The Church of England’s Parliamentary Office has published a briefing note to MPs on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill prior to the Second Reading debate in the House of Commons on February 5.
I might call it a revisionist document because it makes statements that are substantively different from anything the Church of England has officially said before and are in conflict with the official Church of England teaching on homosexuality. I welcome such changes as there are, but I am about to question the work of people whom I know and count as friends in some cases and brothers and sisters in Christ in others.
It’s hard to know where to start in commenting on the note because it is written from a world view that I no longer share. I am a Christian and a priest of the Church of England, albeit one whose ministry is no longer recognized by his bishop, and I have a radically different perspective on Christian attitudes to homosexuality from those who articulate the Church’s teaching and write briefing notes.
Let’s start with the revisionist good news (by which means Church House aligns itself with revisionist Changing Attitude).
“The Church of England recognises the evident growth in openness to and understanding of same sex relations in wider society. Within the membership of the Church there are a variety of views about the ethics of such relations, with a new appreciation of the need for and value of faithful and committed lifelong relationships recognised by civil partnerships.”
This is the first time I’ve noted the Church state officially that there are a variety of views about the ethics of same sex relations. I’m sure it has been said before, but recent statements have denied this reality been issued as if they were the dogmatic reality of the whole Church.
It’s good to have on record that the Church of England recognizes the growth in openness to and understanding of same sex relations in wider society though this is not the same as saying the Church of England welcomes such growth as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God.
It’s good to know someone in Church House recognizes that within the membership of the Church there is a new appreciation of the need for and value of faithful and committed lifelong relationships recognised by civil partnerships. That isn’t, however the same thing as the Church or the House of Bishops or General Synod (or the Pilling Review Group) recognizing the value of faithful and committed lifelong relationships and civil partnerships.
I’m prepared to wait until the December House of Bishops meeting to hear the Church make this statement. This is what LGB&T people, our families, friends, colleagues and congregations are waiting to hear – we value your relationships and celebrate your civil partnerships.
Now for the parts with which we disagree or disapprove of.
“Civil partnerships have proved themselves as an important way to address past inequalities faced by LGBT people and already confer the same rights as marriage. To apply uniformity of treatment to objectively different sorts of relationship – as illustrated by the remaining unanswered questions about consummation and adultery- is an unwise way of promoting LGBT equality.”
Civil partnerships do not confer the same rights as marriage. How dare Church House claim they do. Can we solemnize a civil partnership in Church? Does a civil partnership grant the same social recognition as a marriage? (Some think CPs are marriages, but that simply makes the point – they are seen to be marriages).
This also provides the answer to the statement that gay relationships are objectively different from heterosexual marriage – the majority of people don’t agree, and the theologians of the Church have not persuaded people otherwise.
Marriages are dissolved on other grounds than non-consummation and adultery.
“The Church of England cannot support the Bill, because of its concern for the uncertain and unforeseen consequences for wider society and the common good when marriage is redefined in gender-neutral terms.”
The mantra of uncertain and unforeseen consequences for wider society is trotted out regularly now by Church House. If staff in Church House were really concerned about the effect of unforeseen consequences for wider society and the common good, they would have been advocating for gay equality for the past 40 years and at the same time working to achieve a radical change in Christian attitudes to eradicate the prejudice that has so harmed the emotional health and well being and the freedom to be open and true to ourselves and to God that still characterizes the Church of England. And to give fuel to those who think my sole aim is to out those bishops who are gay, let me repeat that 14 of them are, and if the CofE has had such a radical conversion to the need to preserve the common good, why is it so unsafe for any of them to be open?
“Marriage is a social institution that predates both church and state and is the glue that has bound countless successive societies together. It benefits society in many ways, by promoting mutuality and fidelity, and by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity that includes, for many couples, the possibility of children. While marriage has evolved as an institution in many other ways these aspects have remained constant.”
“Civil partnerships have already provided a framework within which same sex couples can celebrate and embody the crucial social virtues of mutuality and fidelity. However, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This is seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman, which potentially brings the possibility of children. Even if not every marriage results in the birth of children (for reasons of age, biology or choice), marriage as an institution is nevertheless directed towards procreation. The distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.”
That idea of biological complementarity finds its way into the briefing note yet again, but lacking its companion ideal of the missionary position. Some lesbian and gay couples want to avail themselves of the same glue that binds straight couples and countless societies together. We want to promote mutuality and fidelity. This is the comment that annoys me more than any other in the note – we want to embrace the core Christian values of mutuality and fidelity, and I know those responsible for Church rules just don’t understand how much we want it, and want it recognized by the Church. That’s why all this anti-same-sex marriage stuff is so annoying. Of, and it possible for gay couples to have children now, as it is for infertile straight couples. I guess Church House hasn’t noticed this change either. This aspect of marriage has not remained constant. The note is wrong.
“The concerns of the Church of England are not confined to the potential impact of the policy on its own doctrine or practices, but are in large part about what we believe to be its detrimental societal impact.
“The established Church of England’s unique position in relation to the solemnization of marriages in English law also means that the proposals could potentially have a significant impact on our ability to serve the people of the nation as we have always done.”
Church statements keep repeating the mantra of ‘detrimental social impact’ but no-one I’ve talked with can tell me what these impacts might be in practice. The idea that equal marriage could have a significant impact on the Church of England’s ability to serve the nation is simply emotional blackmail, isn’t it? I’d love to see the reaction from the majority of MPs when they read that paragraph. If the ability to serve the people of the nation were a high priority for the Church it would, as I have already said, have radically transformed its attitude to LGB&T people. It hasn’t because Church House and Lambeth Palace and House of Bishops policy is formed by attention to how Reform, CEEC and Anglican Mainstream will react. It is formed by being intimidated by those prejudiced against LGB&T people.
“We have supported various legal changes in recent years to remove unjustified discrimination and create greater legal rights for same sex couples and we welcome the fact that previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships have now been satisfactorily addressed.”
I’m trying to remember which legal changes the Church of England has supported. Perhaps there have been instances and I can’t remember them, compared with the times I know the majority of bishops present in the Lords have been there to oppose Government reforms for LGB&T people.
And now ‘they’ welcome the fact that legal and material inequalities have been satisfactorily been addressed. What audacity to welcome something the Church was vehemently opposed to at the outset, forcing CPs to be introduced because the Labour Government wasn’t prepared to confront Church hostility to equal marriage. The Church of England does NOT support civil partnerships – we still await revision of this official position. And LGB&T people are in the best position to judge whether legal and material inequalities have now been satisfactorily addressed. They have not. We want to solemnize civil partnerships and marriage in church and be blessed in church.
“A man and a woman who wished to enter into the traditional institution of marriage would no longer have the opportunity to do so.”
What version of the traditional institution would that be, then? Several come to mind, but none of them fit the paradigm sought by lesbian and gay Christian couples. We want the fidelity, companionship, lifelong, monogamous, deeply loving model.
I could have commented on almost every paragraph in the briefing note. It is another disaster from Church House. I understand why it comes out this way, because I know staff at Church House are stuck with the same Christian mentality as the majority in our congregations. They are good people lacking the imagination to see what God is doing in creation and in the depths of people’s hearts and souls. I was already planning to blog about this, but for today, it will have to wait.