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is about to report and it seems very odd to issue guidance for something that is over half a year away and that may be superseded before then.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.