Having had over a day to contemplate the statement from the House of Bishops on Same-Sex Marriage, I have three thoughts that I want to ponder with you.
First, the criticism from some quarters that section 20 and 21 are contradictory is based on a presumption that prayer with a coupleÂ must take the form of a public service of affirmation.
20. Â The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, Â to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances.Â Â The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.
21. Â The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.
It only takes a moment to see that “more informal kind of prayer” covers pretty much everything bar a public service. Indeed, there is some subtlety here because the Bishop are banning “services of blessing” but that does not discount a priest blessing a couple in an informal environment. What is forbidden is any form of public liturgical blessing which would imply a change in the doctrine of marriage of the Church of England.
Second, it is extremely likely that some clergy will challenge this statement. Bishop Steven Croft on the Sunday programme on Radio 4 this morning indicated that such behaviour (entering into a same-sex marriage) would fall under “conduct unbecoming” in the sense that the priest would be shaping their life in a manner not consistent with the doctrine of the church. The interesting point is that the law at this point supports the Church of England. The Equality Act permits the Church of England to discriminate in employment when the issue of sexual orientation (and the living out of that orientation) conflicts with a doctrinal position. So if the Church of England disciplines someone for entering a same-sex marriage, the legal case would take one of two forms. Either the complainant would have to argue that the exemption in the Equality Act does not cover same-sex marriage and that the Church of England is incorrectly applying the Act (I cannot see an English court giving this any serious time) or the complainant would have to argue that this exemption in the Equality Act is unjust (but then the complainant would be taking the Government to court, not the Church of England).
Third, there are many disappointed revisionists and the anger that is present means that the likelihood of an attempt to out a “hypocritical” gay bishop is just that bit higher this morning. Already some names are being bandied around (either explicitly or implicitly) and my suspicion is someone will break the silence on this issue before too long.