Now Ekklesia attack Christian Marriage

You all know Ekklesia don’t you? The so called “Christian Think Tank” which is simply a front for Jonathan Bartley’s liberal musings. One Bishop once told me that a general guide to orthodoxy is “whatever Ekklesia opposes”. And today’s news item from them is no exception. No, I’m not talking about the ludicrous reporting of a Rowntree Foundation poll where,  in Ekklesia’s ongoing campaign to remove any influence the Church might have in helping to frame the legal framework of this country, over 60% of the population have been categorised as “Christian”. If 60% of the population were really Christian (knowing, loving, serving and offering themselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord Jesus Christ rather than “I went to church once, that makes me a Christian right?”) then I think the country might be in a slightly different place then it is today.

But enough of that. What we’re talking about today is Ekklesia now wanting to get rid of Christian marriage as part of their relentless campaign to permit civil partnerships to be performed in religious premises. To argue this corner JB has wheeled on Kevin Scully, the Rector of St Matthew’s Bethnal Green (an “Inclusive” Church no less) to set-up and then knock down a series of straw men and paper innacuracies.

Where shall we start? How about here?

How did we get to the state we’re in? The first response is easy: we confuse the social with theological and then pretend we are being ‘pastoral’, using the bald tyre of ‘meeting people where they are’. We aspire to doing good instead of admitting that we are continuing what was always a cashing in on the sub-legal and cultural aspects of times past. We further disorient ourselves in that by doing this we are somehow traditional and worthy.

Attempts to keep a toe in the water by the General Synod of the Church of England are often portrayed as keeping the church in touch with people’s needs. To see the full horror of this, go to the church’s own official website. Its opening on marriage in the Life Events section should sound alarm bells for parish clergy:

‘Congratulations! You’re welcome to marry in church whatever your beliefs, whether or not you are baptised and whether or not you go to church. And, marrying in church has never been easier thanks to a change in the law which means you now have more churches to choose from.’

Kevin makes it sound as though getting married in church is like jumping on an automated conveyor belt – book the date, get the dress, turn up on time and job’s a good ‘un. Of course the reality if a church wedding is done properly is remarkably different. If, for example, you’re lucky enough to get me to marry you (and some folks really are that fortunate) we’ll meet up several times to discuss a number of things. More on that later.

To be fair, Kevin does have a go at those clergy who do run their weddings like conveyor belts – “That is only overshadowed by the number of parish clergy who seem content with not offering any preparation before taking the cash, having the joyful event recorded in their registers and never seeing the couple again.” – but then that’s an argument against poor preparation, not against getting married in church.

Let’s move on shall we?

The most recent changes allowing Qualifying Connections for marriage services in church are frankly ridiculous. There may still be pockets of England where someone will recall whether the grandparents or parents of one of the couple seeking to marry in a church were active worshippers, but they are far from the norm. It would seem from my parochial experience it is now a softer, and arguably more honest, way of the old pretence that one of the couple still resides at their parents’ house. Why bother to qualify at all? Why not just have a set price for all this? Let people get married where they want, if the clergy will officiate. That is the veiled truth in some parts of the country.

After all, what the church wants is cash. That is the only justification for the calling of banns. Any pretence otherwise should be dismissed. Does anybody really believe anyone inside the gathered worshipping congregation knows the relationship history behind the names being called on three consecutive Sundays? Who keeps the precious pieces of paper that are produced anyway?

Well, I for one. The truth on the ground is that even with the changes in the rules for when Banns can be read, my church at least is pretty strict on who can and can’t get married. Last year I did the wedding for a couple from the neighbouring town where the (now) wife grew up at the Church School and her Gran was once a regular member of our congregation. Tick. At the same time, I had a phone call from a couple who, having booked their wedding reception round the corner, wanted to get married at Christ Church. Thank you for playing, but I don’t think so.

It’s all about having the cure of souls isn’t it? By applying the rules correctly (rather than just waving them to raise an extra £500 or so) it means that we do 6 or so weddings a year, and those weddings are personal because I’ve had time to get to know the couple properly.

There are also the complications of foreign nationals wanting to wed in church. This is confused by contradictory advice. Good practice in the London diocese has been to ask those involved to sort out their matters with the Home Office. But the loophole in the law which allows church weddings to take place without such bureaucracy is well known. It is up to individual clergy to rule on the matter. That regular churchgoers get preferential treatment is probably the worst solution.

But once again this is an argument against poor clergy practice, not against marriage in church. I’ve done two weddings with foreign nationals in the past few years, and in both cases we followed diocesan guidelines exactly. Visits to Diocesan Registrars or Bishop’s Surrogates meant that there was full accountability in the process of discerning whether the marriage was real. For one couple, the whole thing could have been done in 15 days, but because of complications the process lasted over half a year and involved a coming back to faith for one of the spouses who is now a regular worshipper at our church. When you take the cure of souls seriously it doesn’t mean that you take advantage of loopholes to fill the coffers – it means that you offer (the sacrament of?) Christian Marriage as a profound spiritual moment in two peoples’ lives.

Which brings me to another of Kevin’s straw men…

This also glosses over an even a bigger problem. The church really has no worked out theology on the marriage event. From our source book, admittedly from someone who does not consider himself a Biblical scholar, the ‘solemnisation’ of such a rite is untenable: penile penetration of a virgin female (no such requirement on the masculine of the species) seems to be the only marking of marriage. The celebrations before the initial sex act (if one looks at the Ian McEwan’s wonderful novella On Chesil Beach, we get a particularly useful English angle on this) are thus more than religious and bacchanalian prurience.

By golly, has Kevin not read the preface to the Marriage service in the BCP? How can he make such an ignorant statement? Is it because he prefers to refer to Ian McEwan rather than the Word of God for his textual authority? The reality is that in the Church of England we have a very clear and coherent doctrine of marriage, and I suspect that Kelly’s objection is not so much that we don’t a theology of marriage, but that he just doesn’t agree with what it is.

If people want a religious aspect to their partnership the church can respond to them … even people of the same sex.

Yup, thought as much.

I don’t know about Bethnal Green, but here at Christ Church we take our prospective couples through the marriage service nice and early in order to have a discussion about what they think is going on and what we believe is going on. Result? Most couples getting married here recognise that to stand in front of God and say their vows and have their marriage declared valid and legal by a Priest is a qualitatively different thing to walking into a registry office. And the results of doing the theology are remarkable. One couple decided on reflection it would be better not to get married in church since they didn’t believe a word of it. Another couple (the wife leading) decided to use the “love, honour and obey” vows since they really gelled with the Christ/Church = Husband/Wife picture used by Scripture. They got the theology and it was fantastic seeing them realise and celebrate that their wedding was more than just about them.

The whole point of getting married in church is to celebrate what God has done, not just in the couple but in Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. The fact that Kevin can’t see that (or JB either, seeing as he let the article go up on Ekklesia), let alone teach it, support it and promote it is the real scandal here. How Ekklesia can get away with calling themselves a “Christian Think Tank” when they can’t see what’s plain for all to read in the liturgy of the Church is beyond belief.

Kevin Scully’s article is less a reasoned case against Christian Marriage and more a list of nit-picking critiques of legal loop-holes and poor clergy practice. The trajectory of his rant is clear – this piece has little to do with exploring the necessity or otherwise of Christian Marriage and far much more to do with liberalising the law in the area of where Civil Partnerships can be celebrated. If it were not so then he would have come up with a list of suggestions as to how to help clergy provide the best kind of pastoral care, guidance and education around a church marriage, rather than simply use the worst case examples to push forward a liberal revisionist agenda.

But then that’s Ekklesia for you isn’t it? Think Tank? No.

Thanks (for nothing) Kevin.

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