Inclusive Church try to argue for Gay Blessings

You may have noticeed a piece produced on behalf of Inclusive Church that emerged onto the web a few days ago, arguing that current guidelines would permit a service of thanksgiving, including a blessing, for a civil partnership. You can read the piece here.

The thrust of the argument is that the current service for a thanksgiving after a civil marriage (i.e. where there is a second marriage for one of the partners and it is subsequently "blessed" in a church) includes a blessing. The argument goes as such:

The minister says

Almighty God give you grace to persevere,that he may complete in you the work he has already begun, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord bless and watch over you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you
the Lord look kindly on you and give you peace all the days of your life. Amen.

and among the concluding prayers

Almighty God, you send your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of all your people. Open the hearts of these your servants to the riches of his grace, that they may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The House of Bishops is quite clear the inclusion of this material including the couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them does not make this a Service of Blessing, it remains a Service of Prayer and Dedication. Including this or other similar liturgical material does not turn a service of Prayer into a Service of Blessing according to the House of Bishops (this may seem strange but the Bishops position is clear).

The question then becomes does the Church of England permit clergy to conduct a similar service for same sex couples since a couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them, does not make a service of prayer a "A Service of Blessing”?

At first that seems quite a good case. If this service can "bless" something that is not strictly seen as perfect, why can’t a civil partnership be blessed? Rev Brian Lewis who wrote the paper continues:

Now it is true that a form of service of Prayer and Dedication for use after the registering of a Civil Partnership has not been authorised by the House of Bishops, but in the Church of England that is not the same thing as saying such a service is not permitted.

Under the provisions of Canon B5 the clergy of the Church of England are granted a wide ranging discretion in the conduct of "Public Prayer”

Canon B5 is as follows

B 5 Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer

1. The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances.

2. The minister having the cure of souls may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service.

3. All variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.

4. If any question is raised concerning the observance of the provisions of this Canon it may be referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit, but such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.

5. In this Canon the expression ‘form of service’ has the same meaning as in Canon B 1.

This is where the argument begins to unravel. Lewis is absolutely right that the fact that a form of service to bless a Civil Partnership hasn’t been authorised doesn’t mean that one cannot automatically be used. Most of us clergy use forms of worship from time to time that don’t come straight out of the prayer book. For example, there is no uniformly agreed liturgy for a Remembrance Day service, just guidelines. But the problem with Lewis’ argument is that he misses out one crucial fact.

The Bishops have banned such a service taking place.

You see, Lewis neatly side-steps this issue in the rest of his piece. building up an argument based around what a clergyperson *may* do, and conveniently ignores what they "may not" do. The Bishops in their pastoral statement and in their answers in Synod clarifying the statement (which Lewis includes in his piece) clearly rule that such a blessing may not take place. What Lewis is arguing for is the right of clergy to simply ignore their Bishops on anything that they disagree on, despite what the Bishop insists upon being lawful and honest.

Lewis also hoists himself by his own petard when he cites Canon B.5.3

All variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.

For it would be disingenuous to read the parts of the Canon which supported his case and yet ignore this clause. To be fair, he does raise this issue when he writes,

Statements by the House of Bishop do not suggest that differing opinions on this issue contradict the essential doctrine of the Church of England and we could reasonably expect a bishop to give direction accordingly if a particular case was referred to him.

The 1991 Statement of the House of Bishops Issues in Human Sexuality recognises a diversity of view and the place of conscience within the Church of England.

but once again he fails to recognise the crucial difference between *may* and *may not*. The 1991 statement quite rightly observes that individual clergy *may* hold differing opinions on this, but a differing opinion doth not a doctrine make. He also simply incorrect on the observation that

Statements by the House of Bishop do not suggest that differing opinions on this issue contradict the essential doctrine of the Church of England

for the more recent "Some Issues in Human Sexuality", together with the Lambeth ’98 1:10 resolution make it abundantly clear what the "essential doctrine" is on this issue. In the light of Canon B5, clergy ignore that at that peril.

For example, I might hold the opinion that polygamous marriages were OK, but were I to attempt to marry a man to a second wife, I would find very quickly that my Bishop would point out to me the doctrinal and canonical error of my ways, while asking me to hand over my licence. Try carrying out a bigamist wedding and you will quickly discover the *may not*s of the Church.

It is very clear that a blessing of same-sex partners would fail the "departure from the doctrine of the Church" test very easily, as I have argued a week or so ago. Such a blessing differs from blessing a couple married in a registry office, because the Church very clearly, in its liturgy and in the Scriptures, teaches that the couple in their marriage point to a divine truth about Christ and the Church that a same-sex union cannot. To be fair, there are issues around the remarriage of divorcees, but I have written in the past on how the cases are different (see section three, particularly page 18).

So what are we left with? Lewis’ argument falls down very quickly and his bold claim

The final decision on whether or not any particular service contravened the essential doctrine of the Church of England could only be determined by bringing a case against him/her under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, or the more recent Clergy Discipline Measure. As far as we are aware no such case has been brought (nor do we believe it likely).

recognises that fundamentally this is a question of doctrine and not the liberty of clergy pastoral practice. He may find that if the Bishop of London presses forward with disciplining the Rev Martin Dudley that we may very soon have the test case he believes will never happen.

The one thing I do commend Lewis on is the reiteration of the call in "Issues" for pastoral sensitivity. Issues reads:

5.6 At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the Church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God. All those who seek to live their lives in Christ owe one another friendship and understanding. It is therefore important that in every congregation such homophiles should find fellow-Christians who will sensitively and naturally provide this for them. Indeed, if this is not done, any professions on the part of the Church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homophile situation can be no more than empty words.

The meaning is very clear – the Church as an institutuon fundamentally disagrees that same-sex unions are holy, yet individual clergy should find ways of being pastorally sensitive, within the bounds of the doctrine of the church. Any action which would "commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation", would be contrary to the doctrine of the church and therefore fall foul of the limits laid down by Canon B5.3.

There is though still a need to care for those who experience same-sex attraction, and last week I wrote the following:

My great fear is that we will lose the battle in the Church of England on this issue, not because we do not read the Bible correctly, but that we have failed to carry out the call of Christ to bring his kingdom into being by offering the healing and transforming power of the cross. At least the liberals resource the heresy they believe. At the moment it appears that we in the traditionalist camp cannot materially support the truth.

I long to see a Church of England that puts its money where its mouth is. I long to see diocesan advisors on emotional healing and sexual freedom, funded by the church and backed by their bishop. When that happens the society we live in will know tow things – that the Church means what it says and that there is a place to go with your brokeness. At the moment though, all we are ultimately saying is that we don’t like what you’re doing, but we have nothing to offer you instead.

It’s time for the church to offer something real and practical. It’s time for the Church to stand up, say boldly that it believes what the Scriptures tell us about the power of the cross to heal, to dismiss notions of compromising with doctrine and to invest in the pastoral resources that are available. That is, in my opinion, a far better response than to weasel around the canons.

28 Comments on “Inclusive Church try to argue for Gay Blessings

  1. Well, thank you for your response, Peter. The “issue of how Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets and his declaration that aspects of the Mosaic Covenant were completed in him” is not something that I can discuss, because I’m certainly not qualified to do so. In any case, I don’t see how it’s relevant here, but no doubt you can tell me.
    That homosexual conduct per se is covered under the word “fornication” is highly disputable. “Fornication” is usually the translation given in English of the word porneia. According to the late Michael Vasey (Strangers and Friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible, 1995) porneia is not a synonym for “sex before marriage” and its meaning is extremely fluid. “It clearly means sexual behaviour that breaches the proper relation between human beings. It does not follow that this will be the same in every culture.” Obviously porneia can be taken to include homosexual behaviour per se, but only if you assume in the first place that all homosexual behaviour in all circumstances “breaches the proper relation between human beings” – an assumption that I see no reason to make.
    I agree that Paul doesn’t use the word “orgies” in Romans 1 – he doesn’t use the word “homosexual” either – but that seems to me to be the implication of his comments, when one reads them in their context. But note, in any case, that he speaks of men who “have given up natural intercourse”; that doesn’t sound to me like a reference to ordinary gay men. I’m not suggesting that Paul was intending to exempt ordinary gay men from his strictures, but that he wasn’t taking them into account at all and probably neither knew nor understood anything about them. Whether Paul was “as clever or wise” as me or as anyone else now living is not the point, so please refrain from putting words into my mouth. If I might quote Victor Paul Furnish again:
    “Of course, human sexuality is … far more complex than Paul and his contemporaries could have realized. … It would be unfair to charge Paul with naïveté or ignorance in the matter of homosexuality. Such evidence as we have suggests that he was as informed as anyone could have been in his day. Indeed we should be the naïve ones were we to ignore the data available to us in our own day, supposing that Paul’s teaching alone is sufficient to answer our questions about right and wrong in this difficult matter.”

    You also write:
    “in doing so you present us with a God who when he inspired Paul in his writing of his letters was a God who was too dumb and stupid to know what was going to happen 2,000 years down the line.”
    If you’re going to use that argument, then you need to be very wary indeed of where it’s going to lead you. What about a God who was too dumb and stupid to know what was going to happen 1600 years down the line and less? Who didn’t foresee that people were going to use his Son’s teaching to justify using racks, thumbscrews and other horrific tortures on other people and burning them at the stake if they didn’t get their theological views quite right? (Both the Holy [sic] Office of the Inquisition’s and Calvin’s treatment of heretics spring to mind.) Who didn’t foresee that some people would use his holy Scriptures to justify persecuting Jews and even murdering them? Who, when he inspired Paul in his writing of his letters, was too dumb and stupid to see that people were going to use things in those letters to justify slavery? Who was too dumb and stupid to foresee that the Scriptures would be used to justify hunting for “witches” and burning them? And, while we’re about it, just for good measure, what about a God who was too dumb and stupid to know that people were going to persecute gays and lesbians in the name of his Son?

  2. William,

    Regarding your comment: Peter, I haven’t a clue what your view of Leviticus is. I mentioned it simply because of those two famous passages (Lev. 18:22 & 20:13) which are among those routinely selected and quoted against us by people who wouldn’t dream of considering themselves bound by many of the other regulations in that book.

    I’m thinking you are forgetting Acts. The issue about food is directly addressed.  And then in Acts 15, matters are further resolved when the Christian community discerns what from the Old Testament will be binding on the Gentiles.

  3. William,

    That’s a completely specious argument. You’re saying that Romans 1 doesn’t mean what it clearly says. That has absolutely nothing to do with the way Christians have wrongly treated heretics, which has less to do with mis-interpretation of Scripture and more to do with power.

  4. O.K., Perpetua, so the issue about food is directly addressed in Acts, and some other matters are resolved in Acts 15 ( I take it that you are referring to James’s speech in vv. 13-21). If you read through the Mosaic Law as given in Leviticus you’ll find that that still leaves a hell of a lot of matters that aren’t dealt with in Acts. To take just one that springs to mind – since I don’t feel like writing an essay – accepting interest on money lent is condemned repeatedly in the Old Testament and there is no suggestion in the New Testament that this prohibition no longer applies. In fact, the Church continued to condemn the practice of charging interest for many centuries. The General Council of Vienne, in particular, solemnly reiterated the prohibition and so did Luther. Yet somehow we seem to have forgotten that the practice is forbidden in Scripture, probably because our whole modern economy couldn’t do without it and because so many people, including the clergy, depend on it for their pensions.

    No matter what the motive was for the Christian mistreatment of heretics – and it’s stretching things a bit to suggest that power was, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s reason for approving of the Inquisition – those who did it appealed to Scripture to justify it, and you can make exactly the same comments about a God who was so dumb and stupid that he didn’t foresee this and prevent it.

    I’m not suggesting that Romans 1 doesn’t mean what it says. I’m saying that what Paul says about the sexual behaviour of idolaters, whom he assumes to have “given up natural intercourse”, and whose behaviour he regards as the result of their idolatry, cannot reasonably be generalised to apply to all homosexual people, and that we are not bound today by Paul’s limited understanding of homosexuality, which is not in any case the main point of what he is saying in Romans.

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