Reform, pressure and schism: British churches and same-sex marriage
Same-sex couples cannot get married in every country and especially not in every church. Now that the Methodist Church in the UK recognises same-sex marriage, will other churches follow suit, opening further avenues for same-sex weddings?
As of January 2020, when same-sex marriage law came into effect in Northern Ireland, all of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom (UK) legally recognised same-sex marriages. While same-sex marriages now stand on equal footing in the eyes of the law, matters change when entering the places where marriages, at least in popular perception, traditionally occur: churches. The vast majority of religious denominations in the UK, and the world for that matter, do not officially recognise or carry out same-sex weddings. Recent events, however, have led to speculation and anticipation that as same-sex relationships and weddings become increasingly accepted, churches will start performing them too.
Methodists paving the way?
On June 30th, 2021, the Methodist Church in Great Britain ratified a resolution that officially changed the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage. With the Conference voting 254 in favour and 46 against, the Methodist Church became the largest denomination in the UK to officially allow same-sex marriage.
Though the vote comes as little surprise, as the Church has been moving in this direction for many years, celebration amongst Methodists was not unanimous. Acknowledging potential disappointment from both sides of the vote, the President and Vice-President of the Conference issued a statement, encouraging members to “respect each other’s consciences, … exercise judgment in when to speak and when to be silent, and … hold one another in prayer.”
While no marriages will immediately take place in summer 2021 – due to a few legal and clerical steps that must occur – the roughly 4,000 Methodist churches in the UK will likely be able to register with the government’s marriage license services in autumn and winter 2021. Notably, none of the local churches will be required to register with the government to carry out same-sex marriages. Nor will any Methodist priest be forced to perform a same-sex marriage, either.
With over 160,000 regular members, Methodism represents the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the UK, making the move a significant victory for those pushing for increased religious recognition of same-sex marriage.
Where do other churches stand?
While the Methodist Church will become the largest Christian denomination to perform same-sex marriages, they are not the first. Previous Christian denominations that have fully sanctioned these marriages include the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.  
Notably, the three largest Christian denominations in the UK do not allow same-sex marriage: Presbyterian churches, the Catholic Church, and the Church of England. That said, with the approval of same-sex marriages increasing around the world, many churches have been softening their stances towards same-sex unions.  Moreover, following the decision of the Methodist Church, the Church of England has once again come under scrutiny given its continued holding that marriage and sex should only be between one man and one woman.
The Anglican divide
On August 1, 2017, a same-sex couple known publicly only as ‘Mark and Rick’, became the first to be married in an Anglican-affiliated church, when they were married by the Rev. Markus Dünzkofer in Edinburgh. The wedding quickly followed a June 2017 decision when the Scottish Episcopal Church became the first British member of the Anglican Communion to recognise same-sex marriages.
In recognising same-sex marriage, the Scottish Episcopal Church became the second member of the Communion to break with the broader Anglican stance after the US-based Episcopalian Church voted to allow same-sex ceremonies in 2015.
While many hailed these decisions as progress, they nonetheless clashed with established Anglican Communion doctrine. The conflict is not taken lightly, either, and has led to the Anglican Communion imposing sanctions against both the American and Scottish Episcopal Churches.
While Communion officials agreed to impose sanctions, the broader Anglican community is less unanimous. Advocates have been calling on the Church of England to accept same-sex marriages for years, particularly since same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales in 2014.
All eyes on the Church of England
The Church of England’s actions attracted particular attention in November 2020, when it issued a long-anticipated report on relationships of all sorts: Living in Love and Faith. Within the introduction, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, acknowledged and apologised for the “huge damage and hurt” that the Church of England had caused and continues to cause to the LGBTQ community.  Despite the apology, though, the Church made no immediate changes regarding its position on LGBTQ marriages and relationships. The Church of England allows civil partnerships, even amongst its clergy, but these ought to be akin to “sexually abstinent friendships,” as the Church does not condone gay sex. 
Any changes that may come within the Church of England will not arrive until further discussion in 2022. Many, however, are impatient with the Church’s timeline. Shortly before the Methodists’ vote, the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, called on the Church of England to adopt a ‘gender-neutral marriage canon’, labelling the Church’s reluctance similar to its history of racial discrimination. Shortly after the Methodists’ vote, Jayne Ozanne, an openly gay member of the Church of England’s governing General Synod, saw the decision of the Methodist church as representative of the larger public shift in favour of same-sex marriage.
Not all, however, agree. Several members of the Church of England and the broader Anglican Communion have spoken out against any broad change. In 2017, Anglican heads from Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda boycotted Anglican Communion meetings, criticising the overall community for not adequately defending the traditional definition of marriage. More recently, Andrea Minichiello Williams, the CEO of the conservative group Christian Concern, urged the Church of England to defy the current ‘zeitgeist’ and stand firm in the Church’s marriage traditions.
Future steps… or schisms?
The fate of the United Methodist Church, an umbrella Methodist institution, sheds light onto a potential future of the Anglican Communion. As divisions have increased amongst Methodist groups over treatment of LGBTQ members, the umbrella organisation has created a path for more traditionalist groups to separate from the group. The Global Methodist Church will likely become a new denomination in the next few years for traditionalist churches and conferences that wish to split from the current institution. Methodists are hoping for an amicable split, even providing up to $25 million for the new denomination.
The next few years will likely prove pivotal for many Christian churches in the UK. While some may echo the words of the Methodist Conference President Reverend Sonia Hicks and Vice President Barbara Easton to pray for one another regardless of opinions, ambiguity is becoming an increasingly less tenable position for many churches.
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