Last week (15th February 2017), the media gave the impression that the Church of England had taken another step towards accepting gay marriage after its ‘controversial report’ (as described by the BBC) proposing that only men and women could be married in church was rejected by the ‘house of clergy’ who voted 100 to 93 against. This was seen as a victory for the liberal establishment and a snub towards the Bishops who had not only drafted the report, but overwhelmingly voted in favour of it, 43-1 (although it later transpired that this single vote against had been made in error). The Laity also voted in favour 106-83, but as ever, nothing is quite as straight forward as the news headlines would suggest. Yes, of course campaigners for gay marriage were delighted, seeing it as a ‘victory for love and equality’, but equally it appears that following an ambiguous comment made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the motion was rejected by some conservatives who feared that ‘pastoral practice’ following the motion wouldn’t be ‘conservative enough’. This is because the paper didn’t actually contain any objective proposals. It was simply designed for ‘taking note’ and once passed would simply form the backdrop to church practice without any further discussion required at General Synod. As it stands, the status quo will prevail as the motion cannot be reconsidered within the life of this synod.
The difficulty is, I suggest, one of public perception. The campaigners for same sex marriage would have us believe that the public cannot understand why the church is so behind the times, and so anti-gay marriage which they see as nothing but antiquated, homophobic and prejudiced. As campaigner Peter Tatchell remarked, ‘the church denies the right of same-sex couples to be blessed in church when they will bless cats and dogs’ – but of course it doesn’t take a moment to appreciate that the cats and dogs in question aren’t seeking a blessing upon their relationship. And it’s this sort of rhetoric which makes life so difficult for all concerned. The church doesn’t deny that people of the same sex can have very warm and affirming relationships, but it doesn’t believe that sexual relations between two people of the same sex, however loving, can be equated with marriage as traditionally understood and expressed between a man and a woman. However affirming they may be, the two scenarios are not the same or equivalent. The problem is compounded by the weight of theology that is attached to the Christian concept of marriage (so much more than the simple notion of ‘two people loving each other’) which becomes unravelled if marriage isn’t between the two different sexes.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Matthew 19.5-6
In a sense, the general public may not appreciate that shouting loudly about ‘inclusiveness and equality’ (which the church has traditionally championed) rather misses the point and doesn’t resolve the dichotomy presented here – for the church can’t really accept gay-marriage without doing fundamental harm or damage to itself or its message. So, however painful it may be to those who wish it was otherwise, it doesn’t seem to me that a loving church can possibly bless that with which it fundamentally, theologically and scripturally disagrees , nor is it reasonable nor loving of others to expect it to do so.
The upshot of all these discussions is that we are still in a difficult place with many people from all sides feeling somewhat unhappy and dissatisfied, and so much prayer, thought and discussion will still be needed. Perhaps it’s best to leave the final words with the Revd Sam Allberry, who is himself gay and went on to remind Synod that Jesus Christ was ‘the most fully human and complete person who had ever lived’ and yet ‘he never married, was never in a romantic relationship and never had sex’. Therefore ‘Sexuality is not a matter of identity for me, and that has become good news”.
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men…” Revelation 21.2-3