“I want to see a gender-neutral marriage canon, such as they have in the Episcopal Church or in the Scottish Episcopal Church,” said the Rt Rev’d Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, at a conference of the ‘Mosaic Anglicans‘ network. “And, as a necessary but not sufficient first step, I want to see conscientious freedom for the Church’s ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise, and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions, whether civil partnerships or civil marriages,” he added, seemingly shunting the Church of England from being episcopally led and synodically governed to being more congregationalist, as the free churches are.
Bishop Paul made it clear that he does not want to see schism: “I do want us to remain one church, and, within that church, for example, I want to see the conscientious rights of conservative people preserved for them.”
Yet then we get: “But I don’t want any longer to see the conscientious rights of progressive people, who believe the truth of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York when they ask for a radical NEW Christian inclusion, I don’t want to see their consciences ignored and explained away and overridden and indeed criminalised by the power of conservative groups and people.”
This may be a via media too far, and certainly reading a little more into what the Archbishops of Canterbury and York meant by ‘radical’.
We know exactly what the introduction of a gender-neutral marriage canon would do to the Church of England: it would undoubtedly lead to schism, with years of litigious wrangling over property and other assets, and interminable ecclesio-theological arguments about who is the ‘real’ Church of England. The Bishop of Liverpool may want the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process to come to a “good destination” that does not split the Church, but the only good destination he can envision and entertain is that which does not discriminate on any level against LGBTQ+ people in the Church of England’s canons, liturgies and formularies, and if that means ‘male and female’ and ‘husband and wife’ must be expunged from the marriage canon, then so be it.
Local church leaders would soon come under pressure, indeed, compulsion, to act pastorally if not to believe doctrinally against their conscience, and doubtless they’ll be told if they don’t like it, they can leave.
This is not a dispute about same-sex love, of which the Bible speaks abundantly and exhorts faithfully as a model of divine love: it is about the expunging of male and female, the abolition of husband and wife, and the eradication of mother and father, which is not only an offence against Holy Scripture, but a denial of biological reality and the natural created order.
Imagine the gender-neutral marriage liturgy:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together these people in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of human innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and the Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with inspirational presence, and first miracle that was wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all people: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy anyone’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
…Above all it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if anyone can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let them now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold their peace.
…[Name], wilt thou have this person to thy wedded partner, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love them, comfort them, honour, and keep them, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto them, so long as ye both shall live?
…Who giveth these people to be married to each other?
I [Name], take thee [Name] to my life partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
…With these ring we each other wed, with our bodies we each other worship, and with all our worldly goods we each other endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Mother, and of the Divine Offspring. Amen.
Let us pray.
O eternal God, Creator, Sustainer and Nurturer of all humankind, Giver of all spiritual grace, the Author of everlasting life: Send thy blessing upon these thy servants, whom we bless in thy Name; that, as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, and David loved Jonathan with a love surpassing that of any woman, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, (whereof these rings given and received are a token and pledge,) and may ever remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to thy laws; through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Those whom God hath joined together let no-one put asunder.
Forasmuch as [Name] and [Name] have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of rings, and by joining of hands; I pronounce that they be life partners together, In the Name of the Mother, and of the Father, and of the Divine Offspring. Amen.
God the Mother and Father, God the Divine Offspring, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Inspirer mercifully with favour look upon you, and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen.
O merciful and heavenly Mother-Father, by whose gracious gift humankind is increased: We beseech thee, assist with thy blessing these two persons, that they may both live together so long in godly love and honesty, to thy praise and honour. Amen.
It is not only all gendered language which must be expunged – all mention of male and female, man and woman, husband and wife – but also every mention of children, for in a gender-neutral marriage canon there can be no presumption of or preference for procreation. The nuclear family becomes a partnership of two for mutual society; a contract to keep each other company (though why limit it it just two?): marriage ceases to be about a union to be blessed with babies for the future flourishing of society, because unions in a gender-neutral marriage canon must have a presumption of barrenness in the present. To talk of children is to presume fertility and so to discriminate against the naturally sterile union of man and man and woman and woman.
The General Synod of the Church of England would have to pass an amendment to Canon B30 (Of Holy Matrimony), which presently reads:
B 30 Of Holy Matrimony
1. The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.
3. It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.
The proposed amendment would remove section 1 and so expunge the biblical and doctrinal definition of marriage. Once this is done, there will be no question of local churches and ministers being allowed to decide for themselves: marriage in the Church of England will be conducted in accordance with English Law (and so the marriage of persons of the same sex will implicitly be allowed in churches).
There may well be a conscience clause that no minister shall be required to conduct any marriage against their conscience, which will doubtless begin: ‘In the light of the differing understandings of the nature of marriage in this Church…’, but we have seen with the rise of women priests how “mutual flourishing” works in practice: the traditional must give way so that the progressive may flourish.
Theology is moulded by praxis: what we do affects what we believe; liturgy shapes our understanding of theology. You may sincerely believe that the advent of a gender-neutral marriage canon would be an expression of God’s love for all human love and constitute an undoubted moral good of “radical inclusion”, but please don’t pretend that your priority then is to sustain church unity and prevent schism, when, in truth, very many of those who favour such a doctrinal revolution (for such it may be) would rather the miserable conservatives and bigoted traditionalists just leave.
Holy Mary, Parent 2 of God, pray for us sinners now…