Thursday, 5 November 2015

Jeremy, the Church of England and Same Sex Marriage

So Jeremy Pemberton has lost round one. An employment tribunal has ruled that the Church of England was not guilty of discrimination when his permission to officiate was revoked by his Acting Bishop. The grounds were his defiance of the prohibition on C of E clergy to marry a partner of the same sex, though celibate civil partnerships are permitted. The Bishop's argument had been that the Church's doctrine was that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. Jeremy is appealing.

The lawyers will go on debating this, but at first sight, I don't think we can argue with the secular tribunal's reading of the Church's position. The Church has ruled on the definition of marriage. Right or wrong, it's hard to dispute that to go against the rules is to breach the clergy vow of canonical obedience. We may think it's plain inconsistent, not to say unjust, to allow the clergy to enter into civil partnerships (which, let's not forget, many bishops fiercely resisted when they came in) but balk at marriage to their same-sex partners. But there it is.

It's the rules themselves that need questioning. The Church has ruled many things in the past that have imposed a discipline on its members, especially on the clergy as its public officers. But later, as situations have changed, it has changed its mind too, either by rewriting the rules or quietly forgetting they were there in the first place. I've written about this before, so this isn't new. But here are some instances we shouldn't forget.

Take contraception. In the early twentieth century, birth control was as contentious a matter at Lambeth Conferences as homosexuality has been in recent decades. Bishops argued fiercely that to tamper with the beginnings of human life flew in the face of the Bible and Christian tradition; and contraception accessible to all would be bound to encourage immorality. But I guess not many C of E couples today refer to these official statements when deciding on contraception. And theology has successfully integrated it into an entirely biblical view of creation and procreation so that it's been a matter of principle and not just pragmatism.

Then there's a more recent change of mind: the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Traditionalists regard this as problematic both in principle and because it puts at risk wider ecumenical relationships. I won't rehearse the arguments on both sides. What I want to point out is that the Church has listened hard and changed its mind about the ethics and theology of how gender equality is reflected in the leadership of the Christian community. We can blame a secular 'society' for putting pressure on the Church, but such pressure may be precisely the prophetic voice that calls for and initiates change that is both right and just.

Most relevant to Jeremy's case is the remarriage of divorcees in church. I am old enough to have taken part in many a synodical debate about this. It's a sharp question: how can a promise of lifelong fidelity be dissolved by being overwritten by a subsequent identical vow? Didn't Jesus teach unambiguously that 'whoever divorces...and marries another commits adultery'? Nevertheless, the Church has found a way of acknowledging the 'fact on the ground': that marriages break up and couples look to the Church to sanctify a new start. Here too theology has looked again at its reading of scripture and tradition. It's a daring step because it clearly re-construes what we mean by the vows of marriage. But as the proponents of this change of discipline argued at the time, it didn't follow that the Christian understanding of marriage had itself been compromised.

In each case, the direction of travel has been from exclusion to inclusion. It hasn't meant a change in Church doctrine, rather the way in which it is lived out. We don't have to look very far in the New Testament to see that this was the question that exercised the mind of the early church and bitterly divided its communities. As soon as the gospel began to travel outside the Jewish world, it raised a sharp question. When gentiles felt the force of religion and wanted to become Christians, did they need to become Jewish first and be circumcised in order to be received into the church? The clear answer was no. But it took time to 'discern' it, and there was much fierce debate and painful falling-out on the way. We find it hard to imagine today what a profound change of mind and heart it involved.

So I have come to believe (not without struggle) that the Church of England should recognise and honour equal marriage. Fundamentally, what matters is that equal marriage (that is to say marriage) embraces the promise of lifelong fidelity. (The state still needs to spell out its understanding of loyalty and faithfulness in same-sex relationships, but the principle is there.) Christianity promotes covenanted unions because they confer shape and discipline on our otherwise wayward human sexuality. And like the remarriage of divorcees, this 'enlarging' of marriage is precisely not a change of understanding but a matter of inviting a previously excluded group to come inside, take on its undertakings and enjoy its benefits. If I have to choose between being more inclusive or less, I shall take a risk and go for the more. It's what I see Jesus doing in the face of bitter opposition. I what I see the early church demonstrating in its welcome to gentile believers.
 
This week, the new Church of England website on marriage has gone live. It's geat timing for us as my daughter and her fiancĂ© are planning a church wedding next year. In many ways it's exemplary: warm, inviting, and helpful. But if you are a gay Christian man or woman in a committed relationship, how does this read to you? The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer. At any time you are welcome to come and pray with us, or ask us to pray for you. Yes, the law is the law. But the website doesn't explain that the Church of England wanted it that way. How I wish we could say something different!
 
I blogged on all this a couple of years ago. I said that 'there is no likelihood of turning back the tide of events. So the Church must learn to live in the light of them.' We can either do that grudgingly, or we can broaden our vision of the Church as a universal community that is for LGBT people as it is for everyone else. Our claim to be generous, hospitable and open is not just a matter of smiling nicely at people. The evidence is in what we say and do when our gay friends ask us to recognise and celebrate their loyalties and loves as we do those of heterosexual couples.
 
It's no comfort to Jeremy Pemberton and many others in his position to know that one day, the Church of England will revisit its theology of marriage and change its mind and its rules. I am not underestimating the difficulty of doing this, nor how it may be received in some partner churches and other faith communities in this country and overseas. We need to heed the Archbishop of Canterbury's call for 'good disagreement' because that's the only way in which discernment can take place. But two thousand years of Christian history beginning with the New Testament show how theology and practice always need to be responsive to changing contexts. It's part of our call to become mature in Christ.

Will I live long enough see the Church of England embrace equal marriage in my lifetime? I don't know, if I'm honest. But I'm seeing enough movement of hearts and minds among Christians to hope so.

22 comments:

  1. "And theology has successfully integrated it into an entirely biblical view of creation and procreation so that it's been a matter of principle and not just pragmatism" I wonder if you could expand on this assertion?

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    1. I think it goes something like this. Just as creation is a matter of (divine) intentional choice to bring life into being, so procreation gives expression to a similar intentionality on the part of two human beings responsibly to conceive and bring life into being. This can be seen as a reflection of being made in God's image, for the exercise of choice is an essential aspect of the freedoms - for good or ill - 'Imago Dei' confers on human beings.

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  2. An excellent article as always, Michael! One minor point puzzles me: what do you mean by "The state still needs to spell out its understanding of loyalty and faithfulness in same-sex relationships"? Aren't loyalty and faithfulness basically the same in all committed relationships? And why should the state have an understanding of loyalty and faithfulness? I would have thought that wasn't in its remit.

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    1. Thank you Phil. Actually, it may not be such a minor point. When equal marriage legislation was being formulated, lawyers could not agree on what constituted the 'consummation' of a same-sex marriage. I believe that this has been left open, and therefore same-sex marriage is not quite equal to heterosexual marriage where consummation is well understood and defined as a concept. On this understanding rests one definition of (in)fidelity (i.e. sexual), something that therefore can't be invoked as grounds for the breakdown of a same-sex marriage. But I am no lawyer!

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    2. I am no lawyer either, but as I understand it the definitions of consummation and adultery are not very clear: they have developed as a result of case law, and the government has suggested that they will need to be further developed (in the same way) now that marriage is open to same-sex couples. This means that judges, rather than parliament, will decide – if they need to, because the great majority of divorces are granted on other grounds than adultery, and apparently there are no (recent?) cases in which annulment has been sought on the grounds of non-consummation.

      Perhaps 'consummation' could be simplified and generalized to mean mutual sexual activity between the two marriage partners. Or the concept could be removed from marriage law altogether; I don't think that would be a great loss.

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  3. Will you also live long enough to see an openly Gay person, like Jeffrey John, consecrated bishop in your lifetime?

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    1. It is only a matter of time before the Church has a bishop in a celibate civil partnership. Since these are already permitted to the clergy, this is public recognition that there are homosexual clergy. I don't see that the same privilege and discipline of a publicly recognised CP shouldn't be allowed to bishops, so my answer to the question is - yes, probably. As for a bishop who is an equal marriage, even if celibate, that is much further off, though to my mind there's an inconsistency in permitting one kind of covenanted relationship to the clergy - a CP - but not the other - EM.

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    2. How can someone who is married be celibate? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

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  4. Michael, as a former student member of Durham Cathedral congregation during your time as Dean and a gay Anglican, please let me thank you for this post. As much as the powers that be attempt to couch it in nice and passive language, the official church stance cuts at gay Christians like a knife, and places a huge burden of guilt, fear of rejection, and sadness on our attempts to grow in faith and discipleship. Half a welcome is no welcome at all.

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  5. Thank you so much, Michael, as always, for your wise and articulate summary of what I suspect many, many Anglicans feel at present.

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    1. Thank you. It's a long and hard journey but there is a perceptible change in the mood-music among laity, despite the disappointing outcome of Jeremy's tribunal.

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