Men and Women in Marriage

Church England LogoThere 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?

11 Comments on “Men and Women in Marriage

  1. Peter

    Sorry, but this whole episode is a classic CofE PR car crash.

    The document is totally confused as to what it is actually for. The section entitled ‘purpose of this document’ starts by saying that it won’t repeat what was said in the Church’s response to the same sex marriage consultation (you may remember that this response was much criticised at the time as well). Then it says the purpose is to set out a positive line on marriage, and to ‘expand’ upon a 2005 statement. So it is to set out something new then, albeit building on earlier statements.

    However, what follows is nothing of the sort. It does not make the case for fidelity, love, mutual service, life-long commitment or any of the other features which make marriage unique from other relationships. Presumably the problem with these is that they could be argued as features of some gay relationships as well. Instead it tries to make an argument as to why only straight people can be married. Which wasn’t really the point of the document, and ends up not a positive case for marriage, but a negate case against gay marriage.

    Not to mention the question of why on earth publish a document on this topic when the Church’s view on same sex relationships is currently the subject of a major review. Then you have to add in a few other toxic factors:

    1. It is really badly written. Take this as an example, “Our age prides itself on appreciating marriage supremely as a relationship between persons.” Really.

    2. It is really badly argued. Take this as an example, ” When we marry, we commit the procreative power of our own sex to an exclusive relation with a life-partner of the opposite sex. We open ourselves to parenthood in and through the partnership we enjoy as a couple, and that may be
    true even of a couple who, for whatever reasons, have no prospect of actually having children.” So when we marry we commit ourselves to being open to having children, even if we cannot actually have children. Brilliant stuff.

    Or even worse, the conclusion, “When marriage is spoken of unclearly or misleadingly, it distorts the way couples try to conduct their relationship and makes for frustration and disappointment.”


    3. It is utterly extraordinary that the Standing Committee should consider this a document not worthy of reference to the full House of Bishops. They are perfectly within their rights to do so, but Standing Committees really shouldn’t do anything which could be considered controversial, and this clearly is.

    You are clearly right that those making the most fuss are those who don’t like the content. However, Mouse would contend that everyone should have issue with it, even if you are not a ‘liberal’.

    • Oh bollocks.

      1. This is *exactly* what our age does. If it doesn’t, why is the emphasis on same-sex marriage about allowing two people who love each other to marry? If it isn’t about emphasising two people loving each other and de-emphasising marriage as a social construct geared normatively around procreation, what is it?

      2. Yes, that is exactly the point. Marriage is understood to be normatively procreative.

      3. No it’s not, because it simply restates that which the House of Bishops has already agreed in the past.

      • Yes, CM’s post is a classic bit of liberal-speak: Revd Dr Methuen, apparently to subvert the FaOC report on marriage between man and woman, publishes a dissenting piece and then, rather than criticising *her behaviour*, as “a mess” or a “car crash”, liberals try to use it to attack the report they hate.

        Doesn’t this shows that the CofE should tighten up on who it allows to be clergy, synod members etc? Why should people who keep their fingers crossed when they say the creeds, and who think they know better than the morals and behaviours taught by Jesus and His Apostles, be allowed authority within any part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?

        ps I had thought that intelligent liberals had “got the message” and stopped their tendency to try to save the church by being “honest to God” about their belief in Christian truths. I’ve heard enough of them angrily insisting that they hold “orthodox” beliefs… But now they are trying to save the church again – this time by “being honest” about their belief in Christian morals… Don’t liberals understand that heteropraxy is just the other side of the coin of heterodoxy (as my mate Karl Barth might say)?

        • Revd_Dave – With venom on your tongue, and spitting the word ‘liberal’ as if it were a swear word, you attack me as by implication, stupid and dishonest, as ‘holding my fingers when I say the creeds’ and without ‘christian morals’. Your angry lack of grace does you no credit, and nor is it anywhere near the truth. I sincerely hope it says nothing of your character that at the faintest sign of disagreement, you launch into this kind of verbal assault on a Christian brother. If you really are a vicar, I dearly hope you don’t talk like this when you are not commenting on blog posts, but dealing your parioshoners in the real world. And I hope for your sake that your bishops does not read the unpleasant personal attacks you are making on the internet. Please don’t bother replying to me again – I certainly won’t respond any more.

          No, I choose not to attack Revd Dr Methuen. It is no abuse of process or ‘subversion’ of the FaOC to write a blog post saying you disagree with the report, and I have no idea why you would think it is.

          As for the substance of this piece, and away from personal attacks, the point of my comment was not to argue that the paper was right or wrong in its central thesis. I would not in any way object to a paper setting out a positive case for marriage – which this report says it is attempting to do. But I argue it is confused in its purpose, badly written, badly argued and comes at a very odd time, without the direct authority of the whole House of Bishops, which is very odd.

          Peter seems to be arguing the opposite – therefore I presume he will be a little clearer that he thinks it is clear in purpose, well argued, well written and perfectly reasonable to comment on this matter without direct reference to the HoB whilst a review of the Church’s view of some elements of it is nearing completion?

          • Dear CM,
            Having just reread your post and mine I think you have jumped to conclusions regarding how I feel about liberal Christians and whether I think that you are in the group of liberals who don’t actually hold to the beliefs, morals and practices taught by Jesus and His apostles.

            To clarify, I was making a *general* point that the CofE may need to look more carefully at whether the people who have authority in its ministry and synods etc are commited, orthodox Christians. We are, after all, a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

        • It should be clear that there is no issue with someone on the Commission publishing a dissenting report, but they should wait until the report itself is published before doing so.

  2. “Furore” ?
    And just where is all this liberal outrage?

    I see that you now have the chronology correct but if you had asked another on the Commission about publishing material you might have got something like this:
    ” Having said all that, it has never been a working assumption of FAOC or of its predecessors (Doctrine Commission, House of Bishops’ Theological Committee, Faith and Order Advisory Group) that the publication of a report on something prevented individual members from making their own views known. So I don’t rule out writing something on this ……
    So I don’t really understand your attack on Dr Methuen, who doesn’t deny that the piece under review is the view of the Preface to the marriage service and does what it says on the box, she doesn’t even say as others have that it was poorly done and badly argued, she just offers another view on marriage. She does not claim it is the view of the bishops.
    If there was a breach of protocol then it came surely from allies and former colleagues of Oliver O’Donovan who claimed his authorship of the piece thus making this matter somewhat personal.

    On Thinking Anglicans Professor Christopher Seitz wrote:
    “The report itself is extremely well done. It reflects the ethical and cultural insights of Professor O’Donovan et al as refracted through scripture and tradition.”
    While Bishop Kings tweeted on April 11th:
    “I do think it is profound and well written, as to be expected from Prof Oliver O’Donovan”

    Now as I see it Peter it is these claims, “extreme,ly well done” and “we’ll written” that most people are having trouble with combined with “the theological rationale it attempts to draw out that to my mind makes pretty insecure assumptions about gender complementarity and biological essentialism (dressed up in natural law arguments).”

    • You misunderstand. There is no problem in Dr Methuen or anybody else issuing a minority report, but basic courtesy suggests one does that only when the main report is issued.

      • But it isn’t a minority report. It does not say that the teaching of the bishops is anything other. That would constitute as a minority report, a challenge.
        Methuen doesn’t challenge what is, which was the business of the Commission she points to what might yet be.

          • No, Peter. From the detailed information you have been given and from my own specific enquiries, Dr Methuen appears to have followed all protocols, informed the right people, circulated her essay in good time and to the right people, followed all guidance and has not written a minority report.

            Accusations of abuse of privilege are very unfair, there is no evidence to suggest this.

            Whereas it is embarrassing and somewhat humiliating for it to be reported that the Commission’s work was done by one man. This hardly helps the Commission to own the piece.

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