There was a bit of a furore last week, caused by the publication of a letter sent by William Nye, who is General Secretary to the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, to The Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC). The letter had been written and sent last October, in response to a request from TEC for reactions to their plans to revise the liturgy of their Book of Common Prayer removing gender references in their marriage rites. The publication of the letter provoked a strong reaction in a letter to the Church Times from 126 clergy and laity, as well as two further letters from Giles Goddard and Anthony Archer.
It is worth reading carefully what William Nye actually says, since it is not obvious from the responses that everyone has done so. His letter, and the five letters from the other provinces who responded, can be read online.
First, Nye notes how short the notice period is for the request: ‘Five working weeks is rather short for a matter of this weight’. Anthony Archer praises TEC for making the effort at consultation, but giving such a short time-frame suggests this is a rather notional exercise, and this is confirmed both by the small number of responses (six from the 39 provinces) and the fact that the uniformly negative responses do not appear to have had any impact whatever on TEC’s decisions. Nye’s response, at eight pages, is longer than all the other responses put together, and he hints that the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Communion meant that he felt a full response from this province was needed.
Secondly, he then rehearses the doctrinal position and debate in the Church of England, and it is in this section that he includes a phrase which has provoked most offence in the letters to the CT. Nye notes how contentious the issue is in the Church, and notes that there is considerable disagreement. Nonetheless,
For a majority in the Communion, and in the Church of England (not to mention the Church Catholic), Holy Scripture is held to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and women is contrary to God’s will.
Nye here is simply summarising the official teaching position of the C of E in the context of the views of other Churches, and highlighting the fact that TEC’s proposed changes in doctrine are out of step with the position of these other churches, before he goes on to explore the consequences for relationships both within the Communion and within TEC itself. (Thinking Anglicans later offered the ‘development’ revealing that the Archbishops were consulted on the content of the letter. This is hardly news: you would have to live on the moon to think that Nye would send anything about the Communion without signing it off with them first.)
The outrage expressed in the letter to the Church Times was in response to the idea that ‘the majority in the Church of England’ believe that same-sex sexual relations outside male-female marriage is wrong—but that is not what Nye says. He has made is very clear all along that wider consultation is not possible in the timescale, and that what he is doing is stating the current position of the C of E. He also notes that ‘this is not the universal view within the Church of England’. He refers to the FAOC report Men and Women in Marriage from 2013, and the importance of the canons and liturgy in defining the Church’s understanding of marriage—but he could equally well have included reference to the Pastoral Letter of February 2014, which reiterated the same sources of authority.
The claim made by the letter-writers is that the ‘majority of Anglicans’ want the teaching of the Church to change—and that should be a material fact in determining the Church’s doctrine. The first of these ideas has been promoted previously—but in order to make the numbers work, it turns out that you have to allow people to self-identify as Anglicans, rather than ascertain whether they actually participate in Anglican worship or are members of their local Anglican church. And the research of Mark Regnerus in the States demonstrates that Christians who support same-sex marriage on the whole have no discernibly different ethical viewpoint from non-Christians on a whole range of issues around sexuality, so the implications of such an approach are far-reaching. And the effects of this are not limited to sexual ethics but other key areas of doctrine. Research into ‘ordinary theology’ shows that the majority of Anglicans (with the exception of those defining themselves as ‘evangelical’) hold non-orthodox views of Christology and the doctrine of the atonement. One possible response to this is to change the teaching of the Church—but another possible response is to put a little more energy into teaching what the Church officially believes, that is, investing in preaching and catechesis.
Perhaps a key motivation behind these responses is most clearly indicated by Anthony Archer, who claims ‘the writing is on the wall’ on this issue, so the only proper response is for the Church to end any further discussion, and follow the lead of TEC. I think there is an interesting irony in the use of a phrase from the Book of Daniel, where the finger of God is writing a word of judgement over the immorality of the pagan imperial court—but most notable is the assumption that arguments for continuing with the Church’s teaching are simply not worth listening to any more.
The approach of Archer and others is actually a mirror of TEC’s approach to the Anglican Communion as a whole, as Nye points out in the next section of his letter.
By promulgating the new marriage rites, TEC has taken a step which appears to conclude, at the level of an individual province acting unilaterally, a discussion that is still very much ‘live’ in the Church of England and the wider Communion. Because much of this debate concerns the question of whether or not same-sex marriage is a first-order issue which precludes continuing together in communion within the Communion and within the Church of England, TEC’s action in promulgating the new liturgies is, at the least, unhelpful to those of us who are seeking to bring the Church of England’s deliberations to a good outcome.
Tucked within this comment is the historical and rather vexed question of the autonomy of individual provinces within the Communion—but most would hold that, for the Communion to mean anything at all, autonomy in governance must be counter-balanced with agreement on questions of doctrine, including the doctrine of marriage, which explains why four of the other five responses offered to TEC were direct to the point of being terse—and entirely negative. But it appear that, as far as TEC goes, the debate is over, a view precisely echoed in the letters written to the Church Times. (The response of the Scottish Episcopal Church stated its own relative indifference to events in TEC, though had a curiosity of its own, most especially in the two comments: ‘The College of Bishops, in introducing this liturgy to the General Synod, made assurances that the gender-neutral language of the rite was not a gateway to marriage between persons of the same sex’ which is then followed later by ‘we find ourselves in the arguably advantageous position of having a rite which can be used alike for couples of the same sex or of different sexes.’ In other words, a rite which did not form a gateway for the redefinition of marriage did in fact provide a gateway for the redefinition of marriage!)
In his final section, Nye draws attention to the importance for understanding of marriage for procreation simply to be written out of the new liturgy (as it must be to include same-sex couples), and there is a parallel here with his comment earlier on the Church’s response to the Equal Marriage Act of 2013: both these moves do not ‘extend’ marriage but redefine it, and they do not redefine it only for those in same-sex marriages, but for all.
This, then, has implications for anyone in a Church where the marriage liturgy is revised—and it will have a direct impact on those remaining in TEC who still hold to an orthodox view of marriage. Though a number of bishops, clergy and congregations left the TEC to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) when the church began to change its doctrine, some remained, and could do so since the existing rites for same-sex marriage have been ‘trial’, and can only be used with the agreement of the diocesan bishop. Although the majority of bishops have given agreement, eight have not—but the change being proposed would make the rites permanent, so that the teaching position and authority of these bishops would be sidelined. Given that all those ordained in TEC have to “solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church” and that doctrine and worship is expressed in the Catechism and Prayer Book these proposals, if accepted, will make it practically impossible for clergy holding an orthodox Christian doctrine of marriage to remain with integrity in The Episcopal Church.
Zachary Guiliano, an Associate Editor of The Living Church, makes further observations about this:
In recent weeks, many have in the C of E and TEC have written that only eight bishops have declined to authorise same-sex marriage in TEC dioceses: the bishops of Tennessee, Central Florida, Dallas, West Texas, Albany, North Dakota, Springfield, and Florida. This is correct, but obscures the matter. These eight are in mainland diocese where the pressure to “give in” on same-sex marriage is higher, given the sea change in American opinion after the 2015 Supreme Court decision made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
But an additional seven bishops have already stated they would not authorise same-sex marriage in their dioceses: the bishops of Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador Litoral, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, and Haiti. They have faced less pressure on this issue for a number of reasons: the countries in which they reside have not all legalized SSM, and, one suspects, TEC most of the time (a) forgets about these dioceses or (b) doesn’t want to be hypocritical in its advocacy for minority voices, while crushing down some of its Spanish- and French-speaking dioceses. But the Spanish-speaking ones especially have said it may be time for them “walk apart” from TEC due to this issue.
Taken together, these fifteen bishops are part of an organisation called Communion Partners, which is committed to respecting the moratoria called for in The Windsor Report. They are the bishops of over 295,000 baptized members of the Episcopal Church, which is not a small group by any means. It’s far larger, for instance, than those under alternative episcopal oversight in the C of E. Depending on which metrics you use, it’s either comparable to or significantly larger than ACNA. It’s of comparable size to many Anglican provinces in the Communion. This number, of course, omits conservatives in dioceses with progressive bishops.
Any new developments at TEC’s General Convention could endanger this group. I’d point readers to a pastoral statement issued by Dr George Sumner, the Bishop of Dallas, which lays out a way forward for conservatives: stay, vie for the truth, and keep the focus on Word and Sacrament ministry in the parishes.
All this points to the reality of the debate in this area, and the nature of the question itself. Unlike the debate in the C of E about women in ministry, this is not a subject on which we can simply ‘agree to disagree‘, since a Church cannot believe that something is both part of and contrary to God’s will, holy and sinful at the same time. And perhaps the action in TEC gives some insight into the future of the Church of England should we at some point in the future agree to a change in our doctrine of marriage. But most telling is the absence of any concern expressed about this move effectively disenfranchising and making ‘churchless’ a sizeable minority in TEC who still adhere to orthodox Christian teaching, and the elimination of the Christian doctrine of marriage.
A final concern for me, as a member of Archbishops’ Council, has been the response of Simon Butler, who made a statement to a TEC clergy blogger criticising William Nye’s letter. Simon appears to assume that Nye is speaking for the Council (which he is clear that he isn’t) and he implies that the views of the Council on doctrine are of significance—which they are not. I don’t know whether Simon has written personal to William Nye—but surely that is the way to address such a question, and not briefing against him to people in TEC. It is no way to run a railroad.
The doctrine of the Church of England is expressed in its formularies, its canons and its liturgy. Clergy are committed to upholding and teaching these, and bishops have a particular responsibility to refute error and teach truth—because this is what it means to be part of the one, holy, apostolic and catholic church.
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