There has been widespread hurt and anger at ‘Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage’ from the Church of England’s House of Bishops, dated 15 February. This is cold and legalistic in tone, in contrast to the more welcoming attitude to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people at general synod earlier that week.
However putting it into practice may prove harder than anticipated.
The bishops’ approach and the current position
The bishops’ guidance (a letter and appendix) begins by stating, “We write as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ who are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. Our vocation as disciples of Christ in God’s world is to hold out the offer of life in all its fullness. God delights always to give good gifts to his children.” However the effect is rather the opposite.
It spells out, at length, that only heterosexual couples can be validly married in church even after equal marriage takes effect – a painful reminder for some parishioners that they or their close relatives are excluded from what others take for granted.
Indeed it states that “The Lambeth Conference of 1998 said 'in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage'”, which “remains the declared position of the Anglican Communion.” This is confusing since the Church of England allows remarriage of divorced persons.
More positively, the guidance recognises that not all agree, and advises that married lay people and their children should be welcomed by local Christian communities and not barred from the sacraments. Priests will be able, if they wish, to offer “prayer” but not services of “blessing” for couples entering a committed partnership.
Clergy however will be forbidden to get married to partners of the same sex, and those in such marriages will not be considered for ordination, since they are supposed “to model the Church's teaching in their lives.” The guidance mentions that “At ordination clergy make a declaration that they will endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household 'according to the way of Christ' that they may be 'a pattern and example to Christ's people'.”
Enforced celibacy for clergy for whom this is not part of their calling often works very badly, as the experience of the Roman Catholic Church demonstrates. Many gay and lesbian ordinands and clerics end up wrestling with frustration and loneliness, having occasional casual sex or living with a ‘lodger’ who is in fact their lover. Some are in civil partnerships, though even these are supposed to avoid having sex, and many dioceses operate a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
For lay people, the experience varies from one parish to another. Many congregations, though not all, are accepting. However the church’s public image makes it appear unattractive to people who might be drawn to Christ but fear being rejected or regard exclusion as morally unacceptable.
Bishops who uphold the ‘party line’ in public may take a different stance in private, and a few are gay themselves. However the human cost of the official policy in sadness, stress and subterfuge is seldom acknowledged.
The bishops, in this guidance, appear to have been trying to placate those Anglicans most strongly opposed to same-sex partnerships, including senior clergy in certain provinces who back laws allowing their LGBT members to be jailed and make public statements that could inflame violence. But the guidance is harming the church’s mission and ministry and will prove difficult to enforce, since the bishops seem to have underestimated both the value and power of love.
Grace and transformation
24 Hours in A&E is a Channel 4 documentary series set in the busy emergency department of King’s College Hospital emergency department. A recent episode movingly depicted the relationship between a patient and his partner.
Viewers learnt that, after a grim childhood, he had become a violent criminal, spending most of his adult life in prison. But her love had enabled him to give up a life of crime and become a responsible, caring member of the community. Christians might perceive that the love they shared had become a vehicle of divine grace.
Feeling desire and falling in love can take selfish forms. Yet, in addition to offering joy and relief, these can lead to committed relationships of mutual self-giving which transform lives for the better. The love which couples have for each other can overflow to those around them – children or others for whom they care, members of the community and those in need. This is true of same-sex as well as opposite-sex relationships.
Of course friendship and other kinds of love can also be hugely important. But, for many people, marital or similar relationships are a crucial part of their spiritual growth, enabling them to understand and respond more profoundly to the tenderness and trustworthiness of God’s love, so that they may experience life in all its fullness.
Some Christians still hold the view that it is always wrong for same-sex couples to enter into such partnerships. But many now disagree, from biblical scholars and other theologians to ordinary churchgoers. Instead, they believe that the same standards should be expected of LGBT and heterosexual people.
While it can be difficult for some LGBT people to come out of the closet because of personal circumstances, many now wish to pledge their commitment to their partner publicly, seek the community’s support and thank and entrust their future to God. Already some clergy offer services of thanksgiving, and the demand is likely to increase as equal marriage takes effect.
In addition, a number of clergy who are LGBT themselves are likely to marry, feeling that this is the most loving and truthful course of action. Parishioners who love their priest will often rejoice that he or she is no longer lonely but has found a soul-mate who can help him or her cope with the stresses of ministry without getting burnt out; or, if in a civil partnership before, that the depth and meaning of the relationship is being more fully affirmed.
Christian parents who love their children, LGBT as well as heterosexual, will often be delighted if they meet someone special with whom they may enter into a lifelong partnership of discipline and sacrifice but also joy. They may be keen for their children to have the opportunity to be married in church or, if this is impossible, offered an appropriate form of service to mark what might be the most momentous day of their life. The first paragraph of the bishops’ letter rightly states that “God delights always to give good gifts to his children”; and perhaps the Heavenly Father shares the joy of earthly parents on such occasions.
If bishops try to discipline clergy for getting married to someone of the same sex, or for offering what is deemed to be a ‘service of blessing’ rather than just ‘prayer’, they may spark off something of a revolt by indignant parishioners. This could prove intensely embarrassing.
Meanwhile the church may find itself struggling with a shortage of suitable candidates for ordination, while people with a vocation to priesthood are turned away.
Fear and love
“We all know that perfect love casts out fear. We know it although we don’t often apply it. We mostly know that perfect fear casts out love,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at General Synod, calling for “gracious reconciliation” in a church that is sometimes untidy and inconsistent.
The bishops are understandably afraid of schism by the most vocal opponents of greater inclusion, and so have issued a document which comes across as unloving to many LGBT people and their friends, even if that was not the intention. For a number of years, such fears have played an important part in shaping church policy. Meanwhile numerous LGBT clergy and laypeople have faithfully served a church whose leadership appeared to pay little attention to their joys and longings.
However, the writers of this guidance seem to have underestimated the risks involved in further alienating those who believe that love requires a more inclusive stance. A different approach by the bishops that recognises diverse views and respects conscientious decisions, whether to celebrate or refrain from celebrating partnerships, would do more to promote gracious reconciliation and witness to God’s love for all.
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.