Tom Brazier – A Promise is a Promise

Possibly the best blog post you’ll read all week on the Bishops, the Clergy and Gay Marriage.

Revd Tom Brazier (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

Revd Tom Brazier
(C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

Promises are binding. But who is it who does the actual binding?

We have such a love, don’t we, of binding other people. We love to point fingers. We love to hold others to account. We externalise morality: making it about how others behave. This is odd, because the only people we can control directly is ourselves. But then maybe that is it: what a terror to actually have moral volition, to be responsible for choice. Far easier to stand on the sidelines and wring one’s hands about the behaviour of people over whom we do not have control. The responsibility of applying one’s morality to oneself is terrifying!

Awkwardly, though, Jesus has a word for externalising morality: hypocrisy. Our primary moral concerns, as Christians, must be to do with our own behaviour. So, with promises, our first objective must be to keep our own promises. Only once we are reasonably on the path to integrity in this regard (none of us being perfect), can we turn our (mostly-log-decluttered) eye to to our brothers and sisters.

Given what I have said so far, you might ask whether we should ever, in fact, hold other people to their promises. I think we must for the sake of justice. When a promise is broken, there is a party who is the victim of that broken promise and, in so much as they are a victim, the voice of justice (and therefore the voice of God) is on their side.

So, taking the concrete example of divorce, our society rightly insists on intervening and ensuring that justice is done when wedding vows are broken. And so we have rules about the conditions under which we will allow a marriage promise to be broken. And we sometimes insist that, even after divorce, some of the conditions of the promise continue to be honoured in the form of alimony. Sometimes, it must be said, we get this horribly wrong: most notably when we forget that a husband made a promise not to beat his wife whilst remembering that the wife made a promise to remain faithful to her husband. But even this underscores the point: we should be holding the husband accountable to his promise.

So promises are binding. The primary party who ensures that a promise is kept should be the person making the promise. When this fails, a necessary, but very much second best, form of binding is imposed by society upon the person who made the promise.

This leaves a last few things to say concerning recent conversations about same sex marriage.

First, there has been a lot of talk about the Clergy Discipline Measure and the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure. There is a lot of fear that bishops will be heavy handed in using these rules to hold clergy to their promises. There has been discussion about whether these rules can apply in this case.

The primary thing to say, though, is that it ought never to come to a question of the use of the CDM or EJM. Clergy who have made promises should behave with integrity and this should obviate the need for these measures to be imposed. In fact, as with all law, it is only in the case where things go as they should not have done that law needs to be applied. We write laws in the hopes of never having to use them.

In this regard, we have to be very careful in how we interpret what we say to each other. Are we acting as society imposing promises, or are we acting as brothers and sisters exhorting each other to keep our own promises? Is it a first or second person kind of conversation? I hope it is clear that this entire blog post is a first person conversation, exhorting “us”, rather than imposing on “you”. In fact, in this regard, I am more blessed than a bishop because it should be clear that I have no authority to impose the CDM or EJM, and therefore cannot be forcing promises on “you”.

Second, there are clergy who are threatening to enter into same sex marriages in defiance of their bishops and the present teaching of the Church of England. I exhort these clergy (as a brother) to think very carefully about their reasons for breaking their promises. We can intentionally break promises because we no longer want to keep them and we can intentionally break them because we can no longer keep them in good conscience. These are very different cases. If you plan break your promise in this way, do you do so as a matter of justice to others, or do you do so for you own, personal, sake?

Finally, there are clergy planning to conduct blessings of same sex relationships in defiance of their bishops and the present teaching of the Church of England. I exhort these clergy to think very carefully about whether this is an act of integrity. You may be certain that the church is mistaken in its teaching, but what is the correct response to that? Several options present themselves. Do you withdraw from the church in good conscience, perhaps finding another church which agrees with you? Do you keep good faith with the church whilst fighting for change? Or do you make yourself into a liar in your relationship with the church whilst simultaneously offering God’s blessing to same sex couples as a minister of the church? For my part, it feels like the latter choice is an act of injustice against both the church and the couple in question.