There has been much fuss over the past week or so to do with the publication by the Church of England Faith and Order Committee (FaOC) of their report “Men and Women in Marriage“. I want to briefly explore two aspects of this furore and then ask a final question.
First, there is the question as to why the report was published when it was. Originally I was led to believe that the reason why the publication was last week was because one of the members of the Faith and Order Commission, Dr Charlotte Methuen, broke ranks and published what is to all intents and purposes a minority report dressed up as an essay. This is not quite the case. I now understand that at the meeting of the Commission on 26 February it was agreed that the Bishop of Coventry as Chairman of the Commission should take the report to the meeting of the House of Bishops’ Standing Committee in March where the Standing Committee could have decided to send the report for discussion by the House as a whole. This would have allowed the Commission to re-visit the report again at its meeting on 7 May prior to the House’s meeting on 20-21 May. If this had happened the report would have been published at the end of May or the beginning of June.
This was the timetable that most members of the Commission (including Dr Methuen) had in their heads. In the light of this she decided to publish her article as a free standing piece on the expectation that it would be out well before the report itself became public and thus be separate from the report itself. However, the Standing Committee decided (as it was entitled to do) that the report did not need to go to the full House, but was ready to be published without any further revision. It was accordingly signed off by the two Archbishops and it was agreed that it should be published on the week beginning 8 April. This date was chosen not because of Dr Methuen’s article but because it was felt helpful for the Chairman of the Commission to be able to present the report to the press before he went on sabbatical to the Holy Land in the middle of April.
An email sent to FaOC members on the 27th of March informed them about this new timetable. However, because she was in the middle of Holy Week Dr Methuen did not grasp the significance of the email until it was too late to prevent her article coming out in the same week as the report. Whilst there is still very clearly a question to be asked as to whether Dr Methuen should have published something connected to the report she was helping to write, it now appears that her publication of her essay did not prompt the FaOC to release their full report..
Secondly, there has been a great deal of fuss from liberals about the content of the FaOC’s report. The report makes a number of assumptions which are clearly articulated in much further detail in previous Church of England Documents like Some Issues in Human Sexuality (the opening sections of which are available as a pdf here). It strikes me as slightly disingenuous of those who complained about the “assumptions” to carry on forward this position. The paper was never intended to be a theological text but rather a restatement of the current position. All the more in-depth teaching documents are cited in the foot-notes and the “Further Reading” list at the end of the paper. It’s a bit like complaining that a Guardian report on the building of a nuclear power station is utterly inadequate because it doesn’t contain a complete guide in minute detail to the mechanics of nuclear fusion.
But more than this, are the revisionists really clear about what they are asking for? What if the FaOC produced a document with all the theology in it? I mean, I could compile such a document in a week or two from the sources cited in “Men and Women” and it would provide everything they said they wanted. What then? Would the revisionists at that point concede defeat in the debate? Of course not.
The simple answer to this fuss is not that the document “Men and Women” was in any way arrogant or superficial, but rather that it presented a theological position that some in the Church disagreed with. The vitriol poured onto it was not because of any lack of robustness in the official Church of England position, but rather that the Church of England position was what it was. There could be a 1,000 page document giving the nay-sayers everything they asked for (details of the assumptions etc) and still they would reject it.
In summary, what we have is a revisionist abusing her committee membership by publishing a minority report early (or to put it another way, breaking the rules and trying to create facts on the ground), and then revisionists complaining that a church that has a conservative position on marriage dared to put out a document detailing that conservative position.
There is nothing new under the sun.
One more thought. Some debate has been engaged in trying to outline what a suitable pastoral response might be to a couple entering a civil partnership. My reading of the 2005 House of Bishops’ pastoral statement and subsequent comments from them is that any response must primarily be non-liturgical (for of course for Anglicans, liturgy is doctrine). So one example I know of is a priest who will pray at the altar rail during the distribution of communion with a couple after their civil partnership, in the same way he would with other individuals and families at certain times. Whilst I wouldn’t do this myself, I can see it as clearly falling within the intent of the House of Bishops.
Can anybody think of any other examples that might work?