The English societal cultural shift towards the acceptance of homosexual sexual activity and then of same-sex marriage has been historically rapid. Homosexual sexual activity was still a criminal offence in my lifetime (not decriminalised until 1967) and fresh Government restrictions preventing schools and local authorities promoting a homosexual lifestyle were being introduced after I was ordained (1988). It is striking that progress culminating in legalising same-sex marriage was then achieved by 2013 – the same political party which legislated against promotion of a ‘pretended family relationship’ in 1988 legislated to establish a real family relationship just twenty-five years later.
Now, ten years later, those members of the Church of England’s ‘House of Bishops’ who want to follow this through are in a trap.
First, our doctrinal limits are hard to pin down. These often have to be deduced from what authorised liturgy (especially the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and our Canons (a rule book much more limited in size than, say, the very substantial code of the Catholic Church) say. But it is clear that marriage is explicitly referred to in both as being between a man and a woman.
Secondly, our ability to express fresh developments is circumscribed. Changes to authorised liturgy or to Canons can only be made by consensual agreement in the General Synod. The working definition of such consensus is that a majority is needed of two thirds in each of the Synod’s three ‘Houses’ (bishops, clergy and lay people voting separately). This is the reason, for example, agreement to ordain women as priests and then as bishops came much later in England than in, for example, the Episcopal Church in the United States.
So even if a majority of the members of the House of Bishops have come to believe that homosexual sexual relations are not inherently sinful, that same-sex marriages are a welcome development, and it is politically expedient to progress in speaking and acting on these beliefs (which are, incidentally, three quite different things), they could not begin to act on these convictions by attempting new authorised liturgy or changing the Canons whilst they know the level of consensus does not (yet) exist in all three Houses.
Some voices urge strongly a move towards equal marriage celebrated in church – what the state has been doing for the last decade and some other Christian denominations churches are also now doing. Some voices urge strongly an explicit recommitment to the position that any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is sinful – the teaching of the church for most of its history. The House of Bishops latest move is seen by some to be an attempt to split the difference between these two irreconcilable positions – proposing new liturgy to ask a blessing on those who have entered into same sex civil marriage but not proposing any move towards having such marriages take place in church.
Actually the trapped House of Bishops may simply be moving as far as it can. There is provision in the Canons which allows bishops to commend liturgy for situations in which no authorised liturgy exists - but such commended liturgy cannot be ‘contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’. This is what they are doing - although it remains an open question as to how many Christian men or women who have entered into legal civil same-sex marriage will want to seek such a blessing which, when you look through them, studiously avoid mentioning that such a marriage exists or is possible.
They cannot, as far as I can see, do any more. This dismays those who wish they would - it flummoxes both Christians in faithful same-sex unions and those in wider more accepting English society. It delights those who wish they wouldn’t – many believing that the General Synod’s approach to over whelming consensus is an important safeguard against fashion or liberalism. It is simply what it is - a church which, when it does change, for good or ill, does so slowly.
I mentioned the ordination of women. I might have it in mind because the official cycle of daily Bible readings brought me to read 1 Corinthians 11 at Morning Prayer today – Paul spelling out that it is self evident to him (in his reading of scripture, reason and tradition) that it is inappropriate for women to pray with their hair uncovered. Anyway, I’ve just looked things up. Anglican women were being ordained priest in Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the United States in the 1970s, but, nearly forty years later, 36% of the members of the House of Laity of the General Synod were voting successfully in 2012 to prevent their ordination as bishops.
Meanwhile, I was given a bulb and some instructions by one of Deborah’s friends when I moved house at the end of September. There has been a lot of change in the four months since and something spectacular is about to happen.