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.
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.
The 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.