Church of England

House of Bishops upholds canon law: marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman

After a seemingly interminable period of ‘shared conversations’ on the nature of marriage and the relational experiences of some LGBT Christians, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has, at long last, issued its report: ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.’ The Bishops implore that the paper “be read as a whole, with each paragraph being understood in the context of the whole”, but few have bothered or will ever care to do that. So what ensues is a cacophony of objection and counter-rejection; disappointment and dismay; triumphalism and misrepresentation. Honestly, surveying the din of comment on this so far you’d think LGBT(-supporting) Anglicans are incapable of doing theology; and same-sex-marriage-opposing Anglicans are incapable of reading. How is it possible to derive such universal distress and discontent from a General Synod paper which argues for biblical orthodoxy, theological coherence and ecclesial catholicity?

It’s probably best not to link to any articles or tweets by LGBT(-supporting) Anglicans, for fear of eliciting allegations of ‘hate’, and this blog being reported to the police (again). Suffice to say, many are a little disappointed that the House of Bishops has not opted not to amend Canon B30 ‘Of Holy Matrimony‘ to incorporate same-sex marriage as a matter Christian social justice. Perhaps “a little disappointed” is something of an understatement: in some quarters there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Not everywhere, by any means, for, in truth, there is no unified ‘LGBT community’ view on the matter of same-sex marriage, not least because there is no mono-cogitative LGBT community, despite the concerted efforts of certain campaigning agitators to make it appear so. The harmonious voices of Christians inclined to same-sex attraction but who are also fundamentally opposed to same-sex ‘marriage’ (in scare quotes) are rarely heard above the gay-rights lobby, for whom same-sex marriage (no scare quotes) is simply another form of lawful marriage, and the church must affirm this as a fundamental matter of ‘full equality’ and justice in the state.

But the House of Bishops doesn’t agree: they “seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency” (¶10). Justin Welby has not been busily “preparing the ground for a complete volte-face on human sexuality“: the Church of England doesn’t just want to be a “not too irritating chaplain to a secular and hedonistic culture“. The Archbishop of Canterbury has reflected with his fellow Bishops on the meaning of marriage and the nature of gender identity, and they reached a consensus in the light of Scripture and in accord with reason and tradition: that marriage is fundamentally social and potentially reproductive; that man and woman in their community of masculinity and femininity reflect the image of God; that Adam is incomplete without Eve.

This understanding of marriage is rooted in the Bible and developed in the Church’s tradition: it is revered and respected in its sacramental character, embodying, as it does, natural law and the growth of holiness. Christian marriage is not simply a corporeal contract between two individuals: it is in its nature a union of one man with one woman. Holy matrimony is a natural institution predisposed to the purpose of making of “one flesh”, which reflects the covenant relationship between Christ and his Church. This is “doctrinal coherency”: so much flows from it (and proposals to redefine it [see Appendix 1]) that there is a risk of mistaking the earthen vessel for the treasure it contains.

But many orthodox Anglicans are also unhappy with this report. These may be linked to because they tend not to shriek ‘hate’ and run to the police. Consider the terse musings of GAFCON UK, and the finicky nit-picking of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. “We do not have confidence that this document will guarantee the maintenance of orthodoxy within the Church of England for the future,” says the GAFCON UK Taskforce (..the what?); “the primacy of Scripture is not affirmed,” chides Bishop Michael. It is as though there is virtue in offensive crabbiness and the assertion of hyper-critical polarities. Is pettyfogging hairsplitting a ministry of the Holy Spirit?

Both sides of this protracted debate (which has by no means come to an end with this report) have long had unrealistic expectations of what is either doable or desirable. The task of the House of Bishops on any matter of moral theology is to pray, study, reflect, meditate, discuss, pray, argue, pray, and then love one another and feed the flock, thereby inculcating their measure of consensus. This is how the Church’s bishops have always determined and imparted matters of doctrine in the light of revelation. The views of any single bishop are subsumed to the never-ending corporate-episcopal journey toward truth, for now we see in a glass darkly; all collegiate theology is necessarily provisional.

And in the dimness of that provisionality it becomes apparent that there is simply no corporate appetite or collective belief in the right to amend Canon B30. And since Anglican polity determines that there can be no liturgy which is contrary to the teaching of the church – we pray what we believe – there will be no development of same-sex marriage blessings. The reasons couldn’t be clearer:

60. The unity of a particular Church is not something that can be detached from the unity of the Universal Church. As well as continuing and deepening communion within the Church of England as we begin to deliberate on next steps in this area, we want to listen to and learn with other Churches in and beyond the Anglican Communion, seeking together the mind of Christ. In doing so, account has to be taken of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those Churches subscribe to the traditional teaching on marriage reflected in our own doctrine and teaching. Moreover, the Church of England’s own position in the Anglican Communion – membership of which is defined by being in communion with the See of Canterbury – inevitably means that any departure from its doctrine and teaching would have implications for the Communion (cf. paragraph 4).

61. The unity of the Church cannot be detached from our common faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore from the teaching through which that gospel is faithfully passed on. In following this approach, the Church of England would be continuing to affirm unequivocally the doctrine of marriage set out in Canon B30, and to be able to expound it with confidence as the Church’s teaching. Given the distinctive relationship between doctrine and public worship in the Church of England, that also requires that what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching.

The themes are doctrinal catholicity and theological coherence. The Church is for all men and women in the fallen and imperfect order of creation: it is open to all, irrespective of race, sex or social status: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus‘ (Gal 3:28). To this we may well now add that there is neither gay nor straight, for Christians who are orientated to same-sex attraction are now orientated to Christ and transformed in the renewing of their minds (Rom 12:2). LGBT people are not ‘lesser’ or ‘second class’ or anything inferior: their gifts and service and callings are just different: ‘Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all‘ (1Cor 12:4-6).

Therein lies unity in diversity; authentic catholicity; a universal faith which is true to the belief and practice of the Apostolic Church. From the New Testament onward, all weighty matters of doctrine have been determined by summoning a council and ascertaining consensus. The House of Bishops of the Church of England have given considered expression to the mind of the universal Church, speaking, as it believes, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And Pope Francis has given the cue on the way LGBT people should be treated: fully respectfully, compassionately, humanly; “Who am I to judge?“:

“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love. I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”

And so the Bishops have determined that “there should be new guidance from the House about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle” (¶23d), for why should homosexuality be sniffed out while heterosexual promiscuity, drunkenness and greed remain uninterrogated? The Bishops advocate a cultural shift: “Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church” (¶22). Some LGBT Anglicans scream and scream at this apparent contradiction, for how can there be “maximum freedom” within legal constraint. Do they think freedom in Christ is licence to do anything they feel is right? For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another‘ (Gal 5:13). And some conservative Evangelicals curse the Bishops’ words as a liberal inclination too far, for what “maximum freedom” can there be which does not compromise with sin and darkness?

Both sides risk detracting from the national mission, which, for the Church of England, is a profoundly pastoral one: no-one is excluded or marginalised from the spiritual heart of the nation’s life unless their isolation is willful and self-inflicted. But the church’s message of redemption is not one of sentimental welfare or humanitarianism: it is toward eternal salvation and ever-increasing holiness. It isn’t easy journeying with prickly people whose march for Jesus always has to be two holier steps in front of you, but let us agree at least to go on walking and talking about the meaning of “maximum freedom” in Christ. If the Early Church could expand the boundaries of Christian fellowship to accept the unclean Gentiles as equals in Christ, it is incumbent upon us all to reflect on the symbolic implications of this for the whole distorted, corrupted and confused created order.