Gay clergy marriages: the final chapter of the Anglican Communion fiction
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014
Well, you could knock me down with a feather duster. The Pope is looking into the subject of gay marriage. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Holy Father said to him that “rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people”. OK, it’s hardly a new Vatican policy. But language matters. And in the week of the first anniversary of Francis’s appointment as pope, it is worth recognising how far the language has come.
But things are going to change even faster for the Church of England over the next few weeks. With gay marriage becoming a legal reality on 29 March, it is certain that a number of clergy will be looking to get hitched, in direct defiance of the wishes of their bishops who have vaguely warned of disciplinary action if they do. But the truth is that the bishops can actually do very little about it. The following is slightly nerdish stuff, but for the likes of north London vicar Reverend Andrew Cain, now preparing for his nuptials, it is crucial. Writing on my Facebook page last night, the Bishop of Buckingham explained the clergy discipline measure:
“Its Section 7 lays down that matters of doctrine and worship are not justiciable under the measure, but must be tried under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963. Insomniacs may remember that around 10 years ago there was a proposal to have a Clergy Discipline Measure type measure for doctrine and worship cases but it failed. The legal trail leads from here to section 39 of the EJM63. The maximum penalty it lays down for a first offence is a rude letter telling you not to do it again – which hopefully people getting married won’t.”
Of course, the bishops could pretend that clergy getting married is not a matter of doctrine, but this would be a bit of a problem given that they have been going round telling everyone that it is.
Other ecclesiastical nerds could point to the 32nd of the 39 articles – historically, the defining doctrines of the Church of England and beloved by conservatives: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are not commanded by God’s laws either to vow the estate of single life or to abstain from marriage. Therefore it is lawful also for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.” Of course, they didn’t have gay marriage in mind when they wrote this. But meaning is not determined by authorial intent.
All this means that the bishops won’t be able to do a damn thing about their clergy having same-sex marriages. As the bishop of Buckingham explained: “If a member of the clergy wants to marry, I may like or not like the match, but I have no legal power to stop them marrying.” And when this happens, the toys will be thrown from many a Nigerian church pram. The fiction that is the Anglican Communion will be over and we can go back to being the Church of England, rather than the local arm of the empire at prayer. And thank God for that.
One of my favourite clerical journalists in the Church of England is Fr.Giles Fraser. I remember when he was Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Putney, the occasion when his parish hosted a Eucharistic Welcome for ‘Gay Bishop’ Gene Robinson, who had been excluded – at that time – from attendance at the gathering from around the world of Anglican bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Fr.Giles was the founder of Inclusive Church and campaigns for lesbian and gay inclusion within the church. He was voted Stonewall Hero of the Year in 2012. It was, therefore not too surprising that, under the auspices of Inclusive church, this meeting had been arranged to hear what Bishop Gene had to say about his own situation as a Same-Sex partnered Bishop in the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. That meeting will always stand out in my mind as a water-shed in the movement towards the full acceptance of LGBTI people within our Church.
What Fr. Giles has to say here, in his Guardian article on Same-Sex Marriage is important for his perspective on how the legal implementation of Same-Sex Civil Marriage – due to take place in the U.K. from March 29th this year – will impact upon the clergy discipline measures threatened by the House of Bishops in a recent statement, against C.of E. clergy who might decide to take advantage of their civil right to Same-Sex Marriage.
Apart from the fact that – as Same-Sex Civil Marriage is a right for all U.K. citizens who meet the basic requirements – the Church authorities may well fall foul of common law in dismissing clergy who undertake such a Same-Sex Civil Marriage relationship – the Church might well be reluctant to apply what might be seen to be harsh disciplinary measures against its own employees on this issue, especially at a time when the Church risks further accusations of homophobia.
Perhaps, though, the most important assumption made by Fr. Giles is that, is Church of England clergy are seen to take advantage of the Civil Law to enter into a relationship of Same-Sex Marriage, this will in all likelihood give the conservative GAFCON (mostly African) Church Provinces of the Anglican Communion the excuse they have been looking for to resile from that body, on the grounds of theological and moral incompatibility.
In Fr. Giles’ opinion, and in the opinion of many Anglicans who are in favour of a more inclusive acceptance of LGBT people in the Church, this might just serve to free the Church of England – and other, more liberal, Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion – from the problem of an enforced collusion and fellowship with those Provinces in the Church intent on the continuation of institutional homophobia.
I think Fr. Giles is not speaking in a vacuum, here. The GAFCON Churches have already formed their own quasi-Anglican conservative grouping, with its own doctrine based upon what they have called their ‘Jerusalem Statement’, which outlines their fundamental disagreement with The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A (TEC), and the Anglican Church of Canada. It has also, under the chairmanship of the Primate of Kenya expressed the intention of setting up its own version of the Anglican Communion – if the Provinces that permit the acceptance of Gay people in the life and ministry of their local Churches, do not ‘repent’ of their pro-LGBTI stance.
Having already distanced itself from the perceived willingness of the Church of England to ordain a celibate Gay Bishop in the future, there can be little doubt – as Fr. Giles is suggesting – that for clergy of the Church of England to enter into a relationship of Same-Sex Marriage would probably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, signalling the departure of GAFCON from fellowship with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Such a move would not necessarily be the end of Anglicanism as we know it. What it would do is allow the rest of us in the Communion to ‘do justice’ to the people in our area of Anglican jurisdiction who happen to be ‘different’ from the majority in their innate sexual-orientation.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand