Gay marriage will change the Church of England forever
The first British gay weddings today face the Church of England with a perfectly simple question to which it can only reply with embarrassed throat-clearing. Do we go along with this or not?
David Cameron’s promise to safeguard the established Church from same-sex ceremonies rings pretty hollow when you read a story like this one, from our religious affairs editor John Bingham:
Gay clergy should follow their conscience and defy the Church of England’s restrictions on same-sex marriage, a prominent bishop has said as the most radical change ever made to the legal definition of marriage in Britain comes into force.
The Rt Rev Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, said priests should be “creative” to get around restrictions on blessings for same-sex couples and that gay clergy who wish to marry should do so in defiance of the official line.
He also claimed that several current serving bishops are themselves in gay partnerships, and urged them to publicly acknowledge their status for the sake of “honesty and truthfulness” and even consider marrying.
Joined by an alliance of seven retired bishops, he condemned the Church’s position on gay marriage as “morally outrageous” and said it made him “ashamed”.
Bishop Wilson is a suffragan, not in charge of a diocese – but, really, that doesn’t matter. He’s a serving bishop with, it would appear, a ruthless streak: not so long ago, it was only Peter Tatchell who would state publicly that C of E bishops were in gay partnerships and should out themselves. And if they choose not to? Bishop Wilson won’t do it for them, but he must know that others will.
The Church’s real problem, however, is not the hypocrisy of closeted prelates. It’s that so many priests are perfectly content to solemnise homosexual marriages in church and will indeed be “creative” in finding ways to do so.
How will Archbishop Justin Welby respond? “I think the church has reacted by fully accepting that it’s the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being,” he told the Guardian in best Rev J C Flannel mode. Uh-huh. Oh, and there will be “structured conversations” to help resolve the problem.
Here’s my prediction. As of today, pro-gay clergy will begin to unpick Cameron’s “triple lock” banning parishes from holding gay weddings; during the next Parliament it will cease to exist. Priests who want to marry same-sex couples, or indeed marry their own gay lovers, will just do it. Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical parishes that reject the whole notion won’t be forced to host such ceremonies, but both these wings of the C of E are moving in a liberal direction, and in the long run demographic change will finish the job.
It’s hard to overestimate the weakening effect this will have on the central structures of the Church. The General Synod’s deliberations will be rendered irrelevant. The fiction of the “Anglican Communion” will be abandoned. Conservative provinces in Africa will repudiate the C of E; the last Lambeth Conference’s disciplinary action against the anything-goes American Episcopal Church will cease to mean anything.
In the 1990s, when I started reporting on Anglican affairs, gay marriage was regarded as a non-negotiable horror by most clergy and churchgoers. The shattering of that consensus has happened far more quickly than even the most optimistic Christian gay campaigners thought possible.
And if the centre cannot hold, one has to ask: what is up for negotiation next? Belief in an afterlife? The divinity of Jesus of Nazareth? After today, one thing is uncomfortably clear: the Church of England has lost the power – and even the inclination – to draw a line in the sand.
Damian Thompson, A Roman Catholic, and reporter to the ‘Telegraph’, gives his acerbic reaction to the situation of the current dilemma of the Church of England, in the wake of legalisation of Marriage as a civil status for homosexual as well as heterosexual couples who wish to make a public commitment of their monogamous loving partnership.
What is at stake here, of course, is the fact that the Church of England – as different from the Roman Catholic Church – is by law established as ‘The’ Church of England, with the ruling Monarch as her supreme Governor. All church bodies in the U.K. have to abide by the civil law, but in the instance of Equal Marriage (the title of the new legislation which allows same-sex couples the same right to marry as heterosexuals) legislation permits a let-out clause for religious institutions that do not want – for spiritual/doctrinal reasons – to officiate at the marriage of same-sex couples.
Thus, though the Church of England has an official ‘let-out’ from the new legislation, as the national Church; there will be those members of the Church – both clergy and lay – who would like the Church to make some official accommodation to same-sex couples, in order to back up its insistence that the Church is no longer homophobic or sexist (a claim it has recently made, of its own volition).
The problem is compounded by the fact that, though the Church was initially totally against the Civil Union of same-sex couples; it has since acknowledged that such partnerships already exist amongst its own clergy, passing legislation in General Synod to allow the surviving partner of a clergy Civil Union spousal pension rights.
Such double-mindedness on the part of the House of Bishops in the Church if England has already compromised its official stance against same-sex partnerships; therefore one can understand the keenness of certain political commentators – especially journalists – to keep the pot boiling, in what has proved to be one of the two most contentious issues to hit the Church in the past twenty years. The other concern is whether the Church will allow women to become bishops, as a natural consequence of the fact that women are already ordained as priests in the Church of England – and around the Anglican world.
Damian Thompson was once described as the ‘crazed ferret’ of the world of religious reporting – notably by the hierarchy of the Church of England – for obvious reasons, in that he seems to leave no ground unturned to display his journalistic scorn for the Established Church. So, his literary fancy in this article, on what he sees as the imminent demise of the influence of the Church of England, will no doubt cause concern to some of his conservative Anglican readers in that country. However, the Church of England has survived worse crises in the 500 years of its reformed renewal. Divorce, anyone?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand