as Wilson points out in public and the house of bishops has been told in private.
Two priests have so far married their partners, so far as we know. One, Andrew Foreshaw Cain, holds his job by freehold, which makes it difficult – probably impossible – to expel him. There is no sign that the diocese of London plans to make the attempt.
The other, Jeremy Pemberton, works as a hospital chaplain in Lincoln, and has just been prevented from taking up a new job in the NHS by the refusal of the relevant bishop to license him. That refusal, which seems to have been prompted by the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was the reason for Tatchell’s protest. It will also be contested in the courts. Pemberton’s marriage was entirely legal. The NHS is bound by discrimination law, even if the Church of England is not. Since he has clearly been deprived of the job by the bishop’s actions because of his sexuality, his lawyers have an interesting case.
But the real sticking point for Reform was the hope expressed by the bishops at their most recent meeting, “for the Church of England to live together as a family who disagree with one another.” They are Calvinists. They don’t want to live together with people who disagree with them – to be “yoked with unbelievers”, as St Paul put it. You can laugh at their demand not to be called “homophobic”, although it would be a small thing to grant them.
You can laugh, too, at the gloriously unrealistic demand that the church spend millions in legal battles with the equality law.
What is non-negotiable, though, is the group’s demand that the church deal with disagreement on this matter by expelling its opponents. It’s certainly a popular demand – on both sides. But it is the one thing against which the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has set his face. What he wants is “good disagreement”. For Reform – and, to be fair, for its opponents – what’s good about disagreement is the moment when the enemy crumbles.
There is a sense, though, in which events are on the archbishop’s side. If 30 years of wrangling over gay priests has proved anything, it is that neither side can force the other out of the church, though both are certain that God wants them to. Now that gay marriage is legal, the tide has clearly turned in the direction of equality, but it still has a long way to go. The most recent Observer survey showed that 16% of British adults still want gay sex between consenting adults criminalised. Most Christians would be horrified by that, but a clear majority of churchgoing Anglicans are opposed to gay marriage, as are an even clearer majority of the elderly men who make up most of the General Synod. Any change in church law will take 10 or 15 years.
The argument will clearly continue for that long. It will probably continue until Christ returns. And whether or not Reform talks to its opponents, its members are certainly never going to shut up.