The first part of this article defended the guidance against three prominent criticisms that have been made of it. This second part turns to highlight three areas of ambiguitiy, unclarity or inconsistency before concluding with some thoughts on the challenges we now face.
Questioning, Conscience, Discipleship and Discernment
Prior to their statement about not refusing the sacraments the bishops state that “Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle” (para 18, italics added). That final phrase is on one reading unobjectionable but on another an alarming precedent.
This guidance likely orginates in the 2005 statement on civil partnerships which said lay people entering civil partnerships “ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion” (2005, para 23). The difference here is that someone who marries someone of the same sex is clearly departing from church teaching which is not true for those entering civil partnerships. It may be that this guidance is simply repeating that of 2005 and preventing enforced and intrusive questioning about sexual behaviour, especially towards those who are new church members and who are to be welcomed into a congregation’s life. That is important guidance and it is sad that it needs to be said. However, on the surface, it appears potentially much broader. Those who marry someone of the same sex are, it could be claimed, not to face any questions about that decision within the life of the worshipping community. The danger here is that this sounds frighteningly like – and could be widely heard as - the widespread privatisation of moral decision-making. It can be understood to be saying that to be a welcoming Christian community entails never questioning or being questioned about one’s “lifestyle” even when it is evidently contrary to biblical and church teaching. This is to abandon being a community of moral discernment and moral formation which seeks to enable mutual growth in faithful discipleship.
There can clearly be questioning that is wrong and damaging in tone, substance, timing and intent. Damage is most likely where there is a power imbalance which may be alluded to here with the use of “subjected to”. Nevertheless, respecting the freedom of conscience claimed by someone living contrary to the church’s teaching must not entail refusing to question them about their decision. An appeal to conscience to justify conscientious dissent cannot be separated from an acceptance that each person has a responsibility to train and form their conscience. A key element in that is dialogue with, including being questioned by, those who disagree. This discipline of mutual accountability is true both in society generally and particularly in the church where we all need to learn to be open to question about our lives.
The difficulty with any wholesale rejection of “questioning about lifestyle” is not only that it fundamentally undermines a process whereby individuals may come to recognise and turn from sin in their own lives. It also prevents the church from recognising its own moral errors through ecclesial discernment. If the church is wrong in its judgment about same-sex marriage then how will it come to recognise its errors? Surely in large part through questioning and being persuaded by the answers of those of its members who believe the church is wrong and so conscientiously depart from its teaching in their own lives? If I cannot question someone about why they have done something I consider to be wrong I cannot learn that my conscience is the one which is flawed and in need of reformation.
Although there is a real risk of this privatising interpretation there is a hopeful sign that this is not the case. Reference is also made to “pastoral discussion of the church's teaching” with those who enter same-sex marriages including “their reasons for departing from it” (para 21). This is exactly the sort of “questioning” that needs to be encouraged. The danger is that the guidance may be read as limiting this to a particular set of circumstances, one which raises further questions about the details of the guidance.
Acts of worship following civil same sex weddings
The reference to enquiring about a couple’s actions appears in guidance on “acts of worship following civil same sex weddings”. This heading introduces a new and ambiguous category in episcopal guidance in this area. The 2005 statement on civil partnerships spoke simply of “the blessing of civil partnership” which it then ruled out. The new statement similarly states “services of blessing should not be provided” and that “clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways”. In doing so it claims that it is following “the same approach as commended in the 2005 statement” but there are at least three significant tensions and unclarities.
First, the decision to apply the same approach in relation to prayer and services is a different method to that used in relation to clergy. There it was held that same-sex marriages and civil partnerships are not equivalent and so a stricter response than in 2005 was required. This difference is never explained or justified.
Second, by referring to “acts of worship”, the guidance could be understood as giving greater freedom to clergy in responding to same-sex married couples than they were explicitly granted for those entering civil partnerships. It remains, however, unclear what is being said here. One reading is that this simply allows some informal recognition in a Sunday service as for other newly married couples, perhaps including them in the intercessions. If so then the statement is pretty rigorist - even this requires "pastoral discussion of the church's teaching and their reasons for departing from it". Another reading is that a specific service, perhaps a "service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage", will be acceptable as long as it is not a "service of blessing" (what is prohibited are “services of blessing” not “services including blessing”).
Third, although the bishops encourage “more informal kind of prayer” there is not even the clarity of the earlier Guildford advice which refers to “praying with and for such persons informally in a private or domestic context". It would appear therefore that "other ways" of "pastoral and sensitive" response could include "acts of worship following same-sex marriage" as long as these are not "services of blessing". This has certainly been how some have understood and implemented the 2005 guidance although this has been strongly critiqued, for example, by Gavin Foster.
If this is the case then the guidance appears very close to permitting implementation of the Pilling recommendation (though with no requirement to involve the PCC). While not authorising a liturgy (which was never proposed by Pilling) and so able to say “liturgical practice also remains unchanged” (para 20), the guidance could permit public acts of worship to mark (the Pilling Report talked of “mark” and “celebrate” not “bless”) a same-sex marriage. However, were public acts of worship to be arranged after a same-sex marriage there remain serious questions about their legality. Canon B5 is clear that ministers “may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions”. However, such services “shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. Given Canon B30 and the bishops’ appeal to it in this guidance it would therefore appear difficult for any legal service to refer to the couple as married. It is also difficult to see how such a service could be consistent with the guidance and meet the expectations of the couple as the next section explores.
The statement says what is not permitted in pastoral responses but fails to offer any practical guidance on how best to pray for such a couple in conformity with the teaching and discipline of the church. In my experience this is a major question for many clergy facing the prospect of requests for prayer. How does one speak the truth in love – to the couple in pastoral care and to God in prayer with them and for them – about their decision if the truth is as it is set out by the bishops? Clearly there will be positive intentions and many virtues within the relationship which can be affirmed but, even leaving aside the question of sexual behaviour, if the marriage itself is viewed as a “departure from church teaching” and choosing to enter a way of life not compatible with framing one’s life according to the doctrine of Christ then does that also not need to be acknowledged in some way?
The Pilling Report highlighted the idea of pastoral accommodation. This was defined by Oliver O’Donovan in his evidence as “a response to some urgent presenting needs, without ultimate dogmatic implications” and perhaps “paradoxical in relation to basic moral belief”. In the words of the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage (para 49) the goal is “bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm” through an action which can “proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it”.
O’Donovan’s evidence offers examples of “just war” and the church’s provision for marriage in church during the lifetime of a former spouse. The episcopal guidance in relation to the latter he described as being given “to uphold the principle that marriage was essentially a lifelong commitment and broken marriage was a wrong”. He also cites an earlier proposed prayer after abortion. This was not “to invoke the blessing of God on an abortion” because “the text of the prayer acknowledged sorrowfully that a human life had been taken” and sought to sustain “a witness to the meaning of the act that is certainly not maintained by simply taking no notice”.
The difficulty with these examples is clear - After a same-sex marriage are people looking for prayer which, to rework the examples above, would "not invoke the blessing of God" on a same-sex marriage but rather “uphold the principle that marriage was essentially" a union of one man and one woman and same-sex marriage "was a wrong”? Would they welcome prayers which “acknowledge sorrowfully” that their new marital situation places them in a “difficult position” needing to brought “into closer approximation” to “the form of life given by God’s creative goodness” proclaimed in the liturgical action?
Someone involved in the Pilling Report commented to me that the weakness in the abortion example is that it does not deal with a situation of celebration. To my mind the deeper problem is thinking that “pastoral accommodation” as defined above is the proper approach when the pastoral situation is rightly described as one of unqualified “celebration”. This is perhaps at the heart of the pastoral challenge raised by the bishops’ guidance. Even if the church can be faithful to its sexual ethic and celebrate committed same-sex relationships which have many positive qualities (itself an issue of major disagreement), it cannot celebrate such relationships as marriages as long as it upholds its current doctrine of marriage. But celebration of their marriage is precisely what is being sought by those same sex couples who “seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship” (para 19).
The statement and the responses to it highlight the near-impossible challenges now facing the church. These result from the new marriage law’s incompatibility with the church’s doctrine of marriage and from the church’s internal divisions over that doctrine and how to respond faithfully. The response of the bishops is based on upholding the current teaching. It is marked by
- Continued distancing from and opposition to the state and the law in this area. This is never easy, particularly for an established church. When it is on a matter where church and state have previously been partners in basic agreement and the church retains a special legal responsibility and social function it is even more uncomfortable. If wider society generally comes to accept the state’s definition the stance will be yet more difficult to maintain.
- Clergy upholding church teaching in their lives. The statement that clergy should not marry same-sex partners creates an incompatibility between two public statuses and so makes open confrontation almost inevitable.
- Limited guidance on responding to those who marry a same-sex partner. Here there is a refusal to excommunicate on the one hand and a refusal to marry or allow blessings on the other, both of which have upset parts of the church. Apart from these boundaries, there is, however, little or no practical guidance on how - given the church’s teaching – to respond in relation to training in discipleship, mutual discernment, private prayer or public worship.
One way forward is to see the problem as lying with the current teaching about marriage. Rewrite that, or just make it optional, and there is no need for distance and opposition, clergy can marry their same-sex partners and the church can hold weddings and call on gay and lesbian people to marry as a pattern of faithful discipleship. Many clergy and a number of bishops would welcome or at least tolerate this way forward. The problem is that such a move would now be a radical volte-face, very hard to justify theologically, lead to major divisions in the CofE and Communion, and damage relationships with ecumenical partners.
What then is the alternative? It is to work out and follow through the positive, practical implications of the church’s teaching for its own internal life and its witness in mission and ministry to the nation. The statement begins to do this but it does so more in the form of prohibitions which mark certain boundaries. For those opposed to the teaching these are unacceptable and they have come close to viewing the bishops as like the false shepherds of Ezekiel 34. For those committed to the teaching there is much that is welcome but also elements of concern and a desire for clearer leadership in thinking and following through the practical implications of the teaching. The problem is that such a move is unlikely to come from the bishops, certainly as a House, and it needs to be developed on the ground by learning from experience and sharing of best practice.
One reason that further practical guidance is unlikely from the House of Bishops is that some of its members do not personally believe that the church’s doctrine of marriage as being a union of a man and a woman is true and something which “most benefits society” (para 8). Others, although personally convinced of such a view, are concerned about the implications – in church and wider society - of following that commitment through in church teaching and practice. Those concerns will have been deepened by the strength of criticism they have faced for upholding the teaching and following it through even to the extent they have done.
The sad reality is that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Although it is reported that only one bishop voted against the guidance, it is also being claimed that a significant number, even a majority, are not personally happy with it. The reactions to the guidance make clear just how extensive the divisions are in the wider church and thus how difficult the environment for the facilitated conversations is going to be. They also perhaps highlight two areas where the conversations need to focus their attention but which were largely unaddressed by the Pilling Report:
(1) What doctrine of marriage should the Church have and how should it then bear faithful witness to that in ordering its own life and in mission in a wider society which recognises same-sex marriage? and
(2) What is to be done, what new church structures may be needed, so that those who find themselves unable to accept the conclusions on the doctrine of marriage and its practical implications can faithfully bear witness to their understanding of marriage without undermining the mind of the majority or condemning the Church of England to continuing destructive conflict over this issue?