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The pain lies in facing hard truths

10 February 2017

Malcolm Brown defends the lead given on sexuality by the House of Bishops

“THE trouble with the Church of England”, the late Bishop David Jenkins used to say (and a lot of David’s sentences began like that), “is archdeacons who want to be loved. It is my job to be loved because I am supposed to be a focus for unity. So I need archdeacons who are prepared to be unpopular on my behalf.”

No one (yet?) is suggesting that the Church of England’s problems with human sexuality are caused by love-starved archdeacons. But the Bishops are certainly finding out what it is like to be unpopular. And they are finding that being a focus of unity does not allow you to be loved by all the people all the time.

The Bishop of Liverpool has exposed the tensions of being both an individual leader and part of a collective leadership. Bishop Bayes’s blog is a short masterclass in the theology of episcopacy and its personal costs. But, however much the Bishops bear the brickbats with resignation, much comment on their recent Synod paper (GS 2055) underestimates the extent to which the Bishops and, indeed, the Church of England are bound by law in ways that severely limit their scope for manoeuvre.

Start with the law on marriage. The annex to the Bishops’ paper is not mere detail. It sets out the legal framework that would govern any attempt to change things as they are.

For there to be any move to same-sex marriage, canon law would have to change. That law cannot be changed without substantial majorities in each of the Houses of Synod. The Bishops have been accused of lacking pastoral concern (and worse), but how pastoral would it be to initiate a long process with all the continued pain it would cause with no serious likelihood (in the present state of the Church) of success?

From one point of view, of course, this looks not only like cowardice but hypocrisy, since the Church’s teaching on marriage has proved flexible enough to accommodate — even to celebrate — marriage after divorce. This kind of “pastoral accommodation” has been identified by some as exactly what the Church needs. But the analogy does not work. As well as its doctrine of marriage, the Church has a doctrine of repentance and forgiveness — perhaps a higher doctrine, since it is absolutely explicit in our Lord’s teaching.

While we teach that marriage is a permanent union, we also teach that it is in the nature of being human to fail — and that, after due penitence, a new start can be made. The intention of the partners, that theirs should be a permanent union, confirms the Church’s understanding of marriage: the ability to repent of failure and try again confirms our doctrine of forgiveness.

In contrast, it would be outrageous to suggest that partners in a same-sex marriage are seeking forgiveness, or recognise that they have failed to embody a Christian vision of what a marriage should be. The debate around marriage after divorce turned on penitence and forgiveness, and this made theological sense. It would be offensive to apply that reasoning to a same-sex union.

In his well-known essay on human sexuality, “Knowing Myself in Christ” (1997), Rowan Williams cautioned against arguing from metaphor without very careful scrutiny of how far the metaphor actually applies to the new context. The Bishops concluded that the metaphorical move from the way the Church handled marriage after divorce to the question of same-sex marriage did not work theologically or pastorally.

Then there is the question of liturgies. GS 2055 goes into some detail about the distinction between authorised and commended liturgies, and tries to show that neither offers a straightforward way to welcome same-sex couples. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi — what we pray in public embodies what we believe as a Church — is fundamental to Anglicanism. So to introduce an authorised liturgy before changing the law on marriage introduces an unworkable contradiction. Lex orandi, lex credendi applied equally to commended liturgies, but, additionally, clergy using a liturgy that was not authorised would be open to legal challenge from anyone who believed that their usage contravened the beliefs of the church.

Working closely, as I do, with bishops collectively often puts me in touch with my inner Presbyterian. And, of course, the bishops hold as great a plurality of views as the Church at large. But for bishops who seek greater inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians, the legal limits on their room for sensible manoeuvre (let alone the political limits of leading a divided Church) must have felt like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

I can’t speak for any of them, but the formulation of “maximum freedom within the law” recognises some hard truths while keeping open the possibility of continued negotiation, debate, and argument. If the Shared Conversations have done what was intended (and it was always emphasised that they were not part of a decision-making process), there remains room for that conversation and negotiation to continue in good grace. We shall see what “maximum freedom within the law” can mean, and whether it offers a point around which the Church can coalesce, as it has become for the Bishops over the past year of process.

Success has many parents; failure is an orphan. Offering leadership in a divided Church is a job for those who have to tread carefully if their parenthood is not to be called into question.


The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown is Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations can be read here.

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