THE Church of England missed a remarkable opportunity for evangelism last week. It could have responded to the inauguration of civil partnerships for heterosexuals by . . . shutting up. It had nothing new to say, and there was no need to say it.
Instead of this, a statement was issued that provoked derision even from people who would never in the normal course of events give a thought to the Church’s existence, let alone to its teaching.
The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Independent, and the Daily Express all published hostile pieces.
The most sympathetic writer was Libby Purves in The Times, and you needed to squint to find her sympathy: “Nobody expects the C of E to be a wild rave, but make no mistake: these bishops are not just turning away from Love Island, Naked Attraction, YouPorn, adultery, hook-up culture and all the tedious, tittering, loveless, needily vapid priapism of our age. That’s reasonable enough.
“But here they are turning away from ordinariness: mistakes, bad luck, awkward lives, shy doubtful lovers straight and gay who won’t stick to celibacy before the ring is on, yet battle towards happiness and the healing of familiar touch.”
Nor can the bishops who signed it have meant it to be taken seriously. Are these bishops really going to direct their clergy to refuse marriage to cohabiting couples or to turn away divorced and remarried ones from communion? (“I cannot remember the last time I wed a couple who did not share the same address,” the Revd Fiona Sample wrote in a letter to The Times.) The statement will be an opportunity for the further petty bullying of gay or lesbian couples by those so inclined, but that is hardly news.
So, why do it? We can safely discount the idea that any member of the House of Bishops is so stupid as to think that anyone in the world outside will abandon extramarital sex as a result. Is there an intelligent explanation? There is certainly a political one. The presumed audience for this statement is the conservative bishops at the Lambeth Conference, for whom it is a sign that they are being taken seriously.
There is also at least one moral argument why they should be. So far as I can work out, the mainstream Anglican position is pretty much that of Pope Francis: couples who are giving it their best shot should always be supported by the Church, even when they have failed before.
This isn’t exactly what the doctrine says, but it is pretty much its effect in practice (unless you’re gay, and often even then). Even this weakened form has consequences, which arise when people fail, as they will. Supporting someone’s efforts to do something necessarily involves discouraging their efforts to do the opposite. That seems to entail some period of shame or penance for failure, even if it is ultimately forgiven.
But nothing like that is presently demanded of churchgoers in rich countries. And, in a global perspective, that is unjust — at least, it is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But I think that’s a stretch. What has really happened is that the institutional Church is so caught up in its internal wrangling over gay clergy that it has entirely forgotten the outside world.
THE trouble with stories such as this is that they show the Church of England playing entirely to type. In so far as anyone outside the Church is aware of their existence, the bishops appear to be old men and women telling other people not to have the sex that they’re not having themselves. It is not a selling proposition. It’s not fair, either, but that’s not the point.
What makes this caricature particularly damaging is the almost universal assumption that sex is a private or personal matter — an area in which no one is in a position to judge anyone else. The position has drawbacks, of which the most important is that it represents an unattainable ideal: judging other people is a universal pleasure, as the Mail and The Guardian rather differently demonstrate every day.
In fact, we all like to be judged ourselves, provided that we are acquitted. Even in the most liberal and individualistic societies, people still want their sexual choices to be validated by others. It is just that, today, they are free to choose the audience whose validation they will accept. That is an existential difficulty for an Established Church.
It is the essence of established authority that no one gets to choose whether they accept it. A Church that is only a voluntary association can no more impose on the nation its views on sexual morality than the Football Association can. Possibly, it can do rather less.
To return to Mrs Sample’s letter: if a couple come into church wanting a wedding, should the vicar really tell them that the first thing they should do is to stop having sex, and that only after that can they be taught about the Christian understanding of marriage? If that’s not going to happen, a policy of resolute silence is the only one possible.