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Poll shows for first time more Anglicans supporting gay couples marrying than opposing it, despite leadership’s opposition.
Attitudes to same-sex marriage within the pews of the Church of England are sharply at odds with the stance of its leadership, as for the first time more Anglicans are in favour of gay and lesbian couples marrying than oppose it, according to a poll.
Support for same-sex marriage among church members has significantly increased over the past three years despite the leadership’s insistence that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and its refusal to conduct church weddings for gay couples or allow gay priests to marry.
The church’s official position was explicitly restated earlier this month at a meeting of the Anglican communion in Canterbury that exposed deep divisions within the global and national church on the issue. Some believe the gulf between conservatives and liberals within the church is unbridgeable.
A poll conducted in the aftermath of the Canterbury meeting found 45% of people who define themselves as Church of England approve of same-sex marriage, compared with 37% who believe it is wrong. A similar survey three years ago found almost the reverse: 38% of Anglicans in favour and 47% opposed.
The lowest levels of support for same-sex marriage – 24% – were found among Anglican men over the age of 55, a group that dominates the church leadership. Jayne Ozanne, a leading gay activist within the C of E, who commissioned the poll from YouGov, said this finding was “deeply worrying”. “Unfortunately, this is exactly the profile of those in the senior positions of power and influence within the church,” she said.
The poll’s findings, released to the Guardian, are likely to amplify calls within the church for a change in its stance. Gay and lesbian activists say the church’s insistence on a traditional interpretation of scriptures alienates and excludes LGBT Christians, and further marginalises the church in wider society.
The survey found a clear generational difference among Church of England members, with almost three-quarters (72%) of under-35s in favour. There was a majority supporting same-sex marriage in all age groups under 55, but the figure dropped to fewer than one in three older Anglicans. More women than men believe same-sex marriage is right.
Support was largely consistent across different regions of England, contradicting assumptions that people living in London and other major cities are more liberal than others. There was also minimal variation across social class.
Church members in England are still lagging behind the general public, among whom a clear majority – 56% – support same-sex marriage, while 27% say they oppose it.
Ozanne said the change in attitudes represented a major challenge for the church’s hierarchy. “These figures confirm what many of us have known for some time: that the Church of England leadership is seriously out of step with its members, and even more so with society at large. Far more Anglicans now believe that same-sex marriage is right than those who think it is wrong. It is therefore vital that we recognise the challenge that this represents to us as a church, particularly given that as the established church we are called to minister and serve the whole nation,” she said.
“The church now faces a major challenge to explain clearly to the nation just why it discriminates against people like me and others in the way that it does. With such a large proportion of society now in favour, the church has some serious explaining to do – especially to the younger generation who find themselves repelled by a church which does not share their views.”
At the close of this month’s Anglican summit, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, apologised for the “hurt and pain” the church had caused to LGBT people. “It’s a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality. I want to take this opportunity personally to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain, in the past and present, that the church has caused and the love that we at times completely failed to show, and still do, in many parts of the world including in this country,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Anglican summit restated its traditional stance and imposed sanctions on the liberal US Episcopal Church for allowing same-sex marriage.
A Church of England spokesperson said: “The poll suggests an inconclusive breadth of view with less than half of Anglicans in England expressing support, a third opposed and a fifth uncertain. The process of shared conversations is continuing within the church, with general synod expected to be part of the conversation process in the summer. The Church of England is part of global Anglican communion which is mutually accountable for its teaching on marriage and other matters.”
YouGov surveyed attitudes among more than 1,500 Anglicans living in England and questioned over 6,200 people in total across Great Britain.
Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent
Friday 29 January 2016