Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has called for the Church of England to change its doctrine of marriage or face the threat of disestablishment.
His comments were prompted by the refusal of Hereford Diocese to allow same-sex married Mpho Tutu van Furth, daughter of the late Desmond Tutu, from officiating at her godfather’s funeral. Bradshaw claimed that the Church is ‘actively pursuing a campaign of discrimination’ against gay people.
This was a particularly high-profile, egregious example. But cruelty like that is practised on lesbian and gay people in the church all the time, every day – people you never hear about in the headlines, people whose lives are destroyed – and it can’t go on.
Patience is being worn very thin, and parliament is in a position to put pressure on the church. Without change, I think we might see growing calls for disestablishment.
Bradshaw has an interest in this, as a gay man who was one of the first MPs to register a civil partnership. In 2009, he won the Stonewall Politician of the Year Award for his work to support equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. He is a member of the ‘gayest Parliament in the world’; 9% identity as LGBT, compared with around 1.8% of the population as a whole. Interestingly, Bradshaw’s remarks have only been reported in the Guardian amongst the mainstream news channels.
It is worth examining what Bradshaw is claiming, what he is threatening, and what the consequences might be.
His first claim is that the Church is actively discriminating against gay people. At one level, some of my gay friends, including those who are ordained, would be surprised about this. The C of E specifically seeks not to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality, and all the evidence suggests that the proportion of clergy who are gay is far higher than the the proportion in the general population.
What the C of E does discriminate against is patterns of relationship which contradict its own doctrine. In law, this is legitimate discrimination, and is on a par with (for example) discriminating against appointing a Muslim when advertising for a Christian youth worker. The question here is whether the C of E, or any religious group, has the right to determine its own beliefs, and act on them. Although such a right is protected in law under Freedom of Religion, this right is not absolute, in that there are limits to it, for example where it conflicts with human rights.
Bradshaw appears to be claiming that the C of E does not have freedom to define its own understanding of marriage, and is perhaps suggesting that there is a human right to both be same-sex married and to be ordained in the Church which trumps the Church’s own freedom. The idea that ordination is a right of some sort is highly unusual.
But that leads to reflection on the nature of the doctrine of marriage. In his exploration of the theological and philosophical issues around marriage and sexuality, US author Darrin Snyder Belousek notes:
The creation-covenantal pattern of marriage is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of Christian tradition always has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy. (Marriage, Scripture, and the Church, p 52)
In his comments, Bradshaw points out that Anglican churches in Scotland, Wales, the US, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere conducted or blessed same-sex marriages. But what he fails to say is that these provinces represent a tiny fraction of the Anglican Church worldwide in terms of attendance. Bishops representing around one third of the members of the Anglican Communion refused to attend the recent Lambeth Conference because of differences on sexuality, and bishops representing another third issued a dissenting statement.
So the current doctrine of the C of E is in line with the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide, as well as the wider global church through history.
By contrast, the UK has allowed same-sex marriage in law for 9 years, and it is easy to forget what a surprise that was, since there was no mention of it in the Government’s manifesto. When Civil Partnerships were introduced in 2005, they were understood to be ‘gay marriages’ in all but name, and there was little anticipation of further change.
Of course, longevity isn’t always a guarantor of truth. But something strange is going on when a politician demands that the Church must change its long-established doctrine in order to conform to quite recent cultural changes.
The logic of Bradshaw’s demands appears to be around the trade-off he believes inherent in the establishment of the Church by law.
The C of E “enjoys extraordinary and unique privileges in its role in the nation’s life”, he said, citing the 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for Anglican bishops.
Bradshaw sees establishment as being the granting of privileges, rather than as an obligation, and the presence of bishops in the Lords as giving the Church access to power rather than bringing wider perspectives to the process of government. Although there are some powerful arguments for disestablishment, such as those put forward by Jonathan Chaplin, the model Bradshaw is assuming would fit best in an autocratic dictatorship: you can have access to power and privilege as long as you do what we tell you. This is not a common understanding of how establishment of the Church actually works.
Bradshaw should really be aware of this, since he is a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. This is the group that is responsible for passing on legislation from the Church to Parliament for formal approval—not the other way around! For more than 100 years, since the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Church has had formal autonomy in governance, making its own decisions first in the Church Assembly and then (from 1969) in the General Synod.
In other words, ‘establishment’ here is about the freedom of the Church to be self-governing, but the beliefs and action of the Church finding protection in law. It has never been about the Government dictating what the Church must believe, and the kind of action that Bradshaw is suggesting would be unprecedented in recent history.
Underlying this episode is a more basic question for the Church of England, and any other Christian denomination: how are its beliefs determined, and what role do changes in cultural values play in this? Changes in culture might raise new questions, and provoke the Church to look again at its own doctrines and what Scripture says. But, at the end of the day, the Church must decide whether contemporary cultural values will override the teaching of Scripture and the ‘consensus of the church catholic’, or whether it will remain faithful to the inheritance of faith, and offer an alternative vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus. To put it more simply: are Christians allowed to walk out of step with contemporary cultural values?
The Guardian article concludes with this comment from Bradshaw:
The contract with the nation has to be that it is there for everybody. It’s increasingly obvious that the C of E is not there for lesbian and gay people.
There is a serious practical challenge for the C of E here. But this comment also begs the question: what does it mean to ‘be there’ for any particular group of people? If, as the gospels make clear, Jesus believed marriage to be between one man and one woman, what does it mean for the Church to offer the good news of Jesus to gay people?
This article was first published, in an edited form, at Premier Christianity. Listen to Andrew Goddard in conversation with Ben Bradshaw on Radio 4’s Sunday programme here. And see Martin Davie’s comments here; he concludes:
At this point it might be asked, is the Church right to say that lesbian and gay people need to refrain from sex outside marriage and only marry those of the opposite sex? The answer is that the Church is right to do so because both the witness of nature in terms of human biology, and the witness of Scripture, tell us that God created human beings to have sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, and because the biblical account of the origins of marriage in Genesis 2:18-25 (reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12) likewise tells us that God created marriage to be a relationship between two people of the opposite sex.
God created human beings to live sexually in a certain way and the Church has no authority to say otherwise, any more than it has the authority to say that it is right to steal, bear false witness, or commit adultery.
What Ben Bradshaw and others really want the Church to do is to break its side of the unwritten contract between the Church of England and the English nation by ceasing to preach the truth about how God has created his human creatures to live in favour of what some, although by no means all, lesbian and gay people want to hear. The Church cannot rightly do this and neither Bradshaw nor Parliament as a whole should seek to force it to do so.