Same Sex Marriage and the House of Bishops

February 16, 2014 § 13 Comments

This is a bit of thinking out loud, to help me work out why I find the statement by the House of Bishops on Same Sex Marriage difficult. Do help me out…

In my role as Precentor at York Minster it was my job to organise consecrations: the ordination of bishops. One of the descriptions of bishops which always stood out in the service was this:

With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion.

The House of Bishops has just issued a Pastoral Statement on Same Sex Marriage. This wasn’t on a whim: same sex marriage becomes law in England next month. Across England there will soon be couples who are legally married, in a way which the historic doctrine and practice of the Church of England does not recognise.

There has been a progression of ‘official’ Church of England pronouncements on this.

Broadly speaking:

  • The Biblical case is not so clear cut as it may seem, but the current accepted doctrine of the Church of England affirms that a physical relationship outside marriage between a man and a woman falls short of God’s ideal.
  • However, nothing we do or say about this should be used in any way to attack people with a homosexual orientation.
  • No one should be excluded from the church or denied the sacraments of baptism or communion because of this.
  • Faithfulness in relationship, and faithfulness in working out Christian discipleship are clearly a good thing.
  • Where people in a same sex relationship wish to affirm that by making a formal commitment to each other, that wish should be recognised, but not publicly and formally ‘blessed’.
  • Things are different for clergy, and those in a licensed relationship with the Bishop, as their public ministry is part of the affirmation of the doctrines of the church as the Church of England has received them.

The current guidelines nudge things a little more in the direction of recognising that there may be some kind of act of prayer as an appropriate pastoral response to a same sex marriage, though this should not be a ‘blessing’, nor, probably, a public act of worship. I guess that our ‘facilitated conversations’ around the Pilling Report will help us get more clarity on this.

But here’s my problem. Right at the end of the Appendix to the Pastoral Statement, the House of Bishops make it very clear that, whatever the tradition of ‘conscientious dissent’, and whatever desire they have not to draw lines too firmly, anyone currently in holy orders and under the authority of a bishop could find themselves under ‘discipline’ – a word they use in para 28 – if they marry under the provision of the new act. In using the word ‘conduct’ in para 27 the House points to the use of a charge of ‘conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders’ being a possibility here.

On Wednesday, at General Synod, we had a presentation about the Pilling Report. I came away hopeful that the process over the next two years would bring some kind of nuanced and generous settlement of these things. The answer to a question from a prominent cleric, who announced himself to be gay and not called to celibacy gave me some hope that such faithful expressions of same sex human love within a commitment to Christ might one day be given a surer footing in the Church of England than they are now. We spoke of ‘good disagreement’.

Two days later the House has given the clear impression that clergy who intend to marry under the provisions of the new act might find themselves subject to discipline. The House’s statement makes this so public that, it seems to me, an individual bishop will now have to give clear reasons why he is not going to allow formal proceedings to happen, should he be so challenged.

I think the House probably had no choice than to restate historic Christian beliefs about marriage. They overstate the case about this being the first time church and state have diverged over marriage: in the 1800s debates happened over the marriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, and more recently over remarriage after divorce. In both cases secular law was in advance of church rules. And it was only in the last 20 years or so that people who were divorced and remarried could be ordained. But marriage between people of the same sex is, of course, quite a departure from what we have inherited.

However I do think the House did have a choice about what they were to say about the treatment of clergy, and ordinands. Given that we are to have facilitated conversations about the wider area of same sex attraction, the House could have said something along the lines of:

The existing doctrine of the church is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Any cleric seeking to marry under the provisions of the new act must be clear that they are going against this.

They must do so having informed their bishop, and discussed it with him.

Pending the outcome of the facilitated conversations process which has been commended by Synod, we will not, at this stage take disciplinary action against serving clergy who choose to marry under the provisions of the Act. (A ‘moratorium’)

That would have been the House as a whole stating a case ‘firmly’, but then acting with ‘compassion’, and allowing the whole Church of England to come to a mind, as much as that is possible, before stating a final position on clergy and same sex marriage. What they have done is to express the firmness of discipline, and left it to each individual bishop to work out the mercy and compassion on a case by case basis. That’s going to be a whole lot of difficult situations, which I think they could have avoided.

I tweeted that I was ‘naffed off’. It was not with the House per se, but with a situation which left them no choice but to say something, and the logical process which led them to be so declarative at the end. I want to be as compassionate as possible about the Bishops’ situation here. But I don’t think it would have been too much for them to stay their hand, just a little, while we all wrestle with this and seek to come to a position which will enable us to speak of the love of God to a society which is moving very quickly indeed.

As I said, these are my first thoughts. Thanks for being a public sphere to try them out.

§ 13 Responses to Same Sex Marriage and the House of Bishops

  • Tess Lowe says:

    I wonder if eventually we might be able to move forward with a similar solution to that developed for women priests and now bishops.
    In other words, we accept that there are fundamentally opposing views in the Church: that for some people a same sex marriage is not a marriage (as for some a woman bishop is not a bishop), but that both views will be recognised as Authentically Anglican, and allowed to co-exist, with some parishes declaring resolutions seeking pastoral oversight from gay-friendly (or traditionalist) bishops whose authority is delegated from the diocesan.
    The alternative will be that the traditionalist view will in due course wither ‘Because Demographics’. It feels somewhat like a siege already.

  • Tom Brazier says:

    Thank you, your post is a sensitive and reasoned comment.
    I come from a different perspective, thinking (at present) that marriage must be male/female but also pondering whether something similar to marriage and similar to CPs might be entirely within God’s will. With that background (am I therefore biased? perhaps), I happen to think the bishops have acted reasonably well.
    The only thing you say which gives me pause is the idea of a moratorium while we work out what we think. My concern is that we do not at present know what our eventual teaching will be. It is entirely possible that we could eventually decide that same sex marriage is not within God’s intentions for human sexuality. Were this to happen, it would not be good to have existing clergy who have both entered into life-long same sex marriages and also entered into life-long Holy Orders. At that point, one or other would have to be terminated – which would be a deeply unfair horror to force on anyone. So the only choice is to wait (which, I know, angers many who have already waited for a long, long time).

  • Steve Walton says:

    Thanks for a helpful piece of reflection. Let me continue the ‘thinking aloud’ without committing myself to a position at this stage. Aren’t the bishops, in effect, asking for a moratorium, but on clergy engaging in marriage with a spouse of the same sex (rather than the moratorium on disciplinary action you suggest)?
    To take your suggested view, that clergy should be discouraged from, but not disciplined for, entering marriage with a spouse of the same sex is, in effect, to assume that it will be permitted within the church (even if by turning a blind eye) sooner or later. For if (i) the process of conversation to lead to the church deciding that marriage between a clergy(wo)man and another person of the same sex was not acceptable and would lead to the bishop disciplining such a clergy(wo)man, and (ii) the church had already implicitly allowed that to take place (even if discouraging it), then (iii) such couples would be up the creek without a paddle and it would be the church’s fault that they were (for the church had not been clear at the beginning that it might happen that ‘same-sex marriage’ would be acceptable).
    Put more simply, your suggested solution for the bishops appears to involve the implicit assumption that sooner or later the church will come round to recognising marriages which involve a clergy(wo)man and a spouse of the same sex. Those who oppose such marriages would regard such an action now as deciding the issue in advance of the promised conversations (promised by the bishops’ response to Pilling), and tension over this issue would be exacerbated rather than relieved.
    Thoughts? As I say, I’m thinking aloud, so please don’t hold me to any of the above—I’m trying to see potential consequences of your interesting suggestions.

  • Steve Walton says:

    Sorry: in point (i) the word ‘were’ got missing out. It should read ‘(i) the process of conversation WERE to lead to…’

  • Steve Walton says:

    And in point (iii) the word ‘not got missed out. It should read ‘(iii) such couples…clear at the beginning that it might happen that ‘same-sex marriage would NOT be acceptable.’ Frustrating that I can’t edit my comments when I write late at night!

  • tgflux says:

    “It is entirely possible that we could eventually decide that same sex marriage is not within God’s intentions for human sexuality.”
    Yes, “we” could . . . in a Church that has ceased in any recognizable way to be Anglican (or, also a Church that has ceased to follow the God-in-Christ who created LGBT people in the first place).
    Sorry to be blunt, but there it is.
    Anglicans in North America (I’m an Episcopalian in the USA) are moving on, rapidly (as ever, it’s difficult for us sinners to keep up w/ the Holy Spirit!). This CofE Bishop’s pronouncement re same-sex marriage is tortured illogic AT BEST . . . if not marching-orders from the Father-of-Lies. [Something about “a house divided against itself cannot stand” suggests itself—but then again I’m an American, and the most famous quoter of Jesus’s analogy, just had his 205th birthday].
    All around the world, LGBT people are being beaten, imprisoned, killed—and THIS is the best the CofE bishops can come up with, as a sign of hope? Is “CofE priests who marry same-sex partners may be disciplined” supposed to *chasten* those “Anglican” clerics in Nigeria or Uganda, who support their nations’ execrable anti-gay laws?
    I am embarrassed by Mother Church. And my efforts to evangelize (yes, even across the Pond, even for the Episcopal Church) is made That Much More Difficult, by ecclesiastical cock-ups like this (LGBT people *notice* things like this, oh yes they do).
    FIX IT. Fix it yesterday!

  • Pam Smith says:

    I’m interested in the way you – and others – have pointed out that

    “They overstate the case about this being the first time church and state have diverged over marriage: in the 1800s debates happened over the marriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, and more recently over remarriage after divorce. In both cases secular law was in advance of church rules. And it was only in the last 20 years or so that people who were divorced and remarried could be ordained.”

    Is this through ignorance or are they wilfully ignoring the lessons of history and, indeed, tradition in the C of E?

  • Thanks to all. Steve, and Tom, – I agree that I’m assuming that the direction of travel is set (see ‘tgflux’), and that, eventually, the Church of England will find some way of recognising permanent and faithful same sex relationships.
    I guess I should have asked for a moratorium both on clergy ‘marrying’ and bishops ‘disciplining’. What the bishops have done seems to close down the Pilling process before it’s started, and put them in a time consuming bind.
    Tess: we will be in a situation where lay people will be legally married, but not in a way the church can accept – yet. The die is cast now, and we will have to find a way of accommodating it.

  • David Butterfield says:

    Dear Jeremy,
    Here’s a late response.
    I think the first of your bullet points is very telling when you say, “The Biblical case is not so clear cut as it may seem”. I don’t accept this and I think that Keith Sinclair addresses this very well on pages 158-158 of the Pilling Report. He makes a challenging summary comment, “I submit that the weight of scholarship does not legitimate a revisionist reading of the biblical material” (page 159). I agree!
    I liken the revisionst arguments to engaging in “hermeneutical gymnastics”. I note that Keith Sinclair uses the phrase, “Well-intentioned theological fancy footwork.” (Page 136).
    It is vital that we adhere to the teaching of Scripture and are not lured by the views of the liberal, relativistic society in which we live. On many occasions when Jesus engaged in debate with people he took them back to Scripture, prefacing many of his replies with such phrases as, “Have you not read….” or “It is written….”
    I believe that it is imperative that those of us who hold a high view of Scripture do not leave go of our biblical moorings or try to read the texts in a way that conforms with the spirit of the age.
    The teaching of Scripture that relates to this does not consist of just a few obscure proof texts, it is the whole tenor of Scripture. As John Stott wrote, “The Christian rejection of homosexiual pracices does not rest on a few isolated and obscure proof texts (as is sometimes said), whose traditional explanation can be overthrown…..The negative prohibitions of homosexual practices in Scripture make sense only in the light of its positive teaching in Genesis 1 and 2 about human sexuality and heterosexual marraige. (Issues Facing Christians Today)

    • Thanks David. While many would want to take Keith Sinclair’s statement as ‘the’ Biblical position, there are many, even from an evangelical perspective, who would approach the matter of biblical interpretation differently (eg David Runcorn et al). The fact that there are contrary and conflicting approaches is my basis of the quick summary that the Biblical case is ‘not so clear cut’. The facilitated conversations will, I’m sure, explore these different approaches.

      • David Butterfield says:

        I just don’t find David Runcorn’s submission at all convincing. It feels to me like hermeneutical gymnastics.

  • David Crosby says:

    This thread shows the problem clearly. Two people whose capacity for objective enquiry is undoubted review the same material and reach different conclusions. Perhaps all of the answers are not in the material. Perhaps the discovery of any ‘answer’ is a continuing process of discovery of encounter that did not end with Jesus’ death, not one that ended with the somewhat arbitrary definition of the canon some centuries after the material was written. Whilst David and Jeremy may have different personal positions, it all makes dangerous ground on which an institution may threaten discipline and possible exclusion.
    David C

  • […] met down the years. I hope I would feel the same way if he was unknown to me. In February I wrote a blog post which regretted the strength of the wording of the House of Bishops’ Statement on Same Sex […]

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