Having 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.