In LGBT-welcoming Britain, Church of England tries to find its path

Anglican membership in Britain has shrunk radically in recent decades, particularly among youth. One cause is Britons' embrace of LGBT issues, which has outpaced the church's. But the church's efforts to respond are causing internal tensions.

Hannah McKay/Reuters
A priest wears a rainbow ribbon during a vigil against homophobia on Feb. 15, 2017, outside the General Synod of the Church of England in London.

Britain's transgender community recently got an unlikely new ally: the Church of England.

Last month the church released guidelines for its 4,700 schools, which aim to tackle transgender bullying. Most of the advice deals with anti-bullying policies and training for staff. But one section stated that pupils should feel able to “try out the many cloaks of identity” – a generous progressive position that quickly sparked outrage among its more conservative wings.

From the appointment of the first female bishop, to welcoming refugees and supporting food banks, the guidelines are just the latest in the church’s efforts to modernize and become inclusive. And while traditional, conservative members of the church are struggling to accept changes, others believe modernization – especially when it comes to inclusion – is crucial for the church’s survival in the face of ever-dwindling numbers. 

“If people are not coming into our buildings,” says The Rev. Sally Hitchiner, an openly gay priest and founder of Diverse Church, a movement for young LGBT adults, “because they are afraid that we don’t genuinely love them and that God hates them because they are gay or trans, we have lost everything of our message before anyone has even opened their mouths.”

A church left behind

Only 15 percent of Britons consider themselves to be Anglican, a figure which has plunged from 40 percent in 1983, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, just 3 percent say they are Anglican and, for the first time, more than half the population say they have no religion whatsoever. The scale of the decline has been the focus of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, since he was elected in 2013 and launched his ambitious Renewal and Reform program, which aims to make the church “fit for purpose” in the 21st century.

There are some issues, however, which are proving difficult to tackle. The thorniest of all has been the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It has caused a rift in the church since same-sex marriages were legalized in England and Wales in March 2014, and the slowness of the church to embrace LGBT rights puts it at odds with the attitudes of the British public, which have changed dramatically in recent years. In a speech to the General Synod – the church’s governing body – at the time, Archbishop Welby discussed the “revolution in the area of sexuality” taking place in society and said he had been struck by the “overwhelming change of cultural hinterland” during the debates in parliament about the Same Sex Marriage Bill. He added that the majority of the population “rightly detests homophobic behavior or anything that looks like it.”

Frank Augstein/AP/File
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, addresses the media during a press conference in Canterbury, England, in January 2016. The Church of England has issued new guidance to counter anti-LGBT bullying at its schools, telling teachers that children should be permitted to wear tutus, tiaras, or superhero capes 'without judgment or derision.'

This growing lack of tolerance for anyone perceived to be homophobic perhaps explains the downfall of Tim Farron, a devout evangelical Christian who until June was the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Early in the last election, he declined to answer questions from journalists and the public about whether he thought gay sex was a sin, stirring a media storm. Though he later stated that he did not believe gay sex was sinful, many blamed the controversy his non-answer caused – due to the accusations of homophobia that followed it – for his party's poor election results. He resigned soon afterward.

At a speech for religion and society think tank Theos in November, Mr. Farron told guests: “If you actively hold a faith that is more than an expression of cultural identity … you are deemed to be far worse than eccentric. You are dangerous. You are offensive.”

Ms. Hitchiner argues that one of the ways to change this is to become more inclusive and welcoming. Latest figures show that the number of people attending weekly services fell to a record low of just 780,000, which is why Hitchiner says it’s crucial to “listen to those who have left the church and those who would like to engage with church but feel they can’t.” 

Shrinking attendance

It could be too late, according to the Rev. Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who made headlines for being one of the first priests to openly defy the ruling that the clergy must not enter into a same-sex marriage.

While the diocese of London, which has seen a rise in attendance, is held up as a model of success, Fr. Foreshew-Cain, who resigned from his London parish earlier this year, says many in the congregation are immigrants from Christian countries or middle-class families who attend because they want to get their children into excellent church-run schools. “It it held up as the church’s great success story but it’s not an uncomplicated picture of success, and nationally it is one of continuing and very significant decline,” Foreshew-Cain says. “At the same time, society is getting more liberal.”

Attendance figures in the diverse diocese are set to continue to be under the microscope after the surprise announcement this week that the Rev. Sarah Mullally will be its new bishop, which is one of the most senior roles in the church. While campaigners for gender equality said they were “delighted” with the news, the choice was controversial as many in London still do not accept female priests.

Christian blogger Jeremy Marshall offers another explanation for the decline in attendance. In a blog following the release of the latest figures in October, he wrote: “In the past it was socially normal to count yourself as [Church of England] even if you had no religious beliefs or very fuzzy ones which amounted to nothing much more than a belief in being nice.” As atheism has grown in popularity, this standpoint has become “unfashionable,” he said, so those who were not really Christian in the first place are no longer counted in the numbers. 

Alienated by reform?

Others have argued that people are actually leaving the church precisely because it is modernizing and embracing issues such as tackling transgender bullying. In fact, some argue that faithful Christians should leave.

One is the Rev. Dr. Gavin Ashenden, who resigned as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth after voicing his concern that a passage from the Quran was read out in a Glasgow Cathedral. He told the Conservative Woman website that Christians should “leave their church” if they seek to be faithful and that the church was “so politicized that it matters more now that you are a feminist than a theologian.”

He added: “I'm not sure I see much point in a church that just wants to be accepted as a sort of not too irritating chaplain to a secular and hedonistic culture, which is what it seems to be becoming. I want to remain a faithful Anglican, but increasingly it looks like that is only possible outside the [Church of England].”

Foreshew-Cain, however, believes congregations are far more open to inclusivity than church leaders give them credit for. “There is a great divide between what the people in the church think and what the leaders think,” he says. “On the ground churches are increasingly getting on with the business of welcoming anyone and everyone.”

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