Andrew Goddard – Part Two
More from Andrew Goddard on the Bishops and Same-Sex Marriage.
The statement and the responses to it highlight the near-impossible challenges now facing the church.Â These result from the new marriage lawâ€™s incompatibility with the churchâ€™s doctrine of marriage and from the churchâ€™s internal divisions over that doctrine and how to respond faithfully.Â The response of the bishops is based on upholding the current teaching.Â It is marked by
- Continued distancing from and opposition to the state and the law in this area.Â This is never easy, particularly for an established church.Â 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.Â If wider society generally comes to accept the stateâ€™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 â€“ given the churchâ€™s teaching â€“ 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.Â 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.Â 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?Â It is to work out and follow through the positive, practical implications of the churchâ€™s teaching for its own internal life and its witness in mission and ministry to the nation.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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 churchâ€™s doctrine of marriage as being a union of a man and a woman is true and something which â€œmost benefits societyâ€ (para 8).Â Others, although personally convinced of such a view, are concerned about the implications â€“ in church and wider society â€“ of following that commitment through in church teaching and practice.Â 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.Â 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?