Speaking of sexual irony.
Earlier this week I was privileged to take the funeral of a lovely man, let’s call him Frank. The funeral took place in a crematorium and was extremely well attended. Frank had spent much of his adult life living in a rural part of Oxfordshire but originally hailed from Birmingham. I reckon that just over 100 people attended the funeral including Frank’s civil partner, let’s call him Jim.
Everyone at the funeral was asked to wear a rainbow emblem, which they did without shame or embarrassment. I wore one on my stole. Frank had an old fashioned Anglo Catholic faith and Jim asked me to make sure that this was reflected in the service. I was asked, no instructed, to make sure that I wore a purple stole (which I would have done in any case) over my cassock and surplice.
I don’t know this for sure but I suspect that the majority of the congregation were heterosexual, and yet they sported their rainbow emblems with pride. Their love for Frank and their delight in his civil partnership with Jim was clear and manifest. The beauty and dignity of their forty year relationship was honoured through the tributes. As far as I can tell everyone was thrilled that Frank had been able to enjoy a long-term, monogamous, faithful and latterly covenanted relationship with Jim. The love and support for Jim was both heart-felt and genuine. It was a beautiful service. As I say: to officiate was a privilege.
And yet driving home from the funeral I felt a real sense of sadness and, to some extent – well a considerable extent – shame; shame that we, the Church of England, were able to speak well of Frank in death when we couldn’t bring ourselves to do so in life.
Shame that we could speak well of Frank and Jim’s relationship in death, when we couldn’t formally, liturgically, affirm it in life.
Shame that the funeral liturgy makes it clear that ‘you (Jesus) offered eternal life to those who believe,’ whilst so often the Church of England wants to add ‘but terms and conditions apply.’ It’s a shameful irony that so many of those who would count themselves as true heirs to the reformation seem so insistent on a theology of salvation through (sexual) works.
Shame that I was able to ask God to ‘remember for good your servant Frank as we also remember him,’ in the expectation that God will ‘bring all who rest in Christ into the fullness of your kingdom where sins have been forgiven and death is no more,’ when a very significant constituency in the Church of England continue to insist that homosexuality is the unforgivable sin.
Frank and Jim’s civil partnership was, by all accounts, a beautiful ceremony, followed by a wonderful ‘wedding banquet.’ I know that they both enjoyed their big day, but the shame and sadness is this: Frank wanted his relationship, his long-term, faithful and monogamous relationship, to be formally and liturgically affirmed, signed, sealed and delivered by the Church and, in a church.
I am grateful that I was able to do for Frank in death that which the church wouldn’t do in life, but at the same time I felt a deep sense of sadness and shame.
The fact that the Church of England liturgically enables her ministers to speak well of an individual and their relationship at death, but not in life, is the cruelty, the hypocrisy, the irony, the sadness and the shame.
One of my very favourite blogs is this one – ‘Theoreo’ – hosted by Fr. Andrew Lightbown, a Church of England priest, whose family ties do not prevent him from championing the cause of the LGBTI+ Community in the U.K.
The Church of England has not yet officially offered any service of the Blessing of a Same-Sex Union in their churches – despite the fact that there are many S/S couples worshipping in the C. of E. whose monogamous relationship is already recognised by most of their fellow congregants in their parish. The irony here, as Fr. Andrew points out, is that there is nothing to prevent the Church from celebrating the funeral of a partner in a Same-Sex Relationship. The fact that this can be publicly celebrated with dignity and loving remembrance of the person concerned, seems to ignore the crucial fact of their participation in a relationship that the Church is not yet ready or willing to officially recognise as faithful and wholesome!
When the Church can recognise and celebrate the Christian Marriage of a couple – one of whom at least has been married and divorced previously – in a public ceremony, without requiring the explicit permission of the local bishop; thus contravening the stricter biblical understanding of one man and one woman marriage; it does seem to outsiders at least that the Church is being hypocritical in its refusal to publicly recognise the faithful and loving relationship of a same-sex couple whose faith is able to sustain their own understanding of their monogamous committed partnership.
I thank God that our Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand (ACANZP) has made the decision to allow for the Church Blessing of a Same-Sex Couple whose union has been recognised by the State. The religious requirement is that this Blessing be agreeable to the local Anglican bishop and to the priest and congregation of the church where the ceremony is to take place. In this decision, it is taken for granted that the Couple are making a commitment for life and that they understand the spiritual nature of the Blessing they are asking for.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand