The Church has struggled for quite some time to come to a mind on this matter. Eight years ago Jeffrey John was selected as suffragan bishop of Reading. He is an openly gay priest in a celibate relationship with another priest. His appointment was blocked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, after a campaign against his consecration. It was all rather unsatisfactory at the time. His was a widely welcomed appointment and there were many who felt that the archbishop had given in too easily to a vocal minority of opponents.
All of this took place in the shadow of a huge row in the worldwide Anglican communion about the acceptability of homosexuals being ordained as bishops in the aftermath of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) ordaining Gene Robinson, an openly gay man living with a partner, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Conservative Anglicans, especially in Africa, South America and Australia have been very vocal in their opposition to the ordination of homosexuals as bishops or priests. A clear result of this dispute is that the Anglican communion seems continually to sit on the verge of splitting into conservative and liberal camps. At the last Lambeth conference many bishops stayed away because they felt they could not, in conscience, share fellowship with bishops who had ordained an openly gay bishop, having failed in their attempts to have ECUSA excluded from the meeting.
A compromise was proposed which would require ECUSA to refrain from ordaining homosexuals as bishops until a common mind had been reached by the Anglican communion; this has never been successful.
Through all of this the Archbishop of Canterbury has tried to broker peace between the rival camps. In the sense that the Anglican communion has not yet divided he has had a measure of success in this. And the Church of England, as the mother church of Anglicanism has tried to take a middle ground – but, in truth, it is a middle way that does not exist.
Legal advice published in the report Choosing Bishops – the Equality Act 2010, will move the Church of England towards ECUSA and away from the more conservative elements of Anglicanism. The advice means that the Church is likely to accept that homosexuals can be ordained bishops, even if they are in a civil relationship, or other committed relationship, provided that they are celibate and repent of previous homosexual acts. A gay bishop will not be appointed where there is likely to be division and disunity in the diocese concerned over the appointment. In truth it's not a huge change. Don't expect the Church to be ordaining any gay bishops any time soon.
This issue reflects a problem facing Anglicans throughout the the world. Historically, Anglicanism has been very good at respecting others who hold different, or even opposing views. Each of the churches in the communion is autonomous and free to follow its own traditions and to develop its own ethos. What bound the churches together was the episcopal structure and an acceptance of the core Anglican keynotes of scripture, tradition and reason. That Christian or churches came to different opinions after applying these keynotes was accepted and even pointed to as evidence of the communion's tolerance and maturity.
This tolerance seems to be a thing of the past in the church as in society as a whole. Today we seem incapable of respecting others who hold views different to our own.
The growing division between conservatives and liberals seems to be getting greater all the time. Both parties appear to have “drawn a line in the sand” over which they will not step. There is no longer a place where opposing views can meet.
Ultimately, I feel, each of the churches in the Anglican communion needs to be faithful to its own context and seek to interpret its position in relation to its own history and traditions. The church in the USA and other modern western democracies cannot pretend that they live in a world in which homosexuality is not tolerated. Western democracies have, over the past few decades, moved to a position where the rights of homosexuals express their sexuality freely and without hindrance. Homosexuals are protected from prejudice and persecution. That is the context in which the Church of England exists; nothing can change that.
It is entirely understandable, given its history, that the Church of England wants to align itself with both sides of this divide, but the truth is that it belongs firmly in the West and cannot but be affected by the society in which it exists. There will always be many of its members who will welcome the emancipation of gay clergy among its ranks, just as there will be those who oppose it, but it cannot pretend that it can ever take a completely neutral position.
Ultimately, I think, the church will find that it will be unable to deny ordination to otherwise acceptable candidates who are openly gay. In the end the same rules will apply to heterosexuals and homosexuals – where there is no cause for scandal arising from their domestic relationships ordination will not be withheld. The day that this is true may yet be some way off, but the publication and acceptance of this report is another step along that path.
This will inevitably mean that the Anglican communion needs to find a new way of expressing its unity, or accept that unity is, at this stage of its history, impossible. That may be painful, but it is likely to be less painful than trying to hold everything together in the current situation. There will be no going back from the American church, and the English church will tend to move inexorably towards the American and away from the African position. But this is sure – progress will be slow.