‘Prime Minister: The Church should “reflect” on allowing gay couples to marry’, declares the Telegraph; ‘Theresa May Suggests Churches Should Consider Conducting Same-Sex Marriages’, says Huffpost UK; ‘May: Church should reflect on stance on gay marriage’, the Daily Mail repeats. Then the same-sex marriage tweets proliferated, beginning with the Telegraph‘s Chief Political Correspondent Christopher Hope, followed by hundreds of other activists and churnalists fanning the same ember of mandatory ecclesial emancipation: a preponderance of prime-ministerial ‘shoulds’ lecturing the Church of England on what it means to be free, giving the impression that Theresa May believes that it is for the Government to instruct the Established Church in matters of dogmatic theology and sexual morality.
Except she said nothing of the sort.
In an interview with LBC‘s Iain Dale, this is what he asked, and this is how she responded:
We all know your father was a vicar in the Church of England. Do you think that, I mean, many years on he would have been sympathetic to the idea of Church of England vicars being able to bless gay marriages? Because under the law at the moment they’re not allowed to do that.
Yes, I mean, it’s very difficult to say what somebody who, you know – sadly my father has now been dead for gosh, you know, getting on for well over 30 years, over 35 years. But I think as an individual he very much valued the importance of relationships of people affirming those relationships and of them – of seeing stability in relationships and people able to be together with people that they love.
Is that the next stage though? Because – and there are many gay Christians. There are many gay clergymen who would like to be able to do this but at the moment aren’t able to. Would you like to see the law evolve on that?
I mean, this is – this has to be a matter for the – for the Church. I mean, it is important that the Church is able – and the Church – the Church of England has itself come a distance in terms of looking at these issues. And obviously they will want to reflect as attitudes more generally change, as society changes.
Do you see a ‘should’, a ‘must’ or an ‘ought’ in there regarding the future of gay marriage or blessing? “This has to be a matter for the Church,” the Prime Minister said. Could she have been any clearer? Has her position on this not been utterly consistent? “I strongly support equal marriage, and I know that these debates will continue, but it will have to be for the church as a whole to decide if it wants to make a change to its canon law,” she said only a few months ago. The church as a whole: Theresa May has absolutely no intention of forcing the Church of England to perform gay marriage (or blessing), and absolutely no desire to lecture it in the way it should go.
What Theresa May did articulate was a rather more nuanced way of doing theology – practical theology, which some term applied theology. “And obviously (the Church) will want to reflect as attitudes more generally change, as society changes,” she said. And of course that is exactly as it should be, for the Christian faith is a living, contextual, cooperative faith, concerned with the theology that needs to be done where the people are at. It is a religion of pastoral care, counselling, compassion and spiritual direction; the forming and maintenance of community; the teaching and learning about sin and salvation in real-life situations.
If the Church does not reflect on how theology is affected by human interaction, it is dead. A religion which considers itself immune from mutability in the light of human experience will find no relevance at all in any culture. What the Prime Minister advanced in this brief exchange is the importance of the dialogical process of mutual change – the institutional reflection and self-critical meditation that may both reform Church praxis and transform human practice. The balancing of value-directed action with pastoral accommodation is not always easy to get right, but that is no reason or justification for paralysis. Note that she makes absolutely no prescriptive judgment at all on how the Church’s reflections should conclude: she simply exhorts the need for the Christian life to be rooted in the real world; for the Church to find relevance in relation to wider society.
So all those fevered ‘shoulds’ are #FakeNews: Theresa May’s Christianity stems from a pragmatic, practical grasp of theology which pursues the question of Christian witness in relation to cultural context. This includes reflecting on how the Church of England’s structures and practices help or hinder that witness. And that, presumably, is a very useful thing for the Church to do, and a laudable thing for a Christian prime minister to contribute to.