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First married gay vicar attacks Church of England same-sex marriage blessing rule

origin 1Members of the Church of England General Synod meeting in 2012 © Yui Mok/AP

This week, the Church of England’s governing body meets for the General Synod, where bishops and other clergy are debating the Church of England’s position on gay marriage.

A vote will be held at the end of the week, but if a leaked recommendation from the bishops follows, the C of E it will likely allow the blessing of same-sex marriages in the church, but will continue to ban same-sex marriages within the church.

The proposal is “undoubtedly inconsistent,” says the Rev. Andrew Foreshew-Cain, Lady Margaret Hall’s C of E chaplain at the University of Oxford.

On the one hand, they will bless same-sex marriages in church, “but at the same time they also say that Church of England doctrine will not change. And the doctrine of the Church of England is that marriage is for a man and a woman, and that sex outside of marriage is a sin,” Foreshew-Cain explains.

“This is inconsistent. This doesn’t make sense theologically,” she says.

To be honest, I was extremely naive

The UK legalized gay marriage in 2013, but the C of E institution has an exception from the law due to its state’s ability to govern itself. The exception to UK law is an issue close to Foreshew-Cain’s heart. In 2014 she married her longtime partner Stephen. The couple had been openly in a relationship for the past 14 years, and Foreshew-Cain didn’t anticipate that legal remarriage would be a problem.

“To be honest, I was extremely naive,” he says. The couple received dinner invitations from their boss, the archdeacon. “We were accepted as a couple within the church, even though we weren’t in a civil partnership and, I suppose on some level, were living in sin.”

What Foreshew-Cain didn’t realize at the time was that he was the first vicar C of E in a same-sex marriage. Marital status and sexuality are characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010 in the UK. But exception C of E meant there would be no repercussions when Foreshew-Cain suffered homophobic acts after marriage.

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“My mailbox was full of insults. The clergy would refuse to worship with me. People have said hurtful and nasty things to my face about my faith, my ministry, my relationship, and my sexuality,” she recalls. Yet the official line of the church was that this was not homophobic abuse, but a legitimate theological expression of their position. “Whereas anywhere else in the UK if people told me these things, I could get them arrested,” says Foreshew-Cain.

Foreshew-Cain was blacklisted from new parishes after leaving his position in London. Luckily for him, Oxford University parishes are independent educational charities and the C of E could not interfere in the recruitment process. The C of E requested that Foreshew-Cain’s name be removed from the list of questions, but Oxford refused. He was hired by Lady Margaret Hall College in 2019 and has been its vicar ever since.

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It’s not just the impact on his career that frustrates Foreshew-Cain about the church’s inaction on homophobia, his concern mostly extends to the welfare of LGBTQ+ church members.

“If you live part of a community where you hear sermons that homosexuality is wrong and immoral and you’re exploring your own sexuality, that message will have a deeply troubling effect on your mental health,” he says.

An example of the damage that the church’s institutional homophobia can inflict is Lizzie Lowe, who killed herself at the age of 14 out of fear that the church would not accept her as a lesbian. She’s not the only person Foreshew-Cain knows of who made a similar decision.

He’s saying we’re sorry for what we’re doing, but we’ll continue to do it anyway.

This is the danger for church people who don’t take homophobia seriously. Last month, the C of E apologized for the way LGBTQ+ people have been excluded from the church.

“We have not loved you as God loves you, and this is profoundly wrong”, reads the open letter of the bishops. “The occasions when you have received a hostile and homophobic response in our churches are shameful and for that we repent.”

Those are empty excuses, as far as Foreshew-Cain is concerned. “They’re apologizing for rejecting and excluding, while at the same time rejecting and excluding us, because they say they won’t accept our relationships as equal to heterosexuals.”

Unless the C of E is willing to fully embrace a change in its stance on gay marriage, an apology is void. “He’s saying we’re sorry for what we’re doing, but we’ll continue to do it anyway. This is the language of an abuser,” he says.

origin 1The Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Justin Welby, has said he would rather let the C of E lose its special status than split over same-sex marriagePhilip Toscano/AP

As it stands now, the decision to bless same-sex marriages but not allow them seems to have shocked everyone. For progressives it is not good enough and for conservatives it gives too much ground. Ultimately, the decision is probably strongly influenced by the C of E of growing entries in Africa where allowing same-sex marriage could fuel divisions.

Foreshew-Cain fears that accepting the bishops’ recommendation will limit future moves to fully allow same-sex marriage. A similar recommendation was once suggested in the Scottish Episcopal Church. The Marriage Equal Campaign in Scotland rejected that idea and had it rejected along with the Conservatives.

Considering why they took this approach, Foreshew-Cain explains; “We want marriage, we don’t want to be blessed and treated like second class.” The campaign worked in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church approved same-sex marriage in 2017.