Andrew Goddard on the Guildford Guidance

Over on Ian Paul’s blog, Andrew Goddard has taken a look at the pastoral guidance that has been issued in Guildford Diocese on how to handle same-sex marriage.

Andrew GoddardMy first question was why such guidance was being offered.  As the regulations note, we are unlikely to see the first same-sex marriages until the summer.  By then there will be the Pilling Report and its reception and likely a statement from the House of Bishops on same-sex marriage as there was on civil partnerships.  Why offer guidance now for one diocese?  Is this “local option” and “facts on the ground” with bishops issuing their own regulations before serious discussion among the bishops?  How many other dioceses are doing this already? Might the guidance itself be a sign of what may be delivered by the Pilling Report or an attempt to force the hands of the House and College when they discuss the Report? Or is it simply that those preparing to marry may approach clergy soon and they need guidance and this is an attempt to offer it with as little apparent change as possible?

It’s a pretty good point. Pilling is about to report and it seems very odd to issue guidance for something that is over half a year away and that may be superseded before then.

Then there’s the very issue as to what our approach to same-sex marriage should be.

First, the church has always defended its stance on civil partnerships on the basis that they are not “gay marriage” in law even though many felt their similarities to marriage made that distinction at best blurred and ambiguous. It could be claimed that because the church still does not view them as “marriage” they are in the same category as civil partnerships – a secular legal construct which we state is not holy matrimony – and so they should be treated in the same way.  This ignores the fact that they are, in law, marriage and will be referred to as marriage by the couple and wider society.  On the most basic level, how in prayers would one refer to the event which has led the couple to request pastoral prayers?  Unless the language of marriage is accepted, clergy are left with a Fawlty-esque “Don’t mention the ‘marriage’” scenario.

Second, this difference in law between the two means that two people of the same sex entering a civil marriage will be consciously choosing to disregard the clear teaching of Scripture including Christ himself and the universal teaching of the church, enshrined in the Church of England’s canons as well as liturgy, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.  Given that civil partnerships will remain on the statute book, there can be no doubt that the decision to marry represents a challenge to the teaching of the church.  None of this applies to couples entering a civil partnership.  Bishops and clergy, committed to teach and guide the church and to encourage faithful Christian discipleship, cannot therefore treat such a decision to marry as of no significance and something unable to be questioned or challenged if undertaken by a Christian.

Third, in responding to those who have married someone of the same sex we are therefore not having to discern a response to a couple in a strange, ambiguous new legal category which we do not recognise.  We are having to respond to a couple presenting as “married” when the church teaches that they are not married.  Even before we have to address the question of whether the relationship is sexual that creates a new situation which suggests the same principles cannot apply as did to civil partnerships.

Andrew then explores what form of pastoral response might be appropriate.

The regulations are clear that “the texts of the Marriage Services should not be used” and presumably the earlier advice that “the terminology of blessing should be avoided” remains.  This is important as the language of blessing, unlike thanksgiving, amounts to an authorised declaration of God’s favour on that which is blessed.  It is stated that “in agreeing to a request for pastoral prayer the clergy person concerned will need to make the Church’s position clear in terms of its teaching about marriage, as the Church has historically understood marriage” (a more qualified and provisional way of describing church teaching than many would like).  That teaching, however, appears to be subordinated to the qualities discerned in the relationship – “the clergy person should respect the positive values of fidelity expressed in the vows the couple have made in a Civil Marriage, even if the Church believes this is in reality a distinct and different relationship from Christian Marriage as traditionally understood”.

The statement on marriage is unclear as to whether such prayers are simply private (for example in the home simply with the couple) or public (for example before a congregation).  This is an important distinction as clergy will rightly pray privately with people in a range of complex situations and need to be trusted to do so faithfully in accordance with Scripture and church teaching.  That obligation to pray with those in our care makes the guidance’s concern for conscience and a claimed right to reject “requests for pastoral prayer” unsettling rather than reassuring.

In Guildford it would appear that such pastoral prayers for same-sex married couples will only be private. The previous regulations on prayer for civil partnerships, although not categorically forbidding a public service (“It is also argued that public prayer in Churches may also be open to legal challenge (governed by Canons)”), simply state “there is nothing to prevent the priest from praying with and for such persons informally in a private or domestic context” and that “the Church does not provide official services for such private prayer, nor does the Bishop intend to authorise any as this could be construed as authorisation of public prayer (governed by canon B4)”.

I’m not convinced that the Guildford guidelines explicitly forbid public prayers and without that I can see how some might interpret this as a remit for a service of thanksgiving.

Finally Andrew hits the nail on the head.

If this more broad understanding of the nature of “pastoral prayers” were combined with the other feature of these guidelines – that the only procedure is the discernment of the individual clergy person that they “consider it to be an authentic Christian relationship” – we would effectively be pursuing “local option” for public services following a same-sex marriage on a congregational scale.  If the “same principles” were to be applied in relation to clergy then the Church would allow clergy to be married to someone of the same sex (but would expect them to give assurances their marriage was celibate). While some would welcome this and others, like me, would not, it is hard to see how anyone could then believe that the Church of England had integrity and was serious about upholding its teachings that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that the only holy form of sexual relationship is marriage.

As to why Guildford have issued this guidance, I think it’s less to do with establishing facts on the ground and more to do with a well-intentioned but badly thought through desire to give clergy some steer on this issue. The simple fact of the matter is that Pilling and then the House of Bishops are going to give the national position on our approach to same-sex marriages and Guildford may very well have to backtrack on this at some point. I suspect what Guildford have done is less conspiracy and more cock-up.

It would be interesting to hear from English readers whether any such guidance has been issued in their Dioceses.

2 Comments on “Andrew Goddard on the Guildford Guidance

  1. Written to my Guildford diocesan synod colleagues on General Synod:

    Dear General Synod Representatives,

    Please forgive me dispensing with protocols unknown to me, as I am a new member of Diocesan Synod. Perhaps, raising a question at the next Synod meeting might have been preferable, but the following update has already caused considerable controversy as you may already be aware.

    http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/diocesan-life/civil-partnerships-requests-for-prayer/

    I am at a loss to understand why an update on such a divisive issue as Same-Sex Marriage was needed at this time (7 months before the first likely same-sex civil marriages), far in advance of any guidance from the National Church and especially on the heels of a heartening new consensus forming on the way forward on Women Bishops.

    I am open to correction, but I have not seen any similar guidance released from other dioceses, so I’m unsure why our bishops felt impelled to issue this information.

    As it stands, part of the guidance reads: ‘In the interim, the Bishop of Guildford and the Suffragan Bishop of Dorking consider that the same principles should apply as to similar requests after Civil Partnerships, noting that civil same sex marriage cannot actually take place until after the Act comes into force.’

    This would indicate that, until the House of Bishops has finished its review of Pilling, clergy in our diocese should apply the same principles to same-sex civil marriage next summer that were accorded to same-sex civil partnerships.

    Yet, without clear guidance on how a couple who have made vows of fidelity involving homosexual acts could constitute an ‘authentic Christian relationship’, few clergy could be in a position to make that call, unless they have the blanket discretion to deem homosexual acts to be morally neutral.

    If this is what is meant in advance of the HoB review of and consensus on Pilling, the guidance, at the very least, will be construed by many as premature, morally ambiguous and in need of clarification.

    If the Lords Spiritual so courageously emphasized that there is only one institution of marriage: ‘the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’, those who present themselves in blatant contradiction to this, while asking for prayer in support of that contradiction, must be expecting a clerical connivance at their rejection of the church’s considered and publicly stated position.

    To try to emphasise that such prayers should be private and may not be offered as part of public liturgy, or to ensure that parts of the marriage rite are not recited will not prevent the fact that any sacred act (including prayer) conducted by a representative church figure in furtherance of a same-sex civil marriage will simply be perceived as a thinly-veiled church approval of homosexual acts.

    I would concur with a statement found in the Liturgical Commission’s paper entitled The Blessing of Worshippers within the Christian Tradition: ‘Human beings are created in the imago dei, and in part, this attribution carries with it the connotation of a priestly function of placing value on God’s creation and in re-claiming it for God’s good purposes. This priestly task is explicitly enjoined upon the baptised people of God, on those designated as being a priestly people. Christians are to bless and not to curse, to recover and reclaim that which is spoilt and lost in human relationships.’ However, uncritical affirmation in prayer is not redemptive: ‘Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy’ (Prov. 27:6)

    The paper also higlights several other motives for seeking prayer after a life event, both now and in the early church, including: ‘The underlying issue was not so much a question of cultic competence or power (although these factors emerged in systematic reflection from the 12th century onwards) but of the one blessing being in some sense a recognised representative figure.’

    So, in this case, should we not also ask whether the overarching motive behind such prayer is for the representative affirmation of same-sex relationships as approved by God and by the leaders of His church?

    Doesn’t the involvement of a recognised, representative minister acting within the terms of authority delegated by the episcopacy publicly promote the idea that a de facto theological consensus has been reached that affirms same-sex marriage?

    In contrast to these unintended consequences, I can only hope that this update can be revised to end any perceived ambiguity or connivance at scripturally proscribed homosexual acts. As General Synod representatives, you are my elder brothers who can present this appropriately.

    I pray that the torch of integrity lit by our Lords Spiritual last year will not grow dim, nor be quenched by a perceived secular capitulation.

    Yours in Christ,
    David Shepherd

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