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Room to manoeuvre

28 March 2014

THE first same-sex marriages this weekend will be occasions of celebration. At the political level, an inequality has been remedied. At a personal level, the virtues of love, commitment and faithfulness will be proclaimed publicly, as they are at every wedding. All of this is to be celebrated, as it was this week in a letter signed by clergy in Camden, north London: "We pray for all those who are marrying this year - that they may find rich comfort and blessing in each other for the whole of their life together."

The problem for the Church is that significant numbers among the faithful cannot share these prayers. Two global markers from this week: an interview with the Nigerian Primate, the Most Revd Nicholas Okoh: "There is a group trying to put a new interpretation and they are arguing about human rights; but . . . if we do believe in God, then we should know that He also has a right; right of ownership." And reactions to the announcement that the US aid agency World Vision would employ gay people who were in a committed relationship: "You have sold out to the world and turned your back on Christ." "World Vision has given us another sign that we are in the end times."

The Bishop of Oxford, addressing his diocesan synod, sounded unambitious: "I hope it's common ground that we're part of a Church that's called to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to gay and lesbian people as children of God." But he must know that the ground is uncommonly rutted. When the English Archbishops wrote in January expressing this same view to the Anglican Primates, Archbishop Okoh called it an "obnoxious letter".

So, what can be done? The most immediate prospect is an outbreak of small-arms fire, as liberals attempt to counter the House of Bishops' negativity by expressing their welcome for same-sex marriage in various ways, perhaps not all legal. Similarly, we can expect conservatives to reassert traditional views of marriage, quietly supported by a significant proportion of churchgoers who remain uncomfortable with the new definition of marriage.

These are more than mere skirmishes, and the Bishops find themselves with little room to manoeuvre. The time and energy needed for the facilitated talks is running out, undermined by the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in society at large, and the damage being done to the Church's pastoral reputation every time a couple is rejected or a potential ordinand is turned down. If meaningful dialogue is to take place as it ought, a new interim position needs to be forged that takes a more realistic view of the new terrain. The half-hearted homophile passages in the Bishops' pastoral guidance should be revised, and the reluctant concession about prayers for couples in civil partnerships needs to be strengthened and extended to same-sex marriage. The Church's reservations about the equivalence of gay and straight relationships needs still to be acknowledged; but some of the pressure would be off. And then the Church might learn how to disagree well rather than, as at present, obnoxiously.

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