IT IS a brave committee that suggests it has found a workable solution to the Church’s divisions over same-sex marriage, but the working group under Bruce Gray QC clearly hopes to make that claim (News, 26 February). Perhaps geographical distance from the rest of the Anglican Communion helps, since the group’s proposals concern the Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Also on its side is the modesty of its proposals, to be debated in the province’s general synod later this year. The suggestion is that the Church bless only same-sex marriages that have been contracted in a civil ceremony; no diocese is compelled to agree to the change; and, in those dioceses that do agree, no priest is compelled to conduct such a blessing. In this way, the working group says, the doctrine of marriage will be upheld and the consciences of individual priests will be protected.
The group is counting on a positive reaction from those who see this as an acceptable compromise. Unfortunately, if you only half-fill a glass, it will be looked on negatively by those who see it as half empty. The proposals are a true compromise, in that no party gets all that it wanted. The worry is that the proposed deal will still lead to a fall-out with the conservative parts of the Communion without giving same-sex couples the parity they desire, i.e. permission to marry in church.
The working group’s reasoning, though, deserves close attention. For one thing, it debunks the idea that marriage is an unchanging doctrinal monolith in either content (e.g. the loss of the concept of one-sided obedience) or application (e.g. the extension of marriage to divorcees). For another, it works through the elements of marriage and sees them applied equally to same- and other-sex couples. In a crucial passage, it describes desire “not as some aspect of our lives that, in order to be holy, needs to be channelled towards some worthy instrumental purpose (for example, procreation); rather our desire for each other can simply be for the joy and delight of each other, and this is the divinely purposed end of desire.” It counsels against freighting the poetry of the Genesis texts “with more weight than they were designed to bear”; and talks neatly of finding “a partner of the apposite sex”.
By concentrating on a blessing, the group argues that the Church is merely acknowledging something that already exists. The Province has particular insight into post-nuptial accommodation, since it has had to deal in certain of its cultures with polygamous marriages entered into before conversion. Its policy is to honour the commitments made, and not suggest the putting away of any of the wives. The working group’s report displays a high doctrine of blessings, which might soothe those who want more. “The blessings are not the Church granting God’s blessing, but seeking and declaring God’s continued blessing that is already present.” The important thing is to be confident that one is blessing what God would wish to bless. The report concludes: “At a most basic level, this confidence rests on St Irenaeus’s famous observation that ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive.’” If this is truly the Church’s intention for all people, it must wish it, whatever partnerships they form.