What have the bishops changed in relation to marriage?
Summary: By setting out what the bishops (and their legal advisors) are now saying about marriage in our society, this article argues that there are significant changes in their account which have not been clearly explained or defended. It traces how the church has viewed marriage in society generally through history and summarises how the bishops previously have interpreted and responded to the introduction of civil partnerships (first for same-sex and later for opposite-sex couples) and same-sex marriage and related these to church teaching about marriage. In so doing, it shows that there are now novel claims being made. These contradict past statements in various ways and raise a number of major questions about the coherence and legality of the bishops’ response to LLF and why what is now being said contrasts in so many ways with past statements the bishops have made.
What are the bishops now saying about marriage? (2023)
The first headlines that appeared when the decisions of the bishops in response to Living in Love and Faith (LLF) were leaked emphasised that they were not changing the church’s doctrine of marriage. In particular, that marriage remains a union of one man with one woman. That is indeed the case but in other ways, once set in the context of previous statements, there have been significant shifts which deserve careful scrutiny.
One of the most surprising aspects of the bishops’ response to LLF (GS 2289) was the way in which it spoke about holy matrimony in relation to civil marriage. It did this in order to defend the proposed draft prayers being used in relation to a couple who have entered a same-sex marriage even as the church continued to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The bishops acknowledged (p7) that
Some may question whether offering a service of dedication, thanksgiving and/or blessing for same-sex couples implicitly contravenes the Church’s understanding of Holy Matrimony especially if the couple concerned has entered a civil marriage. This is an understandable question and its answer – that this service and prayers will not contradict the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony – lies in the complexities that sets the Church of England apart from any of the other churches in the Anglican Communion because of its status as the Established Church, as explained below.
In a section headed “Marriage, the State and the Church of England” they explained further concerning the effect of the 2013 Act that introduced same-sex marriage (p7, emphasis added):
It can therefore be argued that the 2013 Act resulted in there being two institutions in the law of England, both of which for legal purposes amount to “marriage” and have the same consequences in civil law, but which have distinct definitions: civil marriage which is gender neutral and Holy Matrimony which requires the couple to be respectively male and female.
They continued to draw their key practical conclusions from this assessment:
This distinction between Holy Matrimony and civil marriage now means that all couples who enter a civil marriage are obtaining a civil status (which has always been the case); but they are not necessarily entering a marriage as understood by the Church of England (i.e. Holy Matrimony). It can be argued that a same-sex couple entering into a civil status which does not claim to be Holy Matrimony should not of itself be regarded as challenging or rejecting the Church’s doctrine of marriage as expressed in Canon B30 (Of Holy Matrimony) and that those who do so should not, therefore, be regarded as acting in disobedience to that doctrine. On that basis it would be possible for same-sex couples who are in a civil marriage – like those who are in a civil partnership – to have a service of dedication, thanksgiving and/or blessing without contradicting the Church’s doctrine of marriage.
Further explanation can be found in the legal note for General Synod subsequently issued by the Legal Office (GS Misc 1339). Referring to the passages from the bishops quoted above it states (para 5, emphasis added):
Civil marriage and Holy Matrimony both continue to be recognised by the state as conferring the same civil status and there remains a substantial overlap in the legal rules as to preliminaries, annulment and dissolution and they are treated in the same way by other areas of the law, such as immigration law, taxation and so on. However, because what is capable of constituting a marriage for the purposes of ecclesiastical law (the union of one man and one woman) now differs fundamentally from what is capable of constituting a marriage for the purposes of the general law (the union of two persons without regard to their sex), there is a good case for saying that the institution of Holy Matrimony and the institution of civil marriage are now distinct, even though the legal incidents are generally the same for both.
They continue in para 6 (emphasis again added) to use even stronger language concerning what all recognise is “a distinction that has, since the coming into force of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, arisen between civil marriage and Holy Matrimony” (para 5):
This follows from the terms of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which explicitly provides for a definition of marriage in ecclesiastical law (one man and one woman) which is different from the definition in the general law. The two definitions are mutually exclusive and this can be seen as having resulted in there now being two different institutions by the name of “marriage”. Since the coming into force of the 2013 Act, civil marriage in England has taken no notice of the respective sexes of the parties to a marriage; it has become in effect a ‘gender-neutral’ institution. But Holy Matrimony continues to be defined by ecclesiastical law – not by the changed position in the general law brought about by the 2013 Act – and remains “in its nature a union … of one man with one woman”. The 2013 Act explicitly preserves the position in the Canons of the Church of England. Because the sexes of the parties are irrelevant so far as the general law concept of marriage is concerned, the concept of civil marriage is now of a different nature from the concept of marriage set out in Canon B 30 (Holy Matrimony).
A number of problems with this separation of civil marriage from holy matrimony into mutually exclusive institutions of a different nature have already been highlighted particularly by Paul Roberts here (and other important questions about the legal advice are raised by Philip Jones on the ecclesiastical law blog). What follows seeks to set this latest understanding of the relationship between the church’s doctrine of marriage and the changing pattern of legal unions – civil partnerships and marriage - in law within the context of what has gone before. In so doing it compares this account with previous accounts from the bishops. These are set out in order to demonstrate just how much has changed but without full acknowledgement of this fact or a defence of these changes.
Marriage Before Civil Partnerships (Pre-2005)
Prior to the introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples in December 2005 the only intimate pair-bond recognised by the state was marriage. Historically, in the words of Stephen Cretney, “the law had traditionally left the regulation of marriage to the Church” (Family Law in the Twentieth Century: A History, p. 4). It was not until just after the accession of Queen Victoria that “legislation ended the long-standing monopoly of the Church over marriage, and paved the way for the secularisation of the marriage rite” (p. 3). Since 1753, the Hardwicke Act had given “the Church of England a virtual monopoly over marriages” (p. 6) as marriage had to be entered into through a service solemnizing holy matrimony within the established Church of England unless one was a Jew or a Quaker or a member of the Royal Family. It was only in 1836 that this changed with a law enabling people to marry in Roman Catholic or non-Conformist weddings (as long as a Registrar was also present). This law also introduced civil marriages for those (then very small in number) who wanted a non-religious ceremony. As a result, Cretney concluded in 2003:
Certainly English marriage law allowed for a considerable diversity of forms; but although the procedure by which marriage can be created may vary widely, the result is in all cases the same. To the law, there is only one contract of marriage (p. 12)
Through the twentieth century, focussed particularly on questions of divorce, further marriage after divorce, and marriage within certain bonds of affinity, there were divergences between the legal definition and the teaching of the Church of England. As far back as 1952 Reginald Haw sought to argue, in his The State of Matrimony: An Investigation of the Relationship between Ecclesiastical and Civil Marriage in England after the Reformation, with a Consideration of the Laws relating thereto, that “the Church of England has continued in her formularies and actions to teach and uphold the doctrine and law of marriage held in Western Christendom prior to the Reformation” but that “the civil law of England has diverged, at first slightly but in these later days to a very wide degree, from the ecclesiastical concept of marriage” (p. 28).
In February 1984 General Synod passed a motion moved by the Bishop of Chichester which asked for a review and report on “the effect of the recent and current changes in society and in Marriage law”. This was in the context of debates concerning divorce and remarriage and led to the publication in 1988 of An Honourable Estate (GS 801) which looked at theological, historical, social and legal aspects of marriage. It concluded its study of the law of marriage and divorce in England by stating:
The Church must judge whether developments in the substantive law and the procedure relating to divorce have had such a deleterious effect on the legal view of marriage that it is no longer possible to hold the opinion that this can be recognised as marriage as understood in the rites, ceremonies and the Canon law of the Church of England. We as a group have no doubt that it can be recognised as marriage by the Church (para 122).
However, in words relevant now we have same-sex marriage, they continued:
We should feel obliged to take a different view about the recognition of marriage if, for example, Parliament were to change the definition formulated in Hyde v. Hyde…[“marriage, as understood in Christendom, may….be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”]. But we wish to say as firmly as we can that in our view there have been no changes in the law which have fundamentally altered the basic legal character of the institution in England as a lifelong and exclusive union (para 122).
As a result, the position of the Church of England has consistently been that marriages recognised in law (including those contracted in the context of another denomination or faith or a civil ceremony) are viewed as holy matrimony. In the closing words of the 1988 report, “Marriage is one of God’s greatest gifts to all people, whatever their personal faith and social background…The Church must not imply that there are two sorts of marriage, a first-class marriage for those who pass the Church’s test, and a second-class marriage for everyone else” (para 197)
Civil Partnerships & Marriage (2005)
When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005 the bishops in their pastoral statement viewed them with the conviction that “civil partnerships are not a form of marriage” (para 8) even though “many provisions in the new legislation are, however, similar to or identical with those in marriage law” (para 10) and “civil partners will have the same rights as married couples in relation to property law, taxation, pensions, etc” (para 13). I was among those (in the Grove booklet, Friends, Partners or Spouses? The Civil Partnership Act and Christian Witness) who questioned aspects of this judgment and the General Synod in 2007 while amending the critical motion from Paul Perkins refused to recognise the Pastoral Statement as “a balanced and sensitive attempt faithfully to apply the Church’s teaching to civil partnerships” as sought by the House of Bishops.
The key differences the bishops noted between civil partnerships and marriage included that in law “the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership” is left “entirely open” and that the relationship “is not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship” (para 11). Referring to the Primates Letter of 2003 (para 16) the bishops made clear that “clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership” (para 17). In relation to clergy, “the House of Bishops does not regard entering a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality” (para 19). The bishops did, however, note that “it would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church for the public character of the commitment expressed in a civil partnership to be regarded as of no consequence in relation to someone in – or seeking to enter – the ordained ministry” (para 21). Therefore, “because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship” (para 22).
In short, the argument was that although “there are concerns that the introduction of civil partnerships in this form may create fresh anomalies and in practice – even though not in law – erode the unique position which marriage has previous occupied” (para 26), civil partnerships were not marriage (the phrase “holy matrimony” is not used anywhere in the statement).
Same-Sex Marriage & Marriage (2014 onwards)
This approach to civil partnerships – that they were not legally marriage - clearly could not apply to the introduction of same-sex marriage. The bishops therefore began their pastoral guidance by restating the church’s teaching on marriage (thus using “matrimony” with reference to the BCP, the only usage in the statement). They noted that once same-sex marriages take place there will “for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer” (para 9).
In relation to the new law’s treatment of the Church of England it was clear that “The Act preserves, as part of the law of England, the effect of any Canon which makes provision about marriage being the union of one man with one woman, notwithstanding the general, gender free definition of marriage. As a result Canon B30 remains part of the law of the land” (para 11). This meant that “it will continue not to be legally possible for two persons of the same sex to marry according to the rites of the Church of England” and “any rights and duties which currently exist in relation to being married in church of England churches do not extend to same sex couples” (para 12, emphasis original). There is however no suggestion that this means there are now two mutually exclusive institutions of civil marriage and holy matrimony as is now being claimed.
In relation to “acts of worship following civil same sex weddings” the bishops reiterated the stance in relation to civil partnerships: “it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy” and “clergy should not provide services of blessing” (para 20). Furthermore, in addition to the guidance on civil partnerships, signalling that civil marriage was to be viewed differently, the bishops stated that any prayer with couples entering a same-sex marriage “will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church's teaching and their reasons for departing from it” (para 21, italics added). This clear differentiation between civil partnerships and same-sex civil marriages had more serious implications for clergy. This is because “getting married to someone of the same sex would…clearly be at variance with the teaching of the Church of England” (para 26). This judgment meant that the bishops did not simply require assurances of a chaste life as with clergy in civil partnerships. Instead, they were not willing for those in a same-sex marriage “to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry” and stated 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” (para 27, both bold in original).
Here again the logic is clearly not that the legislation created two mutually exclusive institutions and that entering the new civil one of marriage was simply “obtaining a civil status” and “should not of itself be regarded as challenging or rejecting the Church’s doctrine of marriage as expressed in Canon B30 (Of Holy Matrimony)” as is now being claimed by the bishops in GS 2289. This new line of argument would also appear to be in direct contradiction of the case put and won in relation to refusing a licence to Jeremy Pemberton because he had entered a same-sex marriage (for various commentary on the different stages see links in this article following the Court of Appeal judgment). One of Pemberton’s arguments, was that “there is no doctrine on civil same sex marriage in the Church of England” (para 7 of Judgment). The church rejected this and the Court of Appeal judgment agreed rejecting the argument of Pemberton’s representative (Mr Jones) in favour of that of the church (Mr Linden):
It was not necessary, as Mr Jones suggested, that there should be an express provision prohibiting a priest from entering into a same sex marriage and spelling out the consequences if he did. The teaching and in fact, the doctrine of the Church of England (in the sense in which the Church uses the term) is quite clearly spelt out in Canon B30. Paragraph 1 of that Canon makes clear that the Church of England considers marriage to be between one man and one woman. By its very terms it delimits the concept of marriage in accordance with the teachings and doctrine of the Church in a way which excludes same sex marriage. Furthermore, it is made clear in paragraph 3 that a priest is expected to uphold what is described expressly as "the Church's doctrine of marriage." As Mr Linden pointed out, Canon B30 does not state expressly that the Church of England's doctrine of marriage does not include polygamy but it is quite clear that it does so (para 63).
In Nov 2016, the Legal Office, in advice included as an appendix to GS 2055 published by the bishops as their response to the Shared Conversations, were clear (para 12) that
It is prima facie a breach of Canon C 26 [“Every clerk in Holy Orders … shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of the Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ], read in the light of Canon B 30 (Of holy matrimony)…for a clerk in Holy Orders to enter into a marriage with a person of the same sex. That is on the basis that by doing so, he or she is fashioning his life in a way that is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ as expounded by Canon B 30 and making him or herself a bad example to the flock of Christ.
The lawyers then floated ways around this which are perhaps the seed of what has now come to flower in GS 2289 and its accompanying legal advice. They were, however, also clear as to what would need to be done legally for this to have force. They set out two options (c and d in para 13), neither of which the bishops have followed though they have made the stronger of the two possible statements outlined and distinguished civil marriage as a whole from holy matrimony:
Amend Canon B 30 to state that [civil marriage] [marriage to a person of the same sex] is a different institution from holy matrimony and that entering into a civil marriage with a person of the same sex does not of itself amount to an act contrary to the doctrine set out in the Canon.
Leave Canon B 30 as it is but issue a teaching document which explains that [civil marriage is no longer the same institution as holy matrimony] [civil marriage with a person of the same sex is a different institution from holy matrimony] and that a person who enters into such a civil marriage should not, merely by doing so, be considered as acting in a way contrary to the doctrine set out in Canon B 30.
In 2018, faced with the Hereford motion asking for the bishops to “commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same sex marriage” the legal office was clear that it was necessary “to distinguish civil partnerships and same sex marriages” and that as the motion “runs together civil partnerships and same sex marriages, and given the different doctrinal considerations that are applicable to each, it would not seem possible for the House of Bishops to meet the request contained in the motion to commend a single form of service that related to both”. In other words, these were not simply, as now claimed, two distinct civil statuses which were to be treated in the same way by the church. Each had its own “doctrinal considerations that are applicable”. This view is, however, to some degree questionable in that since the introduction of same-sex marriage those in same-sex civil partnerships can simply convert their status to be recognised as a marriage (from its creation as a civil partnership).
Opposite-Sex Civil Partnerships & Marriage (2019)
On the introduction of opposite-sex civil partnerships the bishops again issued a pastoral statement which, when released in December 2019, caused great controversy. Some felt it inappropriate during the Living in Love and Faith process even though it simply restated (in some places almost verbatim) previous statements and applied them to this new legal status. The bishops again noted that the introduction of same-sex marriage “for the first time, meant that a substantive gap emerged between the Church’s understanding of marriage and that of the State” (para 3) but none of the claims now being made about mutually exclusive institutions were made. Applying the principles from earlier statements the bishops were clear (para 19) that
Because of the ambiguity about the place of sexual activity within civil partnerships of both sorts, and the church’s teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse, we do not believe that it is possible for the church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the church.
As a result they concluded (para 20), in contrast to their current proposals,
One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the civil partnerships legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances, the House continues to believe that it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.
In relation to clergy and candidates for ordination the bishops argued (para 26) that “Although there is nothing in the legislation for Opposite Sex Civil Partnerships which determines their social meaning, the arguments advanced in the Supreme Court included the desire for a publicly authorised institution which explicitly rejected the perceived religious connotations of marriage”. As a consequence of this, “clergy and candidates for ordination wishing to enter an Opposite Sex Civil Partnership should expect to be asked to explain their understanding of the theological and social meanings of their decision”. They also argued (paras 27 and 28) that as a civil partnership is not entered through vows, they would not be treated as the same as marriage in relation to candidates for ordination who married after being in a civil partnership that was then dissolved. This argument was then applied in relation to the possibility (still not legally available) of converting an opposite-sex marriage to a civil partnership. Here it was held that “converting a marriage into a civil partnership thus implies the repudiation of a couple’s marriage vows” (para 32). The bishops concluded by stating (para 35):
With opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church seeks to uphold that standard, to affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.
It is notable, given the response to LLF, just over three years later, that:
- At no point does this statement refer to “holy matrimony” let alone treat it as fundamentally different and a distinct institution from civil marriage.
- At no point is there any suggestion that civil marriage is now, after same-sex marriage, a mutually exclusive institution from marriage. Nor that a civil marriage of two people of the opposite sex may not be “holy matrimony” (as the bishops in 2019 view those people in opposite-sex civil partnerships).
- There is a clear statement that “Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship” (para 25). Those entering an opposite-sex civil partnership therefore need “to explain their understanding of the theological and social meanings of their decision” (para 26). This is something the bishops themselves have now failed to do in commending prayers for those entering civil partnerships or civil same-sex marriage.
- There is a clear restatement that marriage – defined in such a way as to exclude same-sex marriage and civil partnerships – “remains the proper context for sexual activity” (para 35). This the bishops fail to reaffirm in their latest document.
This overview of previous bishops’ statements and legal advice shows what a novel and unprecedented understanding is now being presented in relation to marriage, with no substantial legal or theological explanation or justification, in GS 2289 to defend its new proposals.
Nobody disputes that there is now “a substantive gap…between the Church’s understanding of marriage and that of the State” or that, given canon B30, same-sex civil marriages are not holy matrimony. What is disputed is the way in which these two statements are now being developed and how that is being used to justify the bishops’ proposed draft prayers. The bishops’ response and accompanying legal advice has created a situation in which the Church of England appears to be saying that since 2014 nobody entering a civil marriage should be viewed as living in holy matrimony unless they married within the Church of England (although this may not apply to other religious ceremonies, as long as those religions do not also view marriage as encompassing same-sex couples as, for example, a number of churches now do).
The argument appears to be that as the legal institution of civil marriage now encompasses same-sex couples, no couple entering it (even if they are an opposite-sex couple) can now be viewed as thereby entering into what the bishops now speak of as “holy matrimony” which has until now simply been a synonym for marriage
Civil marriages, since 2014, are now effectively being treated by the Church of England, as it has previously treated civil partnerships: not a form of marriage. This contrasts with the previous, longstanding view that marriage (or holy matrimony) according to canon B30 is a way of life which is able to be entered into by an opposite-sex couple when they entered civil marriage.
Among the consequences of this are that the service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage should have been revoked in 2014 and has been misused ever since as the couple are not, on entering the church, husband and wife according to the teaching of the church. In addition, any civilly married couple since 2014 is to be viewed as having sex outside marriage (and so falling short of God’s purposes according to the church’s teaching). They would also now appear to be able to enter holy matrimony only by divorcing and then re-marrying according to the rites of the Church of England.
Alongside this novel and paradoxical account, the bishops have made three further significant moves. First, by treating civil same-sex marriage simply as “obtaining a civil status” they appear to believe it now has no bearing at all on that with which it was previously held to be at variance: the teaching of the Church of England on marriage. This is why, presumably, the prayers are claimed not even to be indicative of any departure from the Church of England’s doctrine. It is as if, despite all that has been said previously, not only civil partnership but now civil same-sex marriage is nothing more than a legal status with as little relationship to the church’s teaching on marriage as a tenancy agreement or business partnership.
This detachment of these civil statuses from canon B30 leads to the bishops’ statement that “It can be argued that a same-sex couple entering into a civil status which does not claim to be Holy Matrimony should not of itself be regarded as challenging or rejecting the Church’s doctrine of marriage as expressed in Canon B30 (Of Holy Matrimony) and that those who do so should not, therefore, be regarded as acting in disobedience to that doctrine” (GS 2289, p 7). On this basis, it would appear that there is no reason the prayers could not be used (especially if at some point there is legal recognition for such in the light of growing polyamory) for “two men and one woman” or some other adaptation of the definition of holy matrimony as long as there is no claim that the status of the couple is one of holy matrimony.
Second, as noted above, one of the bishops’ concerns in the past has been the ambiguity about civil partnerships, not least in relation to whether they are sexual relationships. The bishops no longer seem to be concerned about this. Instead, alongside narrowing the scope of holy matrimony so as to exclude all civil marriages since 2014, effectively treating them the same as they have treated civil partnerships, they have affirmed their desire “to celebrate faithfulness in relationships” (GS 2289, p 3). They are, therefore, commending prayers that “could be used for a couple who have marked a significant stage in the development of their relationship, sealed a covenanted friendship, registered a civil partnership, or entered a civil marriage” (ibid). This couple could, it seems, be either same-sex or opposite sex. They are doing this with no justification as to why this is now possible (without changing the church’s doctrine of marriage) and right in contrast to their past repeated statements against blessing people in non-marital unions.
This is, perhaps, the most significant development in the response. It represents an undefended paradigm shift from framing the church’s teaching and response to changing patterns of relationship in terms of distinguishing two ways of life (marriage and singleness) each with its own form of chaste living (sexual exclusivity and sexual abstinence) to framing its teaching and response in terms of the presence of particular virtues in a relationship (whether or not it is marriage in the eyes of the church) and no clear account of what a chaste life should like for those in non-marital relationships.
Third, the bishops have failed to address the question of sexual behaviour in contrast to their past repeated reaffirmations of the church’s teaching in this area. This failure is, or should be, a serious concern to everyone, whatever their views on same-sex relationships. One of the fruits of the Living in Love and Faith work, one which seems to have had little or no impact on the response of the bishops, is that across our differences on a Christian approach to marriage, identity, sexuality and relationships there is recognised to be both a shared concern about holiness (LLF book, 219-222) and a belief that one of the two purposes of Scripture we can all agree upon is that it is “to call the whole world into holiness” (LLF book, 275).
For the Church of England today, questions about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage are questions about holy living: what behaviour, what forms of relationship, what patterns of community life echo to the character of God? What ways of living can embody and communicate God’s life? What ways of living shine with God’s love? (LLF, 222).
Although I disagree with them, those fellow Christians who argue for same-sex marriage are not simply asking for same-sex couples to be given what they believe is required by justice and equality. They too believe that sexual immorality is a serious sin but understand what amounts to such sin differently. They are therefore asking for the church to offer them (as sinners like all who seek the prayers of the church and all who commit to holy matrimony) a structured and disciplined pattern of life, a form of ascesis, and to give them, by means of vows, a way in which to commit themselves to this way of life and so to be accountable to each other, to their family and friends, to their church community, and to God for how they live together. In the words of Keith Sinclair’s dissenting statement (whose six points in relation to “affirming non-marital sexual relationships theological and liturgically” provide a succinct critique also of the current proposals):
The Church cannot hold a public service for a couple simply on the basis that it discerns virtues and good qualities in their relationship. It must also be confident that the pattern of relationship it is affirming is in accordance with God’s will. It expresses that confidence liturgically by proclaiming a form of life which is in accordance with God’s will and asking the couple to affirm publicly that they seek to live faithfully within this way of life (para 476).
If the bishops are not willing to extend holy matrimony to include same-sex couples but wish to offer prayers for them (in civil partnerships and same-sex civil marriages and in relationships with no legal status such as covenanted friendships) then they need to set out a clear account of the pattern of holy life to which God calls those forming same-sex unions. They need to provide same-sex couples with a means to commit to that way of life – as the church has done for heterosexual couples with its doctrine of marriage. They should not offer them only what they are currently proposing which looks horribly like a form of “cheap grace” rather than the “costly grace” which we are all offered and called to respond to in Christ so that we can grow in holiness.