In his most widely anticipated address since taking over the leadership of the Church, the Most Rev Justin Welby insisted that it was now “absurd and impossible” to ignore an “overwhelming” change in social attitudes.
In a deliberate echo of Harold MacMillan’s 1950 speech which attacked apartheid in South Africa, the Archbishop warned church leaders that they needed to reassess their own attitudes to gay people – even if they do not “like it”.
While insisting he had no immediate plans to change policy on issues such as gay marriage, he announced a major campaign to curb anti-gay bullying in the Church of England’s more than 5,000 schools.
He is understood to have approached Stonewall, which led the campaign in favour of gay marriage, to invite it into church schools to teach up to a million children about homosexuality.
“We may or may not like it but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality,” the Archbishop said.
His comments, signalling a dramatic change in tone from the established church, came in his first address as Archbishop to the Church’s General Synod which is meeting in York as it attempts to come up with a new solution to the fiasco over women bishops.
In a wide-ranging address he said that Britain, like other countries, is living through a “time of revolutions” affecting the economic and political sphere but also in social attitudes.
He acknowledged a “radical” decline in religious affiliation, as borne out by the recent census and other polling, as well as an “overwhelming” shift in public attitudes on issues such as sexuality where “predictable attitudes” were disappearing.
But he insisted that the Church could benefit and even begin to grow again if it was willing to “respond radically and imaginatively” to a changing world.
The Archbishop, who visited Egypt last week, drew comparisons with the fast-moving situation in the country.
“We live in a time of revolutions,” he said.
“And the trouble with revolutions is that once they start no-one knows where they will go.”
Turning to the “many revolutions” underway in Britain, he said: “The cultural and political ground is changing, there is a revolution.
“Anyone who listened to much of the Same Sex Marriage Bill Second Reading Debate in the House of Lords could not fail to be struck by the overwhelming change of cultural hinterland. Predictable attitudes were no longer there.
“The opposition to the Bill – which included me and many other bishops – was utterly overwhelmed, with amongst the largest attendance and participation and majority since 1945.
“There was noticeable hostility to the view of the churches”.
He admitted that it had been “close to the bone” to evidence of young gay people driven to suicide because of uncaring attitudes from churches.
“In some things we change course and recognise the new context.
“In others we stand firm because truth is not set by culture, nor morals by fashion.
“But let us be clear, pretending that nothing has changed is absurd and impossible.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said: “Of course we will always help an education provider in helping to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and there are already several dozen Church of England schools working with Stonewall.
“But the cynic would be tempted to think perhaps that the Archbishop is trying to distract attention from his failure to engage gay people – when they requested it over the issue of marriage.”