Jeremy Fletcher's Blog

Same Sex Marriage and the House of Bishops

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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 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.

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