Queen Elizabeth II, the formal head of the Church of England, will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 3 during a one-day visit to Italy. Both the pope and the queen are heads of churches struggling to square increasingly marginalized teachings on sexuality with members who are pushing for change.
In a statement, Buckingham Palace explained that the queen is traveling to Italy for a previously scheduled meeting with the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, and notes that, "In the interim, a new Pope was elected and Her Majesty will now use this visit as an opportunity to meet His Holiness Pope Francis for the first time.”
Queen Elizabeth II, as head of the United Kingdom, holds the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. At the advice of the prime minister, she appoints bishops in the Church of England. The Church of England approved the consecration of openly gay bishops in 2013, provided that gay individuals remain celibate, according to the Guardian, and while it is considering rules changes that would permit same-sex marriage, according to Religion News Service, late last month the church postponed any decision.
The queen signed a law establishing marriage equality in the United Kingdom in June 2013, with a provision that allowed the Church of England to opt out of recognizing the unions.
Elizabeth II has not explicitly mentioned LGBT people in her more than 60 years on the throne. According to Pew Research Center, 84 percent of people in Great Britian agree that "gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own lives as they wish."
The queen had previously visited the Vatican during the reign of Pope Pius XII when she was Princess Elizabeth, during a state visit in 1962 to meet with Pope John XXIII, and twice during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, according to Vatican Insider. She welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland in 2010. The meeting with Pope Francis will be informal, eschewing the trappings of an official state visit.
The Church of England is part of the Anglican Communion, a global Christian denomination with about 77 million members, whose liberal members in western countries have clashed with conservative members in Africa over LGBT issues and women’s ordination in recent years.
Michael O'Loughlin is a writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in America, Religion News Service, and Religion & Politics. Find more of his work mikeoloughlin.com, and follow him on Twitter at @MikeOLoughlin.