Andrew Goddard on the Bishops Statement

Up on Fulcrum – it’s very good.

Andrew GoddardThe swiftest and strongest criticism of the statement was to its conclusion (para 27, in bold), that

The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.

This has caused outrage with clergy stating they will flout it, inevitably leading to disciplinary processes which will be costly financially, missionally, relationally and in terms of unity.  There has, however, been little or no argument against the clear logic of the guidance which has a solid basis in law – the canonical definition of marriage remains part of the law of the land and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act Schedule 7 amended the Equality Act so that, in the words of the relevant Explanatory Note, “a church may require that a priest not be married to a person of the same sex”.

In ordering her own life in this way the Church of England is simply continuing to do so on the basis of her own canon law and doctrine.  Criticisms therefore need either argue that the Church must rewrite her canons, liturgy and teaching or propose better alternative applications of the church’s current law and teaching.  The former is a major challenge legally (requiring 2/3 majorities in all Houses of Synod) and theologically and risks appearing as the church’s capitulation and subordination to the state in how it orders its life and ministry in relation to marriage.  The latter would need to address the clear logic of the guidance: “Getting married to someone of the same sex would, however, clearly be at variance with the teaching of the Church of England.  The declarations made by clergy and the canonical requirements as to their manner of life do have real significance and need to be honoured as a matter of integrity” (para 26).

Both these paths are very difficult so it is perhaps unsurprising that the alternative that has been chosen is the well-worn but wholly destructive one of disregarding and undermining both church teaching and episcopal authority through threatening unilateral acts of “ecclesial disobedience” by creating “facts on the ground”. Although this path is well-worn, we now face a new situation.  The church has never formally suggested that clergy can be in a sexual relationship other than marriage as defined by canon.  In the past, with both civil partnerships (which clergy can still enter) and non-registered same-sex partnerships, the tension with ordained ministry was in relation to sexual behaviour which was a private matter and private assurances were to be sought and given. We are now in a situation where two public statuses – marriage to someone of the same-sex and ordination – are, in effect, declared by the bishops to be incompatible. We have therefore sadly now reached the crunch where the gap between church teaching and society is such that either the church draws a line and makes clear clergy are to order their lives in this area by the teaching of the church or it does not do so.  In other words, this new public incompatibility moves the disagreement and conflict – between church and society and within the church – to a totally new level.