THE concept of reception in the Church can prompt a range of responses. It can encourage both experimentation — “Let’s give it a go” — and conservatism — “We’ll say yes for now, but can stop it later if we choose.” Previously applied to early councils, it was revisited by Anglicans in the 1980s, when women’s ordination was being contemplated. The House of Bishops’ Second Report on the topic (1988) spoke of “the possibility of final acceptance or rejection”. But, just as children who enter a reception class don’t have the option of deciding with their school that education isn’t for them, few would have taken seriously the idea that, at an indeterminate point in the future, the C of E would come to a collective mind that the venture had failed, and that those women who had been ordained would be stripped of their Orders. Nevertheless, history suggests that there are developments that ultimately are not received and wither on the vine.
The Church in Wales has talked not of reception, however, but of experimentation, in the legislation that it passed on Monday to allow the blessing in church of same-sex marriages and partnerships. Everyone in the debate knew that there was no prospect that couples would be approached after five years and have their blessing formally rescinded in some way. That is not to say that there has not been an element of “Let’s give it a go” about the whole enterprise. The Revd Dr Jonathon Wright, who attempted to delay the Bill’s implementation until “the teaching of the Church has been formally changed with respect to the nature of marriage”, had a soft target to fire at when he (a) questioned the sacramental distinction between a civil marriage blessed in church and a church wedding; (b) appealed (as have archbishops before him) to allow the Anglican Communion time to come to a common mind; and (c) disparaged the theological offering of the Bench of Bishops to justify this move.
Soft targets can absorb arrows, and this is what happened when the Bishop of Monmouth, speaking after Dr Wright, appealed to the Welsh Governing Body on behalf of those with a “profound longing” for the change. We doubt Dr Wright was impressed. But, taking his arguments in reverse order, there is an academic and theological rigour that supports same-sex relationships. There is reason to ask why a Communion of autonomous Churches decides that, on this issue alone, it needs to act in concert. We concede the difficulty of sacramental distinction. The point is that the hard arguments are not all on one side, the emotion on the other. For too long, pastoral need has been regarded by opponents and proponents alike as an excuse to suspend the Church’s thinking on an issue. On the contrary, if there is a pastoral need that is not met by the Church’s practice, it should trigger deeper, more urgent thought than we generally see.