Andrew Goddard – Part Two

More from Andrew Goddard on the Bishops and Same-Sex Marriage.

Andrew GoddardThe challenges

The statement and the responses to it highlight the near-impossible challenges now facing the church.  These result from the new marriage law’s incompatibility with the church’s doctrine of marriage and from the church’s internal divisions over that doctrine and how to respond faithfully.  The response of the bishops is based on upholding the current teaching.  It is marked by

  • Continued distancing from and opposition to the state and the law in this area.  This is never easy, particularly for an established church.  When it is on a matter where church and state have previously been partners in basic agreement and the church retains a special legal responsibility and social function it is even more uncomfortable.  If wider society generally comes to accept the state’s definition the stance will be yet more difficult to maintain.
  • Clergy upholding church teaching in their lives. The statement that clergy should not marry same-sex partners creates an incompatibility between two public statuses and so makes open confrontation almost inevitable.
  • Limited guidance on responding to those who marry a same-sex partner. Here there is a refusal to excommunicate on the one hand and a refusal to marry or allow blessings on the other, both of which have upset parts of the church. Apart from these boundaries, there is, however, little or no practical guidance on how – given the church’s teaching – to respond in relation to training in discipleship, mutual discernment, private prayer or public worship.

One way forward is to see the problem as lying with the current teaching about marriage.  Rewrite that, or just make it optional, and there is no need for distance and opposition, clergy can marry their same-sex partners and the church can hold weddings and call on gay and lesbian people to marry as a pattern of faithful discipleship.  Many clergy and a number of bishops would welcome or at least tolerate this way forward. The problem is that such a move would now be a radical volte-face, very hard to justify theologically, lead to major divisions in the CofE and Communion, and damage relationships with ecumenical partners.

What then is the alternative?  It is to work out and follow through the positive, practical implications of the church’s teaching for its own internal life and its witness in mission and ministry to the nation.  The statement begins to do this but it does so more in the form of prohibitions which mark certain boundaries. For those opposed to the teaching these are unacceptable and they have come close to viewing the bishops as like the false shepherds of Ezekiel 34.  For those committed to the teaching there is much that is welcome but also elements of concern and a desire for clearer leadership in thinking and following through the practical implications of the teaching.  The problem is that such a move is unlikely to come from the bishops, certainly as a House, and it needs to be developed on the ground by learning from experience and sharing of best practice.

One reason that further practical guidance is unlikely from the House of Bishops is that some of its members do not personally believe that the church’s doctrine of marriage as being a union of a man and a woman is true and something which “most benefits society” (para 8).  Others, although personally convinced of such a view, are concerned about the implications – in church and wider society – of following that commitment through in church teaching and practice.  Those concerns will have been deepened by the strength of criticism they have faced for upholding the teaching and following it through even to the extent they have done.

The sad reality is that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Although it is reported that only one bishop voted against the guidance, it is also being claimed that a significant number, even a majority, are not personally happy with it. The reactions to the guidance make clear just how extensive the divisions are in the wider church and thus how difficult the environment for the facilitated conversations is going to be.  They also perhaps highlight two areas where the conversations need to focus their attention but which were largely unaddressed by the Pilling Report:

(1) What doctrine of marriage should the Church have and how should it then bear faithful witness to that in ordering its own life and in mission in a wider society which recognises same-sex marriage? and

(2) What is to be done, what new church structures may be needed, so that those who find themselves unable to accept the conclusions on the doctrine of marriage and its practical implications can faithfully bear witness to their understanding of marriage without undermining the mind of the majority or condemning the Church of England to continuing destructive conflict over this issue?

16 Comments on “Andrew Goddard – Part Two

  1. Reading Andrew’s statements and following the CDM/EJM discussion I find myself reflecting on where we are now: what do we know, or can safely predict, about the near future and what is unclear.

    Firstly, the church is genuinely split on this issue – 43:44 if the polls are to be believed – so neither side can simply wish away the other. Neither position represents a small minority for the rest to somehow accommodate, we must find a way of living together.

    Secondly, same sex marriages are very soon to become a reality, and that reality will manifest itself in our churches – congregants marrying, community members marrying, some ministers marrying. In the pews, we are going to become used to knowing gay, married Christians, and in many cases, over time, we will have been to some form of prayers for them.

    Thirdly, some clergy will marry and at some point a disciplinary action will almost certainly be brought – probably against the intense wishes of the bishop who finds himself having to deal with it. Given this is untested ground, I really don’t think we can reliably say what the outcome of the case will be. I think we can predict, though, that it will attract the most militant characters on either side of the debate, drag on for a long time through various appeals, involve detailed debate of arcane points of church law, and make the church look utterly ridiculous. If the case is dismissed, conservatives at home and abroad will feel betrayed, we will probably head to some from of alternative oversight from GAFCON for a small minority of parishes (although personally, I suspect this would end up of a similar marginal scale to the Ordinariate). If a priest is deprived of his living, there will be uproar from politicians, the church will be seen as increasingly divorced from the society in which it operates and some the beneficial aspects of our relationship with the state will come under pressure – although I doubt there would be the political will to make dramatic changes. If the minister in question is reprimanded but not deprived, there will be negative comments from both sides.

    I think it seems clear that over time, same sex marriage will be ever more accepted in society. I say this because (a) polls appear to show consistently that even within an individual generation, views on homosexuality tend to liberalise over time, (b) younger generations are more liberal than those they replace and (c) we tend to be more comfortable with the familiar than the unknown – if most people know a married gay couple amongst their friends or colleagues, fewer will oppose same sex marriage. I also strongly suspect that this will apply within the church as well – although not, of course, amongst those who have a strongly held, clearly thought out theological opposition. In other words, I’d strongly suspect that support for same sex marriage will become the majority position for us pew-fodder, but a sizeable minority will remain opposed, with a higher proportion of opposition amongst clergy and active laity (such as General Synod members).

    At some point, a movement for the church to accept, and indeed celebrate, same sex marriages will gather steam. It may well, by then, be weakly supported by a majority of laity, but at least for some time is likely to be strongly opposed by either a majority or a blocking minority (more than a third in one house of synod) of clergy and/or active laity.

    If (*if*) this describes the picture accurately, what does it say to us? For me, it suggests strongly that being able to disagree well is essential. If one dismisses ones opponents as heretics/bigots one is dismissing half the church – and yes, of course, half the church can be wrong, but to posit malintent on so many faithful fellow Christians seems arrogantly assumptive, to say the least. Further, once we finally get past this issue, we will undoubtedly find something else about which to argue – disagreement won’t suddenly end, nor, I suspect, become less passionate. For our mission and ministry to be effective, we must find ways to disagree in fellowship and love, and without compromising the work of the church.

    • 43:44 is based on a piece of research by Linda Woodhead where she treated a general member of the public who never went to church but would put “CofE” on a form as a serious active Anglican. Make of that what you will.

      In reality there is a conservative majority on this issue as a vote in Synod (or far more seriously, a withdrawal of Parish Share) would easily demonstrate.

      • One factor perhaps less considered is the vast amount of media hype about this all, which can take things out of proportion.

        In the UK there are 20 million opposite-sex married people. There are ‘only’ 100,000 civil partners – so the ratio is 200:1. Given that Civil Partnerships won’t be changing over immediately (if ever) I wonder how many same-sex weddings there will actually be this year?

        • I have sympathy with this point. Not to understate its importance to those personally affected, but the amount of air-time we devote to this vs treatment of Christians – and other religious minorities – in the middle east, or poverty alleviation, or mission, is concerning.

          I guess, like it or not, it has become the totemic issue, of how we read scripture, of how we use tradition.

      • Thank you Peter, you’re of course correct. Having looked up the figures, if I’m reading them correctly amongst actively participating Anglicans rather than “adherents” they show 47:40 with the larger number opposing same sex marriage.

        A conservative majority on Synod, I’d suggest, doesn’t necessarily reflect opinion in the pews, although I would suspect that opinion on Synod will remain more conservative than the masses on an ongoing basis.

        • Given that Synod’s elected in a process so byzantine it makes the
          Electoral College look simple, I wouldn’t be surprised if Synod’s not

          If there is a synodical majority against gay equality, I hope affirming evangelicals take point on winning hearts and minds. We’re told endlessly that evangelicals are split on this “issue,” so now’s the time to see evidence of that claim.

          • The key reason that General Synod is not representative is because small churches are relatively over-represented on Deanery Synods, and hence in the votes cast for General Synod representatives. Since large churches tend to be evangelical it is evangelicals who are underrepresented.

            For instance, in the lay elections 5 churches with an ER of 75 will each be able to have 2 deanery synod reps – total of 10. However a single church 5 times larger with an ER of 375 can only have 5. Same number of congregants, half the number of votes.

            It’s even more unfair for House of Clergy votes – those 5 vicars in the small churches and the 1 in the large church each have 1 vote each. Even if there’s a curate or assistant minister they’re massively underrepresented for the relative size of the churches.

            Here’s the formula: Liberals claim to be passionate about justice, but will they be taking this one up? Doubt it.

            • Out of interest, Eaglet2, how does that explain a higher proportion of votes against, for example, women bishops in General Synod than are reflected in polling of churchgoers?

              • 3 thoughts, Stuart

                1) ‘Churchgoer’ is a flexible word, per Peter’s statement above. “Do you go to church?” is a different question to “Are you on the Electoral Roll of a church?”

                2) There are 2 constituencies that are opposed to Women Bishops – Traditional Anglo-catholics and Conservative Evangelicals. Traditional Catholic churches are often in the ‘smaller’ category, not the larger ones, so they are probably overrepresented in GS voting. I suspect their over-representation offsets any CE under-representation – maybe Peter would like to crunch the numbers to see!

                3) I suspect those DS reps opposed to Women Bishops were more motivated to vote in the GS elections – turnout in GS elections is often quite low, but I guess that in a ‘backs to the wall’ situation they’re more likely to vote.

                • The low turnout in elections and the unrepresentative nature of Deanery Synod representatives both doubtless contribute to the unrepresentative nature of GS. It’s also not helped, amongst the laity, by a meeting schedule which pretty much precludes anyone in regular employment from joining.

                  From your comments, you seem to believe that evangelical congregations are large, liberal and anglo-catholic ones small. I would encourage you to visit more widely beyond your own tradition. There are certainly large and growing evangelical churches, but the same applies to the other traditions as well – take cathedrals for example, the great CofE success story of the last decade.

                  There sometimes seems to be a mathematical fallacy about this. The evangelical movement kicked off in the mid 19th century. If it were true that only evangelical churches grow, they’d be the only ones left by now.

                  • Stuart, I’m well aware that there are some larger churches from other traditions – indeed of the 2 largest Anglican congregations by ER in my own diocese 1 is liberal, the other MOR Anglican.

                    I didn’t say much about the churchmanship of small congregations, because I’m aware they’re a mix, but certainly a lot of smallish congregations (eg rural) tend to be quite MOR in nature – and I don’t think I said anything about church growth at all, so not sure why you raised that issue.

                    One factor we haven’t mentioned, however, is the influence of church schools. Slightly mischievous question – I wonder how many large liberal congregations DON’T have a good church school attached?

                    • Cathedrals would be an obvious example where the size of the congregation is not driven by a few parents from the choir school – I can think of others.

              • Stuart,

                Churchgoers may generally be in favour of women bishops without considering the impact of the draft legislation on those who cannot receive canonical authority of women over men.

                Without responsibility for final scrutiny, 42 out of the 44 dioceses voted in favour of draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure and in draft Amending Canon No. 30.

                Although some GS representatives opposed the Measure on principle, for several others in favour of women bishops rejected the measure because they felt that references to the Code of Practice were far too vague.

                The responsibility for final scrutiny may explain why the draft measure did not command a 2/3rds majority in the House of Laity.

            • I’ve seen plenty comments from liberals (check out good ol’ Thinking Anglicans) in support of “one member, one vote,” and I’d enthusiastically support such a change.

  2. Whatever happens long term, in the short term the issue before us is possible disciplinary action against vicars who marry their same sex partners.

    Conservatives should be under no illusion that such situations will be dealt with behind closed doors away from the public gaze. If gay clergy are going to be deprived of their livings and turned out onto the street then you can be sure their plight will be widely publicized by every LGBT organization and supporter in the country. Both the Church and the Government will be subjected to a barrage of protest and criticism and the image of Christianity as the last bastion of institutionalized homophobia will be reinforced. It doesn’t matter how many pale, bespectacled and not obtrusively masculine bishops wring their hands and cry “but we love gays”. Actions speak louder than words and firing someone for exercising what most people regard as a basic human right – the right to marry – will fix the image of the Church as bigoted, homophobic and hateful in the minds of the majority.

    But let’s see if the bishops have the stomach for this fight, shall we?

    • I doubt that the bishops will carry this fight.

      The pastoral guidance simply does two things:

      1. It ensures that preferment will be withheld from those vicars who choose to dispense with the synodical process that is effecting a change to church doctrine in respect of women bishops and the pastoral accommmodation for the divorced.

      2.It upholds the right of those sufficiently aggrieved by the same-sex marriage of their vicar to make a formal complaint.

      As for the bishops themselves, history shows that even the most emphatic stances can be overturned by their conciliatory successors:

      This sort of organisational schizophrenia explains why institutional churches are in decline. In contrast, independent churches have escaped the demographic time-bomb, attracting young and old alike, and without an abject, cowering fear of a blighted ‘image’.

      The blind can only lead those who can’t recognise their impaired vision.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.