Getting it right on marriage
The House of Bishops’ recent pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage concedes way too much ground to revisionists but on the fundamental issue of marriage has things about right.
I have been arguing for some time that David Cameron has set off a ticking time bomb for the Church of England with his legislation on gay marriage. By permitting civil partners to convert their arrangement to a civil marriage licence he has laid a trap for the Church of England. Married gay and lesbian clergy and bishops could soon become a feature of the ecclesiastical landscape.
The House of Bishops statement attempts to close off this option through the appendix to their pastoral statement. They write: “The house [of bishops] is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a samesex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.”
The statement acknowledges a tradition of conscientious dissent in the Church of England but nevertheless urges clergy to “act consistently” with their ordination oath to “accept and minister the discipline of this Church.”
In other words, there is the possibility that clergy who enter into same-sex marriages could face discipline for doing so. At least one clergyman has indicated his willingness to face the bishops down by announcing his wedding plans, but it is unlikely that there will be any but a very small number of clergy seeking this sort of confrontation.
That said, the howls of outrage from many liberal clergy and laity is surprising. One of the most dishonest things about this contemporary debate in the Church of England is the pretence that there are two divergent views worthy of equal respect in the Church of England. This is completely untrue: the position of the Church of England is set out in the Bible, in tradition, in canon law, in the marriage service and in the resolutions of General Synod.
There can be absolutely no question that minority theological views in support of gay marriage have any sort of equal validity. They are campaigning views. They are attempts to change the doctrine of the Church of England. As such they have to argue their case and seek to convince the Church of England to change its teaching through the proper channels. They have not done so.
The other dishonest thing in the debate is the pretence that public opinion has any relevance. A statistical analysis of whether 40, 50 or 60 per cent support gay marriage is neither here nor there. The fact is that most people have never had that strong an opinion on the matter and it is only minorities on either side who spend any time at all campaigning about the issue. The Church, however, should be prepared to be counter-cultural if needed.