Unpacking the ‘doublespeak’ of the C of E’s latest statement on same-sex marriage

Church of England same sex marriageHaving been half-term break, I’ve spent most of this week away from a computer. To my irritation it has coincided with one of the busiest weeks for stories relating to this blog’s chosen theme for several months, so I’m now in a position of trying to play catch-up. I am very keen to get my teeth into the latest confrontation between the various church leaders and government over food poverty, but firstly I feel the need to address the House of Bishops’ statement on same-sex marriage, which as you would expect has upset many people.

The Church of England’s statement signed by Justin Welby and John Sentamu is now a week old and bearing in mind it effectively says nothing new, it has nonetheless touched some raw nerves and stirred up a good deal of anger. In case anyone isn’t aware by now, the main thrust is that same-sex couples who are married or in civil partnerships should be fully accepted in the life of church communities and have access to baptism, communion and so on, but there will still be no authorised service to bless such relationships, although ‘The House did not wish, however,  to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances… on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.’

This was the first main point of contention. The second was the instruction that ‘The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex 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.’

I really don’t know what great revelations people were expecting to find in this announcement. It’s main purpose as far as I can see is to clarify the Church of England’s position in light of the introduction of same-sex marriages next month and to act as a holding statement whilst the process of ‘facilitated conversations’ in light of the recent Pilling report on sexuality are worked through over the next two years. It would have been highly irregular for the Bishops to hint at any change of direction at this point.

Of course the C of E finds itself in a tricky position where it is being forced to run to keep up with secular law and given its historic stance on homosexuality counterbalanced against an explicit call to accept those in same-sex relationships as far as possible within that framework, there is some tightrope walking going on to find the via media middle ground. Such an approach easily leads to misinterpretation, claims of contradiction and denouncements from those on the ends of the spectrum of views.

The statement has been described as a dog’s breakfast and a master class in doublespeak, but reading it carefully – unless I am missing something obvious –  it does appear to be coherent within the parameters of C of E law. Some of the interpretations in the media have been less than helpful implying that the statement is saying that private blessings (effectively informal endorsements) in the form of ‘special’ prayers should be made available following civil partnerships and same-sex weddings, yet the actual wording makes it clear that clergy are not told to offer formal private blessings although some undoubtedly will. Part of the problem is that the statement uses religious nuances that will be lost on many. It is not surprising that a secular media stumbles over it when enough Christians struggle to understand the nature of what a blessing is.

Christians are called to bless others liberally, even those who we disagree with or get to the point of calling enemies. Blessing is not to be restricted to people we like or agree with. So if a vicar is asked to bless a single teenage girl and her baby following a one night stand, it is right to bless them. Is it any different for a couple in a same-sex marriage? By praying for someone or blessing them you are committing them into God’s hands. It does not automatically mean you are approving of everything that they do, say or think. If that were the case, blessings would be few and far between.

This is not the same though as a public act of worship during which a dedication takes place. Such a service is an endorsement of that which is the focus of the proceedings. A church that seeks to be united needs to agree on which acts are of sufficient theological significance and validity to call upon God’s blessing upon them on behalf of the whole Church in a communal and open setting. As it currently stands this does not extend to same-sex relationships for the C of E.

Arguing over whether same-sex couples can or cannot be blessed by the church is perhaps missing a more fundamental point. Often blessing is seen as a sign of approval and from a human point of view that is often what it is, but spiritual blessing comes from God alone. We can ask Him to bless us, but we cannot force Him to do so. But in my experience and as I read the Bible I see God’s generous and gracious blessings poured out even when we get things wrong and have flaws in our character. Look a the lives of some of the heroes of the Bible such as Jacob, Moses, Samson, David and Peter. Despite their failings God did not withdraw his blessing because of His great mercy and forgiveness. There have been times when God has blessed me more than I deserve when I have been getting things very right, but also at times when I have got things very wrong. At an ecclesiastical level churches and denominations can have diametrically opposed views on whether women should be allowed to lead and teach, whether clergy should be married, whether contraception is acceptable and plenty more. Does God only bless those churches who have their theological understanding perfectly correct? Of course not.

What these individuals had and these churches are attempting to do in their own way is to hold tight to their faith in God (through Jesus) and a desire to obey Him. This is why I believe that if the Church of England after its lengthy consultation comes to the conclusion that it is being obedient to God and Biblical teaching by changing its position on same-sex relationships, then there is not good reason to believe that God will turn his back on the church. Such a move, whether we like it or not will still inevitably create a large rifts between members of the global Anglican communion and also within churches in this country. There is no getting away from this; the concept of via media has its limits.

The concern regarding the pressure the Church of England finds itself under at this time is that it is less about obeying God, but instead being driven down a particular path by rapid cultural changes and widespread public acceptance of same-sex relationships. This would appear to be the reasoning driving the thinking of some Christian commentators over the last week. There is a fear that the Church will look increasingly irrelevant to society and those in support of same-sex marriage will be driven from churches out of frustration and rejection.

Anyone who is worried that the Church is becoming irrelevant because its values are different to the society around it needs to spend some time reading up on the Church’s history. Often the church has grown most rapidly at times and in places where it has looked the most counter-cultural. The story of the early church in its first few centuries of existence demonstrate this as does the incredible church growth we are now seeing in China. As one tweeter put it this week, a theology wedded to the spirit of the age is quickly widowed.

As for those who might leave the Church of England because of its official views, there is the question of why they have not already left. Where the Church experiences its greatest losses is with young people as they reach the point of being able to choose whether they continue attend a church or not. Some may leave because of church attitudes to sexuality, but most are leaving because they frankly find church boring, struggling to see the reality of God’s Spirit in church life, having few if any friends there and feeling excluded and undervalued.

Most adults who join a church know what they are signing up to. It’s a bit like marriage. If you accept you partner despite their irritating habits, your relationship is much more likely to last than if you go into it desperately hoping they will change the traits you don’t like. It’s good to challenge convention and tradition, but at the end of the day if you can’t win others over then either you will have to learn to live with it, making the most of the situation you are in, or alternatively if it has become too much of a struggle it might be worth considering finding a new place to call home.

The same principle goes for clergy who are threatening to deliberately defy the bishops by entering into a same-sex marriage. The Church of England might be the only place that officially expects gay clergy to remain celibate in a civil partnership but assumes that if they are get married, they have ulterior motives, but even if this is not the case, it again comes down to an issue of obedience and calling. The Church has a long history of expecting high levels of conduct from its vocational leaders that at times set them apart. It has been through behaviour, celibacy, marriage to divorcees and income that this has often been the case. Intentionally rebellious behaviour has to be challenged to ascertain whether they are doing it for the glory of God or their own personal satisfaction. Does anyone benefit from insubordinate clergy taking matters into their own hands creating conflict and giving their bishops a big headache?

If we ever get to the end of the talking, it will be a tough decision to make for those with a say when it finally comes. The outcome will undoubtedly result in heartache for many. And that is why it is important that the Church of England seeks unity as much as possible even in the disagreements, that the nit-picking, bickering and misinformation is restrained, that opportunities for misrepresentation by he media are minimised and most of all that the focus remains firmly on obeying God and staying faithful to Him. That is after all what God’s Church is called to do.

Categories: Church, Homosexuality, Marriage

20 replies

  1. Re: the church not going with the spirit of the age. Undoubtedly this has sometimes worked out positively – wasn’t it a seventh/ninth (?) century pope who came out against exposing unwanted newborns, making most of the surrounding pagan population go ‘wierdos!’. But it’s a bad argument and just bad history to then argue that the church has never changed its mind and often on quite major things – like the practice of lending money at interest, for a start. As Diarmaid MacCulloch says here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03m06h7/Belief_Diarmaid_MacCulloch/ the church is excellent at making quite radical shifts and then pretending it hasnt.

    The problem for the church now is that it’s the ‘spirit of the age’ which looks wise, thoughtful and humane on this issue to most people – while vociferous church opponents of gay rights, like Anglican Mainstream just disgrace themselves with caricatures of gay lives that seem ludicrous to anyone who has a gay relative or gay colleague. The gay clerics who do stand up, (instead of edging by under the radar under the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy) are brave people who aren’t simply indulging themselves, but are risking much on principle.

    As the Faith Debates data showed a while ago (helpfully illustrated here: http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/7826) it’s just not the case that a church with a single understanding is under attack from the ‘eathen – roughly half of its adherents believe that policy needs to change. And, since most of these people won’t themselves be LGBT, we have to assume that there are a good number of Christians who see non-self-interested reasons for wanting the church to shift.

    Finally, as Gene Robinson reminds us, women’s ordination began with a number of women simply flouting policy. Civil disobedience was what it took to get us to a place that the overwhelming number of C of E Christians would now regard as positive. Those clergy entering same sex marriages over the next few months are making the same kind of judgement (and as you have probably guessed by now, I wish all strength to their arm).

    • Given the credit crunch and the poverty it has brought, as mentioned in the other piece of news about bishops in the last week (and how good that that letter got more coverage than the statement on same sex marriage!), it might be argued that the Church relaxing its teaching on lending money at interest turned out rather badly. Just saying.

  2. When bishops are happy to bless, amongst other things, opulent candlesticks, nuclear submarines, and pet rabbits, their refusal to bless the committed relationships of their gay worshippers is rightly to be understood as an insult. It shows none of the pastoral sensitivity that this document makes such a charade of endorsing.

  3. I found this a very depressing piece, especially towards the end, when it basically segues into “If you gays don’t like Church of England teaching, go somewhere else because getting uppity doesn’t do you any good.” Of course, it’s put in a more polite South of England way, but that’s what it amounts to.

    The problem is – and Evangelicals just don’t seem to get this – I don’t HAVE anywhere else to go. I’m a reformed Catholic whose spirituality is rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. This is not like defecting to another Charismatic church of a different denomination.

    In any case, why should I go anywhere else? No wrong committed by Christians – and 2000 years of Church history don’t speak that well of us – has ever been righted without a group of uppity Christians who stayed on the inside even when the hierarchy would rather have been rid of them. Many of us care too much about the mission and ministry of the C of E, which has a habit of getting things very right when it does get them right, to go.

    All churches are flawed anyway. As Gillan points out.

    In any case, in 10 years max this will be settled in our favour. Why leave a party before it’s about to get started?

    • Some of us “gays” are quite happy with the Church teaching as it happens. We really need to get away from this view of all LGB Christians having a particular view – it’s simply not the case and groups like TFT have as large a membership as Changing Attitude.

    • Thank you Gerry for this. One of the Church if England’s great strengths is that it can hold people with a broad range of views and I would hate that to change. I understand what you say about lack of options too. Perhaps my choice of words about leaving wasn’t the best. I’ve modified them, but I think the principle remains as an option if you really can’t abide the direction your church is travelling in. I would not want to see people leave – it is always saddening to see and I don’t think that many would as was the case when women were first accepted for ordination. Despite its desire to accommodate the C of E still isn’t going to please everyone, though. If it does end up offering blessings for same-sex partnerships there are going to be a fair number of people who will be faced with that decision, so it works both ways.

      I’m not sure I agree that getting uppity is the most effective way to change things. It can potentially work against you. Looking at the move towards women bishops, it’s not those who shout the loudest who are necessarily being listened to. Much more direction is coming through persuasive theological debate that satisfies minds as well as hearts.

      • I went to church for a quarter of a century, but I no longer do so because it is hypocritical to give support to an organisation (CofE) which has no interest in fulfilling a duty of pastoral care to gay people, and, if last week’s statement is anything to go by, shows every sign of beginning a witch-hunt against its gay clergy.

        The church’s current strategy — to vacillate on every important moral question in the hopes of making everyone equally unhappy — is ultimately what drove me to leave. They talk about good news, but I never hear any. Yet more significant than those who leave are those who would never come in the first place. There is a misconception that people have no time for religion; sociological analysis shows “supernatural” belief to be widespread. More often, in my experience, those who stay away from churches can identify positive moral reasoning for doing so.

      • Andrew, the dynamics of what constitutes a “welcoming” church can be complex. I don’t feel particularly welcome in what I perceive to be predominately middle-class evangelical churches but absent of any policy to exclude the working-classes I have to accept that some of my discomfort is due to factors that won’t change until I seek out a church that attracts an entirely different demographic (and I’m not convinced that such self-segregation is spiritually healthy).

        The “party line” certainly matters but I would interested in knowing what “pastoral care to gay people” would look like for you and whether you believe changes from the top would make a difference at the level of everyday interactions with other church members (some of whom will presumably remain homophobic long after the CoE has changed its position on same-sex relationships).

  4. Thanks for this update Gillan, and I appreciate your frustration when there’s material to deal with.

    You’re correct to stress obedience. I’d add that leaders shouldn’t compromise their personal discipleship and relationship with our Lord in surrendering to the world’s values. God’s house will be judged first, not the world.

    Interesting that I learned only yesterday that a simple act of obedience resulted in one leader (known to me) being able to bring his friend back from an untimely death. No formula was necessary. The Lord told him He’d responded out of the man’s obedience to His instruction to go and find his friend and pray for him. But with all due respect, I have to ask – do Anglicans do that sort of thing??

    • Thank you Richard. One of the things I have learnt in life is that God richly blesses me when I follow his commands and seek to be obedient to Him and I still need to learn to do it more – more of God and less of me.

      I certainly know plenty of Anglicans who would do just what you have said. Don’t give up in the whole of the Anglican Church yet Richard!

  5. Interesting viewpoint. I would challenge the validity of your analogy: ‘So if a vicar is asked to bless a single teenage girl and her baby following a one night stand, it is right to bless them. Is it any different for a couple in a same-sex marriage?’ Well, it is. There is a difference between blessing indivduals and blessing the decisions and choices that they make.

    By way of contrast with this comparison, the wording of the Pastoral Guidance deals with the request for recognition of the new situation, whether marriage or CP. That request is specifically occasioned by the event of formalising a same-sex relationship: ‘some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship…’

    Now, if the couple are ‘seeking recognition of their new situation’, their goal is for the clergy, as recognised representatives of Christ, to affirm the rightness before God of their new status and their act of public commitment.

    At first sight, it may appear unfair for clergy to bless barges, bridges and pet rabbits so readily, only for them to balk at performing any rite to mark the public commitment of gay couples.

    I would even agree that the former examples can border on the inane. Nevertheless, this misses the point. There are no scriptural prohibitions against civil engineering or pets.

    Would those in favour of a public liturgy for gay couples permit the church to mark the signing of all of UK international treaties with a liturgy of blessing? No. They would want the church to withhold blessing of international agreements that contradict its teachings. Yet, such treaties can exhibit mutuality and fidelity betwen the parties involved.

    Could they imagine David asking Nathan to bless his hope for sexual congress with Bathsheba? Could they envisage Samson invoking God’s blessing on his fledgling relationship with Delilah? No, because to do so in the face of God’s explicit disapproval would be a travesty.

    So, this eventually ends up as a subtle form of ‘begging the question’. They ask: ‘do you think that when God is critical of homosexual acts, He is talking about sex between two individuals in a ‘permanent, stable and faithful’ same-sex relationship?’ Of course, it’s a rhetorical question. The couple’s disregard for the divine gift of sexual differentiation within the creation ordinance is not somehow cancelled by their pact until death to maintain that disregard in favour of each other permanently, faithfully and stably.

    To persist in a pact of loyal defiance to each other against apostolic teaching is not a virtue, but a vice.

    I could ask a similar question, ‘do you think that when God is critical of idolatry, he’s talking about modern consumers busily buying and exchanging tokens of kindness for each other at Christmas?’


    • Very well put David – and we’re back to Father’s expectation of our uncompromising obedience to His instructions!

    • The problem, as we all know, is that not every Christian subscribes to the same theology re. sexuality. Where authorised blessings are concerned, there is a categorically intractable situation: some don’t want to be part of a church that refuses such blessings, and other don’t want to be part of a church that conducts them. Since, for the time being, the CofE is a church that refuses, for many the only course of action to take in good theological conscience is to leave the church. The converse would apply if and when the CofE decides to conduct them.

      Re. Joe’s earlier comment: I think that pastoral care requires ministering to the whole person. In my experience gay people are often welcome in church as long as they suppress their sexuality, or at least suppress its public visibility (for example, by the irritatingly widespread convention of a gay person’s partner being referred to as their “friend”, usually accompanied by some even more irritating vocal inflection). Ex-gay/post-gay advocates often talk about ministering to the whole person, too, but often what is really meant is to ignore the part of the person they don’t like (i.e., the gay bit). Unfortunately, life — and, indeed, nature, and faith in God — a bit more complex than that.

      • Andrew, I agree with you that conservative Christians can often handle conversations about gay people pretty badly – but why would you want to remain in a church which bases the parameters of it’s pastoral care on a traditional sexual ethic (no sex outside of marriage)? I don’t understand the need to persuade conservative churches to change their ethical guidelines when there are plenty of liberal churches that will welcome gay people in the way you want them to. [I accept this doesn’t solve the problem of giving CoE clergy the same options]

      • Scrap that. I’ve just seen your comments about “for many the only course of action to take in good theological conscience is to leave the church.”

      • but it goes further than that, doesn’t it? There appears to be no basis for imposing a code of honourable dialogue on either polarised side of this debate.

        However, categorically intractable the dispute is, why should advocacy groups on both sides be allowed to demonise opponents?

        Consider the following statements as they escalate in condemnation:

        LGBT activist rhetoric:
        ‘Those who oppose same-sex marriage are stoking the fires of homophobia by persisting in denying gay couples the opportunity to make a public commitment to each other within the context of Christian worship.’

        ‘Those who oppose same-sex marriage are deniers of the Chalcedonian confession that declares that Christ derived His entire earthly nature from a woman’.

        ‘Those who oppose same-sex marriage are rejecting the incarnation of Christ, a fundamental truth of salvation, wherein there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female.’

        Hard-line conservative rhetoric:
        ‘Those who give ear to the ‘lived experience’ of gay sex partners are sanctioning sexual behaviour condemned by OT and NT scripture.’

        ‘By allowing those in homosexual relationships to participate in CofE services, we are calling down damnation on our country.’

        ‘The recent floods have been sent as a judgement on our country’s secular acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.’

        While I’m sure you can identify additional falsehoods propagated by hard-line conservatives, could you be equally critical of LGBT activist rhetoric?

        How about we criticise those web-savvy demagogues who claim to represent us on either side of the SSM debate, but are disparaging of even decent people who oppose their radical agendas?

        Why can’t we confront both self-appointed conservative and liberal public martyrs with what we know to be true of Christian self-disregard for the better of others?

        Are our most vociferous schism-ready ‘allies’ too valuable to the cause to be rejected in pursuit of maintaining a true perspective about each other?

        Can we ever probe and publicly distance ourselves from the possible self-promoting motives of those who claim to be at the forefront of these movements for and against same-sex marriage, or do we just assume that our loudest advocates should merely enjoy our unqualified approval?

  6. Universal GAYety is Coming !

    Gays are found throughout history. For the first time ever – finally – they’re almost worldwide! Wow!
    This global gaydom is even foretold in the Bible – predicted by Jesus (see “days of Lot” in Luke 17 and compare with Genesis 19).
    And the Hebrew prophet Zechariah (14th chapter) says that during the same gay “days” ALL nations will come against Israel and fulfill the “days of Noah” at the same time (see Luke 17 again) – a short time of anti-Jewish genocide found in Zechariah 13:8 when two-thirds of all Jews will die.
    In other words, when “gay days” have become universal, all hell will break loose!
    Shockingly, the same “days” will lead to and trigger the “end of days” – and when they begin, human government will quickly wind down in just a few short years. For the first time in history there won’t be enough time for anyone to expect to live long enough to be able to attend college, have kids and grand-kids, save for and enjoy retirement, etc.
    One final thought. The more we see gays “coming out,” the sooner Jesus will be “coming down”!
    (For more, Google or Yahoo “God to Same-Sexers: Hurry Up,” “Jesus Never Mentioned Homosexuality. When gays have birthdays…,” and “FOR GAYS ONLY: Jesus Predicted…”)


  1. Paul Keith Davis remembers his friend Bob Jones | Richard's Watch
  2. What Jesus is saying to His Church… | Richard's Watch
%d bloggers like this: