I don’t know Peter or David and I haven’t been invited to their wedding. But human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has issued an invitation on his website, for people to celebrate outside in Upper Street from 11pm, with rainbow flags, streamers, whistles, sparklers, vuvuzelas and flowers. It sounds like it’s going to be a huge party.
This nicely illustrates the predicament that vicars like me find ourselves in.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 comes into force tomorrow and soon same-sex marriages won’t be a novelty, they’ll simply be facts of public life. The Act itself prevents the celebration of same-sex marriages in the Church of England. The House of Bishops has made it clear that clergy may not provide services of blessing, since the Christian understanding of marriage remains that it is between one man and one woman.
I take the discipline of the Church seriously. After all, my parish ministry isn’t mine alone. It belongs to Jesus Christ, to the worldwide Church and to the Church of England. It also belongs to my bishop, with whom it is shared and by whom it is licensed. Like all licensed clergy, I have taken an oath of obedience. I will abide by the rules as they are and I won’t be conducting blessings of same-sex marriages.
But still the question remains. What should I do tonight, when the streets of our parish are teeming with people celebrating the momentous introduction of equal marriage?
I have read the recent Pilling Report, and many of the other studies on homosexuality, which describe the wide range of views in the Church of England. We won’t ever find a clever theoretical settlement on this issue that finally resolves all debate.
Things change at midnight. The Church held out for the conventional understanding of marriage. It put its case, and lost. There is absolutely no prospect of reversing the law. So the manner of our theology must change. Instead of analysis in the abstract, we are required to do theology in the moment, in the local context with all its complexity.
This is always the best place for theology and it’s one reason that the parish system is a treasure of the Church of England. The parish system means that we vicars can’t pretend about the world as it is. We can’t lock the doors of our buildings and do our theology in laboratory conditions. We can’t be content to think in the abstract about idealized lives. Nor can we settle for recruiting a congregation with narrow interests or to build a community in our own image. God calls us out, into the world, among it all and to seek him and his Kingdom there.
We must seek to understand scripture and to apply our faith among the lives that are lived in the streets outside the church. Our theology and our pastoral practice must always be adequate for the parish. Or else they’re not adequate at all.
Throughout Jesus’ itinerant ministry in the years that followed that rather awkward moment at the wedding in Cana, he was confronted with more real-life situations. So the parish clergy of the Church of England find ourselves regularly in moments where some kind of pastoral response is required of us. The reality is that our ministries will now take place in a society which includes the fact of same-sex marriage. We’ll need to work out responses that are, at the very least, welcoming and accepting.
For me tonight with a party on our doorstep it’s rather challenging. Should I respond by staying in and going to bed early, or by going out and seeing what’s happening outside?
I’ve decided to go outside. I can’t pray God’s blessing on Peter and David as they begin their marriage. But I can show my support for their commitment and wish them well.
My personal preference has always been to do theology from the ground up, working with both context and scripture, meeting real people who live real lives and making a space for hope, knowledge of God, mercy and peace, grace and truth. So I’m relieved that the phase of campaigning and theorising is over. Christianity is much better at dealing with facts, rather than hypotheses. And now the facts include equal marriage.
I’m open to more learning in this and I’ve been glad to learn from people with whom I disagree, as well as those who share my thoughts. My personal views began to change long ago to be more inclusive and accepting. I’m certain that our church will remain open to all people, regardless of their sexuality and lifestyle. We will do our best to be non-judgemental and to be generous in our invitations. We will remain an “open evangelical” church. Open to God in his life-giving word and open to the real lives of those around us.