The important central section of the CofE bishops’ response to the recent Church of Sweden decision on gay marriage

Set within the meticulous and studied politeness that ecumenical commitments demand, the letter of response cum complaint, sent by two leading bishops of the CofE to the Church in Sweden, is striking for the clarity and seriousness of its objections to the move to introduce same-sex marriage [see ‘End of the line,’ last month]

As so often, it is frustrating to see clear theology put across by CofE bishops in one instance, that is not then expressed in another. But let us not be churlish. This letter is valuable. We quote unabridged the four central paragraphs. An assessment of its reception in Sweden can be read on page 28.

We must however say that already, from the viewpoint of the Church of England, the existing practice in the Church of Sweden of blessing same-sex relationships was problematic, not least because the same practice in one or two member churches of the Anglican Communion has led to divisions within our Communion. Although there is a continuing debate among Anglicans about human sexuality, the teaching and discipline of the Church of England, like that of the Anglican Communion as a whole as expressed in the Lambeth Conference of 1998, is that it is not right either to bless same-sex sexual relationships or to ordain those who are involved in them.

If we understand the situation in the Church of Sweden correctly, what is now proposed appears to be a fundamental re-definition of the Christian doctrine of marriage and of basic Christian anthropology. This development might be seen as part of a wider shift within Western culture and theology to a position in which the idea of fundamental distinction between the genders is seen as irrelevant and in which marriage is therefore seen as something that can and should be gender neutral. This position would be at odds with the biblical teaching about the significance of Gods creation of human beings as male and female as this has been received by the Church of England and by the Catholic tradition in general.

FOAG [The Faith and Order Advisory Group] also felt that the proposal, relating as it does to the wider cultural, political and social situation, raises important ecclesiological questions about the relationship of Church and society and the essential freedom that the Church possesses to order its life according to the Gospel. From a Church of England perspective it is vital for the Church to maintain a critical distance from the state and to resist what the state is doing if this is at odds with Scripture and the Catholic tradition. We recognise of course that it is easier to state this principle than to be clear how in any given situation particular churches make decisions in communion with the Church down the ages and across the world after prayer, under the guidance of the Spirit and on the basis of the study of Scripture.

This is one of the reasons why we had hoped that the Porvoo agreement would enable participating churches to assist each other in living the Catholic spirit as they face the pressures of changing social values in their own societies. In other words, international and inter-confessional church fellowship could be a means of helping us all to be both universal and local. We fear that the present developments may indicate a real weakness in the Porvoo agreement as it did not involve binding mutual consultation andjoint-decision making.

Bishop Christopher Hill,
Chairman, Council for Christian Unity of the CofE,
Bishop John Hind, Chairman,
Faith and Order Advisory Group of the CofE \ND\
The full text is on