The House of Bishops issued a statement in response to the Government’s introduction of ‘gay marriage’ on Saturday—just managing to avoid St Valentine’s Day. I suggested earlier that this was the next ‘banana skin’ that they faced, and (to mix metaphors) they have played it with a straight bat (no pun intended). The pastoral statement continues and affirms previous statements in relation to this matter since 1991 (and before) that
we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.
The statement says many other things too, though not surprisingly those seeking to see the Church’s position on this matter change have greeted it with disappointment and anger. I don’t find any of this surprising, but what I do find surprising is the particular charge (e.g. from Andrew Brown) that the statement is ‘dishonest’. Though I confess I had to think about it long and hard, it is not in fact ‘dishonest’ to set out different requirements for members and for leaders in a church. This is not to say that morality has a different standard, only that we require different things in the attainment of that standard.
In Issues in Human Sexuality the House affirmed that, while the same standards of conduct applied to all, the Church of England should not exclude from its fellowship….
This is no more or less than saying that Jesus accepts us as we are—but he does not leave us as we are, and leaders in particular are required to model maturity in faith and to have demonstrated that they have covered some distance in the journey of transformation.
Alan Wilson, suffragan Bishop of Buckingham, also pinpoints ‘dishonesty’ in his response. In it, he quotes Simon Butler’s speech in Synod:
My question requires a little context and a large amount of honesty. I’m gay; I don’t have a vocation to celibacy and at the same time I’ve always taken my baptismal and ordination vows with serious intent and with a sincere desire to model my life on the example of Christ simul justus et peccator. Those who have selected me, ordained me and licensed me know all this. My parish know this too.
My question is this: at the end of the process of facilitated conversations will the College of Bishops tell me whether there is a place for people like me as licensed priests, deacons and bishops in the Church rather than persisting in the existing policy that encourages a massive dishonesty so corrosive to the gospel? For my personal spiritual health, for the flourishing of people like me as ministers of the gospel and for the health of the wider church I think we will all need to have a clear answer to that question.
I don’t want to underestimate the felt need behind this challenge. I knew Simon well when we trained together for ordination, and I sat in the same chapel as we debated Issues in Human Sexuality. I remember his eloquence and insight as he spoke. But in the end I have not been persuaded. And the question he asks is an odd one. Lack of clarity? The one failing of the statement (for opponents of it) is that it is crystal clear. And in fact it has done more than that: it has rooted the current position of the Church in a whole series of statements, going all the way back to the liturgies of the BCP and Common Worship, to canon law, to the previous statements from the House of Bishops, the Dromantine Declaration, and including the Declaration of Assent which all clergy make at ordination. If, in two years’ time, there is a change of position, then the House of Bishops will have to explain why all these previous statements now need reinterpreting or abandoning. Given this, I do hope that the constant media pressure on this issue will now abate.
So where is the ‘dishonesty’? It can only be found in the assumption that if someone says ‘I’m gay; I don’t have a vocation to celibacy; I do have a vocation to ordination’ it would be dishonest not to act out all these dimensions—despite the fact that that would mean lying in a public declaration. It is this with which the statement takes issue, and for good reason. Alan Wilson, in his post, cites the Scripture readings for last Sunday, but omits to mention the Collect for the day:
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes of this world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
The theology behind this prayer sees that there is a deep fracture, a fault line, between our instincts, our desires, what we feel is innate within us, and the pattern of holy living God calls us to in Christ. It is the theology embedded in the Scriptures. This isn’t simply true for those who believe they are gay and not called to celibacy—it is true for all of us, and it is a point of tension and struggle for all who seek to live faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus. The chief dishonesty here has been amongst ‘liberal’ bishops who have ordained men knowing full well that they are living contrary to the bishops’ clear teaching on this issue. (I do also wonder how the many ordained single women who ‘don’t have a vocation to celibacy’ feel about this? We don’t give their voice on this much space.)
There has been some criticism that the bishops have made a rod for their own back—that when the first legal challenge comes, it will cause more distraction, focus yet again on this issue, and waste more precious resource. But what are the bishops supposed to do? Cave in on every issue where a pressure group is determined to challenge? Abandon Christian teaching where it is likely to cause trouble? The Church of England has all too often been addicted to the idea of Christendom—that the Church is essential part of the establishment, and that therefore the only option is more or less to swim with the tide of culture and society. We might swim at a slight angle to it at times, in the hope that the flow might adjust a little, but we would never countenance swimming against it. Many in other churches are longing for this addiction to be broken, and perhaps this statement is a sign that the bishops are ready to do this.
But that then leaves the question I began with: What is the real challenge facing the church in the UK? In all the discussion about gender and sexuality, about women bishops and the response to gay men and women, there is a massive paradox. The Church which is apparently almost irredeemably misogynistic is numerically dominated by women in its membership. The Church which is, it seems, deeply homophobic has a disproportionate number of gay people in its ranks, and especially in its clergy—in some dioceses, vastly disproportionate. Yet one group is consistently under-represented, and rarely discussed: men, and particularly working class men. And if all the recent media coverage has done anything, it has pushed them further away through painting an unremitting picture of the church feminised.
I look forward to the time when the agendas of Synods, the headlines in the papers, and the tweets and posts in the social media are dominated by the importance of the offer of purpose, direction and wholeness to the men of our nation found in the message of the gospel, which has become the preoccupation of the Church.