There was a little in joke when I was a curate. Whenever people raised objections to a sensible proposal, or change was resisted, the vicar would observe privately, quoting the Book of Daniel, ‘Ah! “The law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be changed.”’ The tension between law and grace has been a constant in Christianity, with the result that law often has been amended, and sometimes overturned, for grace is usually triumphant when the good news of Jesus is embraced.
One of the reasons being offered for the fourth legal ‘lock’ in the recently unveiled government proposals on equal marriage, which would make it illegal for the Church of England to solemnise the marriage of same-sex couples, is the impact of the legislation on canon law – i.e. a body of ecclesiastical law that governs a particular church.
The argument goes something like this: Currently the Canons of the Church of England say that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. If the Church of England had to conduct the weddings of people of the same sex, that canon would have to be changed, and since the Church of England holds that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, it must, therefore, be exempted from conducting such marriages.
So you see, Canon Law, must be just like the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be changed. Oh, but wait a minute, didn’t Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher – Archbishop 1944-61, and a great believer in marriage, though not in divorce – preside over the revision of the Church of England’s Canon Law? And hasn’t the Church of England already amended its practice, if not its canons, to permit marriage in church after divorce?
In fact, Canon B30 still says that the Church of England believes marriage to be a union that is permanent and lifelong, and yet it has been able to accommodate marriage after divorce as well. Why is that? Come on silly, because it is the union of a man and a woman of course: it’s heterosexual.
What ‘the Church of England’ – and we know that means those who wield the power – cannot accommodate is the union of people of the same sex. Until its recent submission to the government’s consultation on equal marriage, ‘the Church of England’s’ ugly discrimination against LGB&T people had been largely hidden, but in that document, and now in the quadruple lock attached to the government’s equal marriage proposals, it is publicly exposed for all to see – and it is not a pretty sight.
To invoke the inviolability of its Canon Law to gain exemption from the equal marriage legislation is disingenuous when, to quote another example, Canon B1, ‘Of Conformity in Worship’, is so flagrantly ignored in many parishes (albeit Canon B5 allows the minister limited discretion). I’m afraid the reference to the Canons is just an excuse: yet another version of the law of the Medes and the Persians which cannot be changed.
In the Book of Daniel it is the eunuchs, Daniel, Ananias, Azarias and Miseal, who suffer under those oppressive laws, but are saved, finally, by the grace of God. With their quadruple locks the government’s proposals on equal marriage look incredibly oppressive to LGB&T people of faith. One could almost cry with the Psalmist, ‘Has God forgotten to be gracious?’ It certainly looks as if ‘the Church of England’ has! But, these are only proposals. They are not yet law. And unlike the law of the Medes and the Persians they can be changed before they reach the statue book. I hope that you will be working with us in Changing Attitude to ensure that happens.