The recent wedding of Jeremy Pemberton to his partner Laurence Cunnington and the plans of Andrew Cain to marry Stephen Foreshew clearly raise challenging questions for their bishops, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. The driving force for those Anglican priests who marry their often long-standing same-sex partners is clearly their love for and commitment to each other and a conviction that God is calling them to solemnise that through marriage vows now that the law permits same-sex marriage. However, given the tensions among Anglicans and particularly in the light of the February House of Bishops pastoral statement, any clergy marrying a partner of the same sex must realise and weigh the fact that in this situation the personal is also inescapably political in the sense of impacting the church’s common life.
What follows is an attempt, drawing on the key authorities the bishops cite, particularly the canons, to try to think myself into their situation and discern what they are and are not saying by marrying. I do it in the hope that I can understand where our differences lie and see whether we can find agreement about the questions and challenges they are, by their decisions, raising for the wider church given its canons.
Four key areas
First, I take it that they are not claiming the personal freedom to disregard the declaration we all make as clergy to endeavour to fashion our own lives and that of our household “according to the way of Christ” so that we may be “a pattern and example to Christ's people”. Similarly, I assume that they do not have any problem in principle with Canon C26 and its requirement of a clergyperson that “at all times he shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ”. My assumption is that they understand the vows they make in their wedding and the life they seek to live together in marriage with their partner to be an outworking not a violation of such commitments.
Second, I similarly assume that they continue to respect authority duly exercised within the church and have no problem with remaining bound to the oath of canonical obedience, recognising the importance of canon C1 for the church’s order, unity and witness: “according to the ancient law and usage of this Church and Realm of England, the priests and deacons who have received authority to minister in any diocese owe canonical obedience in all things lawful and honest to the bishop of the same”. My guess is that they would argue that, “in all things lawful and honest” they remain canonically obedient despite their marriage and they may perhaps be concerned that some are seeking to exceed rather than duly exercise their episcopal authority.
Third, I assume – because I cannot see how it can be otherwise – that it is accepted that marrying someone of the same sex is incompatible with and a contradiction of canon B30 that
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.
If a woman chooses to marry and then describe herself as married to another woman, or a man does likewise in relation to another man, then those actions are not compatible with marriage being a union “of one man with one woman”. Here, in contrast with the canons quoted above, is where there is disagreement. Jeremy Pemberton, Andrew Cain and others believe this canon is wrong and they have acted in ways they know are incompatible with this canon.
Fourth, I assume – because again I cannot see how it can be otherwise – that they recognise that this causes a problem for the church that urgently needs to be addressed. This is not simply another example of the wider problem that practically all clergy disregard – either in ignorance or in full knowledge – some specific canons during their ministry. They would, I hope, agree that there is something seriously wrong when the church – which lives by the confession that Jesus is Lord – has ministers deciding to act in a manner clearly and self-confessedly incompatible with one of the relatively few canons which explicitly claims the direct authority of Christ for what it lays down (“according to our Lord’s teaching...”).
Their decision has, therefore, created this serious problem but, on their estimation, it is not their action but canon B30 which is the root cause of the problem. They do not accept they are violating or seek to alter the other canons which have been cited but they have concluded that not only is canon B30 wrong but that they are justified in acting in a way which contradicts it. They have, with regret but out of conviction and in good conscience, entered a path of ecclesial disobedience because they believe the law is wrong and unjust and they are bound to a higher law – the law of love.
Three key questions
If the analysis above is accepted then the situation seems to be as follows. Those clergy who marry someone of the same sex believe they should live in accordance with canon C26 and that they are doing so and that their problem is simply with canon B30. However, the general category of “according to the doctrine of Christ” in C26 has within the canons one very clear specification – the definition of marriage in B30. This is the canon that, in a form of conscientious ecclesial disobedience, they are not only questioning and asking the church to reconsider but actively contradicting by their actions. I think this raises three key questions.
First, can the clergy concerned (and those supportive of them) recognise that given this situation they have a responsibility to seek an urgent change to canon B30?
A clergyperson’s decision to enter a same-sex marriage is, in effect, a demand that canon B30 be amended. The logic of their actions, whether consciously or not, is that they are attempting to bring about a change in that canon’s definition of marriage. At its weakest this would involve removing the claim of dominical authority for the definition of marriage (arguably allowing those who disregard it to put themselves on the same footing as those who disregard other canons). More likely it would entail a new definition or a removal of any definition of marriage.
What is interesting, and of concern, is that despite this being the logical implication of the actions there has, as far as I am aware, been no serious attempt to change the canon by due process and very little sustained theological critique or development of an alternative wording. The attempt to change the law by offering an alternative and seeking its acceptance by due process would normally be required for civil disobedience to be considered justified. This approach seeks to acknowledge the importance of law and authority even when challenging a specific instance of law as unjust and in need of change. In this case it appears that ecclesial disobedience ignores any such moral requirements and instead makes disregard for the law a first rather than a last resort.
Second, can the clergy concerned (and those supportive of them) therefore recognise that any bishop would be totally justified, perhaps even have a moral responsibility, to take action against them when they enter a same-sex marriage?
The decision of a clergyperson to marry someone of the same sex is not only incompatible with canon B30 but, given the wording of that canon, with the teaching of Christ according to the church and so incompatible with the canon about the pattern of clergy life. They are, by their actions, violating one of the few canons which claims to be not only church law but an articulation of divine law.
Those gay, lesbian and bisexual clergy who marry a same-sex partner clearly do not wish to be subject to church discipline which will be painful for them and for the wider church whose good they seek. Can they, however, recognise and even accept that their problem is not really with discipline being enacted – the second point above - but with the canons and in particular canon B30? Can they, as those who engage in civil disobedience should do and often do, acknowledge that those with authority to uphold the law are, given that law, right to act, and it is therefore proper they face investigation and some penalty for their actions? Is this a price they will accept as part of the cost of the struggle for what they believe is right? Can they recognise that otherwise it looks like they are saying “we are disregarding the canon on marriage and expect the church to ignore this and thus establish de facto acceptance of our view, thereby undermining the church’s claim about Christ’s teaching in favour of our understanding”?
Third, what does it really mean simply to “agree to differ” over sexuality?
This is a stance which is often and it appears increasingly being advocated and it merits much deeper analysis and consideration. It sounds easy and reasonable but, as this example shows, it is in reality highly complex and potentially illogical and incoherent. The four points above show that whatever “agreement to differ” might entail, within the current canon law this cannot easily be extended to allowing clergy to enter same-sex marriages.
If the argument above is valid then a clergyperson’s decision to enter a same-sex marriage (and, I have suggested, a claim that no action should then be taken against those who do) is, in effect, a demand that canon B30 be amended and the church, in its canons, embrace either a new definition of marriage or remove any definition of marriage. That is more than simply “agreeing to differ”.
The only other option for “agreeing to differ” is that those marrying their same-sex partners seek to establish, and the church should accept, the following:
- despite the canons saying that Christ teaches something and that clergy should order their lives by his teaching, in practice clergy should be free to decide for themselves to live in a manner contradicting this teaching;
- bishops should then accept the clergy’s own private judgment that, in this area, they are ordering their lives by our Lord’s teaching, over and above the church’s canonical statement of this teaching as regards marriage which clearly entails that the clergy are not doing so.
The hard choice
In summary, those clergy who marry someone of the same sex, and those who support them in doing so, appear to be presenting the bishops and wider church with a very hard choice:
- Change canon B30 so that marriage is not defined, is re-defined to include same-sex marriage, or is defined without reference to “our Lord’s teaching”
- Take some form of disciplinary action against those who act contrary to canon B30 and thus canon C26 by marrying someone of the same sex
- Abandon the responsibility to uphold a canon which claims the authority of Christ himself and take no action against ministers who are licensed by bishops to minister in the name of Christ and his church but are openly living in a manner which contradicts what church law says is the teaching of Christ.
My genuine question is whether anyone – whatever their views on same-sex marriage – can see any way out of this difficult set of choices flowing from the arguments presented here about the canons and the decisions of some clergy to marry someone of the same sex.
If not, then unless we agree to end up (perhaps by default and through an attempt at conflict avoidance) in what we all acknowledge is the messy theological and ecclesiological incoherence of option 3, perhaps trying to dress it up as some “via media” or “living with difference”, we now have to grasp the nettle and work out whether we can remain a healthy body united under the same canons and episcopal authority structures by attempting either option 1 or option 2.