There are questions for the Church of England which needs to be asked – questions which the House of Bishops and the authorities at Church House do not seem to be considering.
In two years time there will be married gay couples in church (some of whom will have converted their civil partnership to a marriage). There will be lesbian and gay families in church, children to be baptised and welcomed into Sunday Schools, Junior Churches, Youth Clubs and Church Schools and eventually young adults in gay families seeking confirmation. Couples will be celebrating anniversaries and birthdays in their church family.
What place is there in the Church of England for faithful lesbian and gay Anglican couples who wish to marry and commit themselves to a loving, lifelong, faithful, covenantal relationship in the sight of God? How is the Church of England going to respond pastorally?
I think this might be the single most important question to ask our bishops. We can all ask them, Changing Attitude formally and you, church members and clergy, in a letter or email and whenever a meeting with a bishop happens.
It is a question which parents and siblings, friends and colleagues, and members of congregations where gay and lesbian couples worship, may justifiably want an answer to. How, given the quadruple lock granted the C of E in the proposed equal marriage legislation, is the Church going to respond pastorally and prayerfully to the desire of many to see their gay and lesbian friends marry in church and be welcomed as full members of the congregation?
The question came to mind as I read the penultimate chapter of William Stacy Johnson’s book about same-sex marriage, A Time to Embrace (highly recommended). The chapter explores how American civil society might welcome same-sex marriage.
Johnson refers to Martha Nusbaum who argues that liberal freedom includes a broad understanding of human flourishing and emphasises the importance of the body, the emotions and the intimate bonds of companionship that go to make human life worth living. Society (and, I would suggest, the Church) has an obligation to support individuals in making a life that is truly human (p227).
Andrew Sullivan, gay and conservative, suggests that allowing gays to marry would promote the very sort of fidelity, commitment and care for others that traditionalists claim they want to see.
Johnson says that without the imprimatur that marriage connotes, the basic recognition gay couples seek will always be compromised. Without being able to claim the status of “spouse,” full equality of rights for gay families will remain elusive.
Secular commentators like Zoe Williams who writes in today’s Guardian, are saying that on gay marriage, Anglicans have blown it. The Church has successfully protected itself from challenge under equality law but is an abject failure in terms of representing ordinary, person-on-the-street decency, with 73% in favour of same-sex marriage. Christianity is disintegrating, she says, not because anything’s happened to make God’s existence less likely, but because, as a badge of cultural identity, Christianity no longer cuts it.
In pursuing exemptions from equality legislation and same-sex marriage, the Church not only communicates that it excludes and is prejudiced against particular groups which society now recognises as rightfully to be integrated; the Church of England sends a message that it no longer wishes to be the pastoral hub of a community, the established Church which is there to respond to every member of the local community whatever their status.
In this context, the House of Bishops and members of General Synod need to urgently resolve what status married gay couples and their families and children have in the life of the local church.