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In keeping with its stance on Equal Marriage, the House of Bishops’ Report (GS 2055) Marriage and Same Sex relationships after the Shared Conversations locks in the Church of England to its existing policy with little prospect of change.
Effectively this document is ‘a lock out’, and a cruel slap in the face for LGBTI people who have waited patiently and respectfully for the Church of England to hear their stories and to respond pastorally and affirmatively. Those who have had enough of this kind of abuse, clergy and laity, will now want to walk away, but that will not be easy. LGBTI clergy and some lay members too are locked into the national institution as their employer, but at the same time an important aspect of their lives is being locked out of the church’s worship and community.
What the Bishops seem to want is a return to the awkward and harmful division between the public and the private realm that kept LGBTI people firmly in the closet as far as their loving was concerned. Those who have come out and thrown away the key are never going to return to the closet, but even the most integrated LGBTI Christian will feel under pressure to return to conflicted patterns of living, because it is bishops who are saying these kind of things, and the bishops, as they keep reminding us, are the leaders in this church. But they are also employers, and what they outline here appears designed to exclude people, including their employees, who do not conform to an ideal of heterosexual marriage that has become the current shibboleth. An ideal of lifelong marriage, which as others have noted, is not actually lived out by some of the people making this demand of others.
The reason they are able to do this, and why this document is so circuitous in its argument, is that, without reference to General Synod, the House of Bishops obtained exemption from the provisions of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in the form of the quadruple lock, which prevents the clergy from acting in conscience and marrying a couple of the same sex. This is the ‘key’ to the current impasse, and until these locks are removed the Church of England will remain in lock down as far as LGBTI people are concerned. So secure are these exemptions that there is not even the opportunity to pick the lock as there was in the case of remarriage after divorce.
Only yesterday the Church Times published an obituary of Archdeacon Tim Raphael, who when incumbent of St John’s Wood ‘made himself unpopular with the next Bishop, Gerald Ellison, not only by remarrying divorcees, but also for promoting the practice in a letter to The Times.’ This was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when my training incumbent, the late Canon Bill Sargent, a good Prayer Book Catholic, did the same. Their determination to put conscience before canon law was part of the groundswell that led to the amendment of the Canons, so that today members of the House of Bishops too can remarry after divorce. Learning, perhaps, from what happened in that case, the Bishops and their advisers made sure that clergy today are well and truly locked out of performing a same sex marriage. It would be unwise to try and pick the quadruple locks. The only remedy is to work to remove them and set the people free.
When one reads current Church of England reports one enters a world in which a tight but oddly interlocking logic operates. Of course, no one is going to want to say that they disagree with our Lord’s teaching, as expressed in Canon Law, that marriage is between a man and a woman. But to affirm that marriage is also between a same sex/gender couple does not entail contradiction of the teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman – this was the fallacy about marriage being ‘hollowed out’ (how I detested that phrase) by equal marriage and that was used to justify the quadruple locks. No, marriage is between a man and a woman AND it can be between a man and a man and a woman and a woman.
If the Bishops object to the idea of same sex marriage so much that they are not prepared to countenance it in Church of England churches, or allow clergy to pray with the newly married, or imply that they are likely to make it even more difficult for clergy to do so, then I think they need to say why they think these choices are so unacceptable. It really is not good enough to hide behind the Canons, especially when other churches within the Communion have modelled the possibility of change: the Episcopal Church in the USA for example. What’s more, when the Episcopal Church produced its teaching document on marriage, LGT people helped to write it.
It’s time that we ended the paternalism that has wrecked the Church of England’s exploration of ‘human sexuality’, the locking out of clergy and laity from the really important conversations about what marriage is and what should happen next. Yes, the US Task Force on Marriage included someone who is trans, but in keeping with its thoroughly retrograde outlook the Bishop’s document has even returned to bisexual, trans and intersex invisibility. Waiting in the wings though is the Blackburn motion, which should have been discussed at this February’s session of General Synod, and which advocates the welcome of trans people and the authorisation of appropriate prayers and liturgies to mark transition. I do hope, when this motion is finally brought forward, that it is not deflected into the kind of self-cancelling ‘options’ that are outlined for liturgies for same sex couples in the Annex to this Report.
In any case, when it comes to praying for a couple, there must be wiggle room and an opportunity to pick the locks on the shackles of prejudice that dares to suggest, in a document following on from the Shared Conversations, that such prayers would not ‘edify the people’ (Annex 9, page 18). Anglo- Catholic priests went to prison for their beliefs. Tim Raphael and Bill Sargent defied their bishops and the Canons when they followed their consciences and remarried the divorced. It is time for those who support the full inclusion of LGBTI people to demonstrate it now. This is our time and our day and we must neither weaken nor fail.
The bishops are our leaders, but in the kingdom of God a little child can lead us. In terms of the inclusion of LGBTI people the younger generation it seems are leading the way. ‘Tue s Petrus … et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum’. The bishops do seem to hold all the keys, but in the kingdom of God so do we all; keys that can bind or loose. And it’s high time that we set God’s LGBTI people free.