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Same-sex marriage

21 February 2014

THE release of the Bishops' Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage missed St Valentine's Day by one minute, but it was a near thing, and perhaps not the best end to a week in which the C of E attempted to demonstrate that, despite differences, it had a working knowledge of what unity demanded.

In his presidential address to the General Synod, Archbishop Welby spoke about reconciling the Church over women bishops. "Already, I can hear the arguments being pushed back at me, about compromise. . ." But it is not doing great violence to his words to apply them to a similar, if not exactly parallel, matter. It was instructive that the language changed during the course of the address. On women bishops, the key word was "love": "There is going to have to be a massive cultural change that accepts that people with whom I differ deeply are also deeply loved by Christ, and therefore must be loved by me." On gay relationships, "love" was, at best, implied: "We have to find a way forward that is one of holiness and obedience to the call of God, and enables us to fulfil our purposes." The tone mirrors, perhaps unconsciously, the sternness at the end of the House of Bishops statement.

Still, in the spirit of the Archbishop's address, we express our sympathy for the position in which the Bishops find themselves. They are themselves divided; so vision is out, and a form of holy pragmatism is all one can hope for. First, it is in nobody's interests for the matter to come to a vote. Recent polls, ours included, have shown that there is strong opposition to same-sex marriage in the Church, certainly enough to block the two-thirds majority any change to any Prayer Book rubric would require. And, second, the Archbishop's Communion visits have reinforced the view that the issue of homosexuality is still regarded as a litmus test of "soundness". No Church-wide agreement is possible in the near future, especially if, as here (but, strangely, on few other matters), you widen your definition of Church to something near universal.

So, what do you do? You accept that you are in an interim situation - an "untidy Church" - and behave accordingly. You accept a degree of anarchy, having first, it appears, ascertained that you have no real sanctions to apply. You reinforce existing doctrine. You initiate conversation between opposing views - still to come. And you shame the extremists by condemning bigotry and using the language of love and respect for all parties. The Bishops score half marks here.

Given their consistent opposition to same-sex marriage, the St Valentine's statement was predictable. It would help greatly, though, if it were acknowledged for what it is: a holding position. We do not think it will hold for long; nor can it, unless congregations feel no responsibility for what is clearly a pastoral disaster, or are willing to be seen as "akin to racists". Archbishop Welby spoke of "courageous Churches". It ought not to take courage to treat LGBT people more lovingly. But perhaps courage is precisely what the Bishops lack, since to treat someone lovingly is to treat him or her equally.

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