Yesterday I published what Changing Attitude understands to be marriage law as it applies to the Church of England. With the help of a member of the Church House legal team I learnt things that as a priest and registrar, I should really have known already but didn’t.
As the government prepares to publish the equal marriage bill, it’s important to be clear about marriage law as it at present applies to the Church of England and how it might be amended to allow the Church to solemnise same-sex weddings. Changing Attitude has to campaign for change within the current legal framework, knowing what would need to be changed to allow same-sex marriage to become legally possible.
I am clear that any attempt to take a clergyperson to court for refusing to solemnise a same-sex marriage would fail. The law is clear and the Church of England needs no further protection than is already enshrined in law. The Government will leave unchanged Part 2 of the Marriage Act 1949, the part that applies to the Church of England. The Church can initiate change if it chooses, but cannot be forced to change its marriage practice.
What can be changed?
I think the House of Bishops has at best, just over a year to prepare for the introduction of equal marriage. I’m assuming equal marriage will be passed into law in a form similar to the current proposals. As I’ve already pointed out, at that moment the Church of England will be confronted with same-sex clergy and lay couples who will convert their civil partnerships to marriage. Others will choose to marry rather than contract a civil partnership. In an ideal world, the Church will prepare in advance for the pastoral implications that will follow.
However, we do not live in an ideal world and the House of Bishops’ agenda is already full, with a review of women in the episcopate dominating the next meeting and the Pilling report dominating the December meeting.
For some, a satisfactory outcome would be a scenario in which Changing Attitude and the LGB&T Anglican Coalition on the one hand and Reform, CEEC and Anglican Mainstream on the other react in equal, albeit opposite, ways to whatever the Pilling Group presents to the House of Bishops in December and whatever the House subsequently announces.
This is what some think the Anglican via media looks like. It’s what life in the House of Bishops, the stance of most diocesan bishops, the strategy of PCCs, Deanery and Diocesan Synods and General Synod looks like. Don’t rock the boat, don’t provoke schism or a split, keep everybody happy and on board. If we can’t ensure that everyone will be equally happy and content, then let’s make sure everyone is equally unhappy and discontented. This isn’t a very inspiring vision for the future of the Christian Gospel in England, is it?
There is a minority of bishops in the House who will argue against any change in the Church of England’s teaching and policy towards LGB&T people. They will try and prevent the majority of the House from implementing any positive reforms proposed by Pilling. These conservative evangelical bishops intimidate others by arguing more vociferously for their position, refusing to accommodate change, let alone allow space for those who might differ in their theology and practice about the place of LGB&T people in the Church.
Whatever recommendations Pilling makes, this minority group of bishops will attempt to block even moderate proposals for reform.
There is the outside possibility, of course, that the House of Bishops will be tempted to deal with such a scenario by declining to publish or act on any of the proposals made by the Pilling Group. They have done it before – with the Osborne Report. It’s unthinkable, isn’t it, that they would refuse to publish a second time? Isn’t it????
What outcome can Changing Attitude hope for?
Two reforms to the current official policy of the Church of England would signal a serious change of attitude to the place of LGB&T Anglicans in church life.
The first would be official recognition of the status of civil partnerships. Many bishops already acknowledge the legal and symbolic status of civil partnerships, welcoming partners as spouses. Conservatives will continue to argue for celibacy within a civil partnership, and mature, adult, partnered gay men and lesbians will continue to ignore this argument and get on with normal life.
The second would be approval of a service of dedication and thanksgiving following a civil partnership and a civil marriage.
I wasn’t going to add civil marriage because conservatives will object that unlike civil partnerships, marriage is predicated on sex. It’s unlikely, isn’t it (please God) that the House of Bishops would approve a service for use in one instance but not the other? These are the kind of practical situations clergy will confront once equal marriage is passed.
Many would also use such a service for same-sex couples who wish to affirm their commitment to each other in church but do not want to enter either a marriage or a civil partnership. When the Church of England grants parity to lesbian and gay couples, this practice would have to end, unless the Church also welcomed unmarried committed heterosexual couples to use the same liturgy.
Today’s Daily Mail reports that an ‘insider’ says the Pilling Working Party is actively discussing allowing priests to conduct a formal blessing service in church for a same-sex couple who have earlier contracted a civil partnership at a register office. Perhaps Pilling is ahead of me in considering blessings rather than services of dedication and thanksgiving.
Bringing us back to the real world of the Church of England, the Daily Mail says one option the group is expected to consider (notice the tense) is a compromise under which gay couples seeking a blessing could be asked to declare they intend to remain celibate, in line with official Church teaching. The Mail rightly says this could create a backlash among gay couples, who would regard it as demeaning to be quizzed about their private lives.
Changing Attitude would welcome official recognition of civil partnerships and the approval of a liturgy of dedication and thanksgiving following a civil partnership. This would mark a significant change. It isn’t ideal but it marks a step forward.
I’ve avoided suggesting that the service might be a service of blessing. I think it should be. I think the Church should bless second marriages and same-sex marriages. Some clergy will include a blessing for the couple whatever the approved liturgy says. Further reform of Church teaching about heterosexual marriage is clearly required if same-sex marriages and civil partnerships are going to be fully recognised.
And if no significant change is proposed by Pilling?
If Pilling fails to recommend significant reform, or if the House of Bishops refuse to adopt the Working Party’s proposals, many more people will abandon the Church. These are not the kind of people to issue the kind of demands and threats that conservative evangelicals make. (In today’s Daily Mail, a ‘traditionalist’ warns that if the bishops lift the ban on blessings it will be far more serious than the divisions we have seen so far). LGB&T people know who they are in the sight of their creator, they know what damage the toxic teaching of the Church can create in their spiritual and emotional and relational lives, and they will simply walk away and find alternative places where they can experience spiritual nourishment.
They Church of England may not notice their departure. But there will be a loss to the Church of people who are often the most deeply rooted spiritually, the most prophetic, visionary and creative, the most passionate about the Kingdom of God, the most relational and pastoral. The Church of England would become less imaginative, more defensive and more divorced from the culture of the majority of people living in England.
Conservative evangelicals, of course, will think that a price worth paying to secure the purity of the Church and to remove sexually active same-sex couples from the life of the Church.