A Pastoral Response to Same-sex Civil Marriage?

Goddard andrew(3)This is a guest post by my friend Dr Andrew Goddard, who is Associate Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), Cambridge and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

With speculation growing about the contents of the Pilling Report, to be considered by the House of Bishops next month and the need to prepare for same-sex marriages, it looks like we are heading into stormy waters in the Church of England.  Last week I was asked for my thoughts on bishops’ regulations relating to same-sex marriage published by the Diocese of Guildford.  Reading through them and discussing them with a few people has highlighted a number of key questions for me that I suspect we are going to have to wrestle with in coming months.

Why now?

My 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?

The same principles?

On reading the regulations my first concern was that in considering how to respond to requests for prayers after a civil marriage of persons of the same sex it was stated that “the same principles should apply as to similar requests after Civil Partnerships”.  If this is the approach being taken then we face a number of serious problems.

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.

An “authentic Christian relationship”?

Whether or not the relationship is sexual is of course the other important question.  As long as the church continues to teach what it does about sexual relations being intended by God for a husband and wife – as the 2005 statement on civil partnerships reaffirms – it cannot approve of another pattern of sexual relationship.

The diocesan guidance speaks of “an authentic Christian relationship” in relation to civil partnerships and applies the same term and response to same-sex marriages.  There are many good qualities in varied forms of same-sex relationships (whatever their legal designation) as there are in all non-marital relationships but Scripture and the church are clear that they should not be sexual relationships.  The language of “authentic Christian relationship” without further elaboration as to what this means risks ignoring and so undermining this aspect of biblical and church teaching.

wedding-rings-ideas-4The 2005 statement was clear in relation to civil partnerships that they “allow for a range of different situations – including those where the relationship is simply one of friendship”.  This meant that “clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition” and that “where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case” (para 18, italics added).  There should not, therefore, be the same response to everyone in a civil partnership as it would depend on the nature of the relationship, a matter which would clearly need discussion and discernment with the couple.  There is much less ambiguity about a same-sex couple who have entered civil marriage.

The diocesan regulations, however, make none of these important points clear.  They simply state that as “clergy may pray pastorally with and for a same sex couple after a Civil Partnership if they consider it to be an authentic Christian relationship” so “it would be appropriate for clergy who conscientiously judge a same sex Civil Marriage to be an authentic Christian relationship to similarly pray with and for such a couple”.

What is being done?

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)”.

What might flow from this approach?

The difficulty is that the current 2005 statement on pastoral response has already been interpreted so widely that in some dioceses, such as London, it has been understood to permit public services as long as they are not formally called blessings (for that judgment see here and for a helpful critique of this understanding see Gavin Foster’s article, “Church Services after a Civil Partnership Registration: What is and is not permitted?”).  Thus, were the Church of England to follow Guildford and simply apply its currently confused practice in relation to civil partnerships to same-sex married couples, we would inevitably be having public services of prayer, dedication, thanksgiving etc after a civil same-sex marriage.  These, even if called something else, would rightly be widely seen as the Church of England approving of and blessing same-sex marriages.

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.

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19 thoughts on “A Pastoral Response to Same-sex Civil Marriage?”

  1. Ian, even a cursory reading of the Bible would suggest that it is not true that the only holy form of sexual relationship is marriage between one man and one woman. This would invalidate the marriages of Jacob to Leah and Rachel, for a start, not to mention his relations with their respective maidservants. Thus the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel would all be illegitimate.

    Of course as an Anabaptist, who believes that the life and teaching of Jesus relativises both the teaching and the narrative of the OT, I would not get sexual ethics from the OT, but it cannot be denied that most evangelicals regard the OT as a source of ethical guidance. However it is clear that the practice of marriage has evolved and changed throughout the biblical period, which suggests that it may also evolve in the life of the church.

  2. Veronica, it is necessary to distingiush between what Scripture reports, and what it teaches, commends, or commands. It reports the story of Jacob without commending his situation or conduct. God also does not seem to put as much value on “legitimacy” when it comed to the lineage of His servants; else Christ would not have been born in circumstances open to misinterpretation along those lines.
    And anyway, we do not need to go to the OT for teaching on the nature of marriage: Jesus is clear enough on what marriage is, and what it is all about.

  3. Remember that the Bishop of Guildford retires in December. When I received it I assumed that it was trying to tidy up loose ends before then so that the suffragan doesn’t have to deal with it during the vacancy.

  4. Wolf, thanks for the comment–yes, I would agree. In the first place, we don’t develop a biblical theology simply by aggregating all the mentions of a subject in Scripture.

    More than that, I think it is interesting and instructive to see the way that the Gen 2 text has a ‘reforming’ impact on later developments, until it is cited by Jesus in answer to his contemporaries in debate.

    Even if there were diverse, approved patterns of e.g. polygamy, all the different sections of Scripture set a boundary which excludes same-sex unions. It is an odd argument to say that ‘because there are some diversities, we must permit all diversities’ when Scripture itself appears to be quite selective.

  5. “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”

    It’s November 18th, 2013, and you’re seriously *still* pushing this line of utter bul- {ahem} mistatement-of-fact? I know PR people say “Repeat a lie enough, it will be believed”, but the percentage of faithful Christians buying it shrinks *every day*. Sending this lie back to the hell it came from!

  6. Dear ‘JCF’, thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

    I think I would agree with you on the ‘repeating’ point. There is lots in this debate which is being accepted simply because it has been repeated a lot without any evidence. Yesterday I read a blog post which asserted that sexual orientation was just as fixed as ethnic identity–even though there is copious scientific evidence that this is not the case.

    Jesus taught against all forms of ‘sexual immorality’ for which the NT has the word ‘porneiai’. This does not refer simply to heterosexual adultery, else Jesus would have used the word ‘moichos’. There is a growing scholarly consensus that Jesus’ teaching on same sex unions was inline with Leviticus and with Paul, as I show here http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/the-bible-and-the-gay-debate/

    You are right that there is an increasing number of Christians in Western churches who don’t accept this. But this is actually quite a small number in global Christianity, and within the history of the church.

  7. “You are right that there is an increasing number of Christians in Western churches who don’t accept this. But this is actually quite a small number in global Christianity, and within the history of the church.”
    The fact that institutionalised religions have, for thousands of years, deprived gay people of the possibility of entering legally and socially sanctioned same-sex marriages is hardly to their credit. Now at this point in Judaeo-Christian history, many nations’ societies are legalising same-sex marriage and many Christians (and Jews) applaud this (this is a wrong, righted).
    Same-sex marriage will in a (historically) very short time, take the Church where the Church needs to be – getting over itself with respect to its own self-imposed Catch-22 (No sex outside of marriage/to gay people: No marriage for you). The Church can’t have it both ways! We are moving forward to a time when our churches will be filled with people who are either single or married and it will only be the most mean-spirited of Christians who are still saying to same-sex married couples ‘you’re not in a ‘real’ marriage’ – in most churches, all married couples (opposite-sex or same-sex)will be equally respected, and would you really want it any other way?

  8. I am grateful to Andrew for pointing to both the guidance and the recent addition, I had not seen either.

    What strikes me about the original guidance is how well it reflected the uncomfortable reactions voiced by the CofE following the passing into law of Civil Partnerships. There was then a real sense of having been duped, best expressed by the bishop of London in his address to evangelical clergy, way back then.

    The raft of subsidiary legislation made it clear that CPs were, as far as the govt was concerned, marriage.

    This is why so many of us with good memories were astonished to hear during the equal marriage squabble of how much the CofE embraced CPs!

    Still, it is an interesting document and all the more so because it appears to be unique. Having said that and emphasising how much of its time it is, it obviously needs revision and updating simply because it no longer reflects either the warm welcome now on offer to CPs so clearly present in the bishops speeches in the House of Lords and elsewhere and it’s factual inaccuracies with the changes in the equality act.

    Sadly I don’t think the new material helps very much.

    Andrew’s reaction is skewed and cannot quite decide if the new stuff is portentous or not.
    Both he and the new guidance duck the fact that as far as the law is concerned marriage is now only a matter of conversion and requires no vows, a significant move, making CPs ever more marriage-like and making marriage something else.

  9. Jane, thanks for the comment. for me, the one thing you omit to say is that if the church accepts same-sex marriage, the main direction it will take it is away from its being rooted in Scripture. The consistent picture across different cultures around the world, is that when the church lets go of Scripture, it loses both its credibility and its distinctiveness, and decline inevitably follows.

  10. Sorry to be so vague, Ian.
    When we come to “convert” our CP to marriage it will be entirely a paper (and cash!) exercise.

    Remember that CPs required no vows whereas marriage is accomplished by a solemn declaration and the exchange of promises. So our marriage will be accomplished without having to do this. That changes marriage radically in my view.

    I have made an attempt to find that address, it certainly was available on line, perhaps someone you know might have been there and can better direct you.

  11. Thank you Ian. I really don’t consider that we will lose our ‘rootedness in Scripture’ any more than we lost it when we stopped holding women accountable to the verse that says they should be silent in church – we now believe that it serves God’s wider kingdom purposes for women to attain their God-given blessing and flourishing in ministry. So too, we will in time stop holding gay people accountable to a handful of verses when it appears to most of us that those verses undermine God’s blessing and flourishing in a calling to marriage.

  12. I have recently started attending a C of E church when I visit family and have been trying to get up to date with what the fundamental beliefs are within this denomination. I feel a bit better about it all after reading this article. I have to agree with Ian, and not Jane, in relation to remaining adherent to Scripture in relation to marriage. It would be all too easy for a same sex couple who stated that their relation was not sexual when they received prayers and then after a while this changes into a sexual relationship and they can still claim they had their union blessed in church. Take away any chance of ambiguity and just do not perform such a prayer after the union. As for women staying silent in synagogue. or church, I believe that was more to do with chattering whilst the service etc was going on rather than taking an active part. There were priestesses in the temple so women did have official roles.

  13. So according to Andrew Goddard, the “Bible is quite clear” that gay people cannot have holy sexual relationships.

    And Andrew Goddard, apparently, is quite clear
    (1) that he has the right and the only possible interpretation of the Bible, and
    (2) that it is never possible for us to learn anything new from the Holy Spirit; we are caught forever in Goddard’s sort of traditional understanding, no matter how much God tries to lift us out of it–in the sort of way that God lifted Peter out of his racist and exclusivist attitudes towards the Gentiles in the middle of the book of Acts.
    So, it sounds to me like Goddard is also clear
    (3) that the Gospel is about locking people in, not setting them free. God is sitting in heaven looking down on his children whom he made with total delight; except for the gay ones, whom God is a bit muddled and ambiguous about; perhaps God would really rather they weren’t there at all! Poor confused old deity!

    Maybe Goddard thinks that what the herald came to announce in Isaiah 61 was a new sort of captivity for the captives?

    I don’t believe a word of this judgemental, unkind, imprisoning, un-Christ-like, dysangelic stuff. Not a word of it. And I find it terribly sad that Andrew Goddard does.

    From my own reading of Scripture and the tradition; from the very roots of my being; from my own experience and the experience of lots of other Christians; I am perfectly sure that his homophobic attitudes are utterly and tragically and historically wrong.

    I was friends with Andrew Goddard once, though no doubt he wouldn’t approve of me now. I do hope that in 2015 he goes for a big rethink of all this. The New Testament Greek for a big rethink is, of course, metanoia.


    • Sophie, thanks for commenting. I guess Andrew could answer for himself, but my observations would be:

      1. I don’t think Andrew assumes that he is the only person who can be right. But he argues (quite clearly) that texts mean something, and he has (in various places) set out why he thinks the texts say what they do.

      2. Of course we learn from the Holy Spirit. But does that Spirit say something opposite to what I think most people agree is the consistent message of the texts?

      3. I think many would see the notion that ‘my sexuality does not define my identity’ as in itself liberating. It seems odd for Christians to claim that the right to sexual expression is in itself a liberation, and many would see this as the message of the 1960s fifty years on, and not the gospel.

      In this regard, it is odd that ‘revisionists’ don’t appear to take seriously the position of the folk at living out.org or Wesley Hill and his fellow writers at Spiritual Friendship.

      Again, I notice that you feel happy calling Andrew ‘homophobic’, a term which would foul of EHRC legislation not to incite hatred of people on the basis of their religious views.

  14. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t think that I, as I was when I knew A.G., would approve of me now.

    More seriously, I do wonder how many gay couples people with views like Andrew’s can actually know. And how long his anti-gay attitudes would, or could, survive personal friendship with some of the utterly awesome gay Christian couples whom I am proud to know myself.



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