The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage Part I – Engaging with the Critics

The divisions within the Church of England and the multiple challenges it faces in the light of the advent of same-sex marriage have become even clearer and more serious in the weeks since the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance.  In what follows I explore three areas where the bishops have been criticised and offer a defence of their stance.  A subsequent article notes three areas where questions remain and concludes by describing the serious challenge now facing the Church of England in the light of the guidance and reactions to it.

The relationship between church and state

Probably no bishop wanted to address this issue.  It has been forced upon them by the change in the law and the divergence this creates between church and state in an area where both have a major historic role.  The bishops’ description of this and their claim that what they describe has happened “for the first time” (para 9) has been subjected to major critique (initially by Linda Woodhead, then supported by Scot Peterson and an open letter of leading academics; the correspondence is reproduced here and here; helpful comments also by Frank Cranmer and Mike Higton here on disagreement over the statement and here more widely on the deeper issues).

I personally believe the bishops’ statement, though potentially misleading, is fully justifiable.  It relates not to a contradiction between the canons and statute law but rather to a divergence between “the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law” and “the doctrine of marriage”.  It has not been shown that the earlier divergences (in relation to divorce law and the prohibited degrees) clearly fall within these two descriptors.  A good case can be made that earlier legal divergences do not mark a divergence from the definition of marriage found in canon B30.  A test which I have not seen used is that the church’s marriage liturgy – a key criterion in defining its doctrine – can be used with no obvious contradiction between word and act in relation to both remarriage of divorced persons and the marriage of man to his deceased wife’s sister. The liturgy would, however, need to be significantly rewritten to enable the marriage of two men or two women.

The deeper question highlighted by this academic argument is that the church now needs to think about how it responds to this divergence –  How can it bear faithful witness to its vision of marriage in the face of a contrary vision enshrined in law? Or should it revise its doctrine?  The bishops’ response has been strongly criticised at two levels – in relation to clergy and laity – but is I think coherent and defensible.

Clergy discipline

The swiftest and strongest criticism of the statement was to its conclusion (para 27, in bold), that

The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church's teaching in their lives.

This has caused outrage with clergy stating they will flout it, inevitably leading to disciplinary processes which will be costly financially, missionally, relationally and in terms of unity.  There has, however, been little or no argument against the clear logic of the guidance which has a solid basis in law - the canonical definition of marriage remains part of the law of the land and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act Schedule 7 amended the Equality Act so that, in the words of the relevant Explanatory Note, “a church may require that a priest not be married to a person of the same sex”.

In ordering her own life in this way the Church of England is simply continuing to do so on the basis of her own canon law and doctrine.  Criticisms therefore need either argue that the Church must rewrite her canons, liturgy and teaching or propose better alternative applications of the church’s current law and teaching.  The former is a major challenge legally (requiring 2/3 majorities in all Houses of Synod) and theologically and risks appearing as the church’s capitulation and subordination to the state in how it orders its life and ministry in relation to marriage.  The latter would need to address the clear logic of the guidance: “Getting married to someone of the same sex would, however, clearly be at variance with the teaching of the Church of England.  The declarations made by clergy and the canonical requirements as to their manner of life do have real significance and need to be honoured as a matter of integrity” (para 26).

Both these paths are very difficult so it is perhaps unsurprising that the alternative that has been chosen is the well-worn but wholly destructive one of disregarding and undermining both church teaching and episcopal authority through threatening unilateral acts of “ecclesial disobedience” by creating “facts on the ground”. Although this path is well-worn, we now face a new situation.  The church has never formally suggested that clergy can be in a sexual relationship other than marriage as defined by canon.  In the past, with both civil partnerships (which clergy can still enter) and non-registered same-sex partnerships, the tension with ordained ministry was in relation to sexual behaviour which was a private matter and private assurances were to be sought and given. We are now in a situation where two public statuses – marriage to someone of the same-sex and ordination – are, in effect, declared by the bishops to be incompatible. We have therefore sadly now reached the crunch where the gap between church teaching and society is such that either the church draws a line and makes clear clergy are to order their lives in this area by the teaching of the church or it does not do so.  In other words, this new public incompatibility moves the disagreement and conflict – between church and society and within the church - to a totally new level.

Sacramental discipline

Although gaining less publicity, the statement has also been criticised by some evangelicals (eg  Lee Gatiss of Church Society and Andrew Symes of Anglican Mainstream) for equally clearly stating a compatibility in relation to laity - neither “those same-sex couples who choose to marry” nor any children they care for “should be denied access to the sacraments” (para 18).  Just as some clergy will find it difficult in conscience to accept the call on them not to enter a same-sex marriage so there are clergy who will find it difficult in conscience to accept this equally clear statement by the bishops.

This critique has some validity – it is, after all, not just the clergy who are to bear faithful witness to the church’s teaching but all followers of Jesus.  However, just as in relation to the requirements for ordination, determining access to the sacraments is a proper exercise of legitimate episcopal authority.  Although in most cases clergy administer the sacraments, they have no ultimate authority to determine access to them. The very strong presumption is to provide access whether to baptism (Canon B 22.4) or to Holy Communion, where clergy are not authorised to refuse Holy Communion at their discretion to those canonically admitted (under Canon B 15A) except in extreme circumstances.  The relevant canon (B16 – “Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion”) clearly states that if a minister is personally persuaded they ought not admit someone to Holy Communion then they “shall give an account of the same to the bishop of the diocese or other the Ordinary of the place and therein obey his order and direction”.  Even in a “case of grave and immediate scandal to the congregation” although the minister “shall not admit such person” they are required to “give an account of the same to the Ordinary within seven days after at the furthest and therein obey his order and direction”.  The language of acting only under authority, whatever one’s own personal conviction, could not be clearer.  That order and direction has now been given in this area to all clergy by the whole House.

All communicants are called to examine their lives before receiving the sacraments but it has never been the case that the Church of England refuses communion to a person simply because their life departs from faithful Christian discipleship in some area.  Although it is unusual, perhaps unprecedented, what the bishops have done here is make clear that although a particular way of life - marrying someone of the same sex -  is “departing” from the church’s teaching (para 23), which derives from Jesus himself (canon B30), this does not merit being refused the sacraments.  They do not explain this clearly but it would appear to be based on a number of factors:

  • a judgment that the couple’s commitment to marry signifies a relationship which seeks to “embody genuine mutuality and fidelity…., two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage” (Archbishops’ Letter)  and in marrying they seek “the joys of exclusive commitment” and recognise “the importance of legal recognition of the relationship” (para 18)
  • a desire “to model a distinctive and generous witness to Jesus Christ in our pastoral guidance to the Church” (Letter)
  • a recognition that to refuse the sacraments would not only damage the church in the eyes of many people but also be seen by many as a denial of Lambeth I.10 that “we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ” (para 5)
  • an application of the distinction drawn since Issues in Human Sexuality which although setting the same standards for faithfulness among  laity and clergy applies a different response in terms of church discipline when laity and clergy fall short of that standard (para 15, although Issues does not explicitly refer to access to the sacraments)
  • a judgment that it is therefore not possible to consider someone marrying someone of the same sex as a “notorious offender” or view that decision as a “grave and immediate scandal to the congregation” which would permit clergy to refuse the sacrament.

While it would have been helpful for the logic of their stance to be set out to avoid the impression that there is nothing wrong with a lay person entering a same-sex marriage or that the bishops have abandoned their responsibilities in relation to discipline, this decision, like that in relation to clergy, seems to be consistent with the church’s doctrine and law.  Alongside it, however, there appears an element in the bishops’ guidance which, although it has received little comment, is highly ambiguous and potentially very damaging.  This will be the first of three areas explored in the second part of this article.

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