A few weeks ago my wife and I drove north to attend a friend’s wedding in Derbyshire. It was a great joy to be able join the two returned missionaries from Africa as they prepared to spend the rest of their lives together wherever God would call them next, but the service was marred by one unfortunate moment. As the priest invited them to join hands as they made their vows, he then turned to the congregation and invited those who were married to also join hands, and then equally those who were in “committed, loving relationships”. With those three words he completely undermined the vows that our friends were about to take, and rendered null and void the theological introduction with which he had only minutes previously opened the service with.
As an institution that communicates its theology within its liturgy, the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage and sex is outlined within the introduction to the Wedding Service. In it we learn that marriage is not just about bringing husband and wife together in the joy of sexual union and as the foundation of family life. It is also not only just a way of life made holy by God and blessed by the presence of Jesus at a wedding at Cana in Galilee. All these things are true, but they are statements of human love and affection and human activity. Higher than this though, marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of the union of Christ and the Church, where as Saint Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians (and as the Book of Common Prayer indicates in the marriage vows) the different sexes specifically signify the different members of this union of the Creator and the created. However committed and loving a sexual relationship is in the eyes of the world, it can only speak of Christ and the Church (and therefore be Christian marriage) if it follows the way that Scripture tells us we should let our bodies speak of these divine mysteries.
Marriage then is not so much about us and what we seek to do as it is about Jesus and what he has done and is still doing. As a man going through the process of discerning a call to ordination in the Church of England this wasn’t ever an issue for me, even though as one attracted to those of the same sex as myself I never thought that I would ever enter into that matrimonial state. Despite this, my homosexuality was never a bar to ordination and never a hindrance to being a fully baptised member of the church and one privileged to administer its sacraments. Very early on in the ordination process I realised from the Scriptures like countless men and women for generations before me that I had absolutely no God given right to have sex, or even to enter into an erotic relationship of my choosing. Even today a decade later, as I have seen God do amazing things in my life taking me from avowed celibacy to being married and having a young son, many gay and lesbian friends and colleagues who were trained and ordained alongside me but are still single have never once felt either rejected or denied some sense of natural justice just because they are not in any kind of committed relationship. Instead some of those same friends are at the most spiritually satisfied points of their lives, because by refusing to let their bodies speak sexually of anything but the union of Christ and the Church in the only way that Scripture calls us to, they have discovered new truths about how we are all called to make our chief intimacy with Jesus.
The proponents of blessing same-sex relationships therefore have two key tasks on their hands. Despite the proposed surveys and polls, and regardless of however many of them stand up and publicly declare that they are living in sexual relationships outside of marriage, they will still need to demonstrate how the Scriptures support such a relationship. More than this however, before we come close to authorising liturgies to bless such relationships they will also need to explain to the rest of the Church why we have got our doctrine of marriage and sex so wrong for so long, why the Church of England’s interpretation of Ephesians 5 is actually incorrect and why consequentially we need to tear up the wedding liturgies we have been using for half a millennium and start again. Without the House of Bishops (advised by the Doctrine Commission) overturning at least 400 years of Anglican teaching on this subject and providing robust Biblical explanations for doing so, every single blessing of a sexual relationship outside of marriage will be an act of blatant defiance to the order not just of the Church of England but also of the wider catholic Church. It will also be a rejection of the witness of millions of men and women who have grown to live the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church, either by coming together in the state of matrimony or by refusing to let their bodies speak sexually of anything else.
Marriage is ultimately not about justice, but Jesus. The doctrine of marriage of the Church of England clearly recognises this and the recent letter from Rowan Williams endorses just such a position. Without a clear exposition of how the Bible actually teaches us something different than what we have understood it for centuries to say, attempts to circumvent the established processes in the Church of England for theological reflection and development will only damage, not strengthen, the cause of those seeking to revise the Church’s doctrine. In the absence of such an established way of progressing this issue, attempts to produce facts on the ground would, perversely, be a most injust way of going about reform.