IT IS hard to believe that anyone came out of Tuesday’s Bishops meeting punching the air at having found a perfect solution to the Church’s travails over same-sex relationships. Conservative bishops may (just) have concluded that permitting individual clergy to bless same-sex unions was the most that they could concede. Liberal bishops may (just) have concluded that such blessings were the most that they could attain. But none of them can believe that a policy that, outside the College of Bishops, is derided by liberals and dismissed by conservatives has a chance of uniting the opposing factions in the Church, or of denting the view, now widespread in this country, that the C of E is homophobic.
Readers with long memories will recall a similar impasse. In the 1980s, the General Synod failed to agree on a series of options for permitting divorcees to marry again in church in the lifetime of a previous spouse. For the upholders of marital indissolubility, with two Acts of Convocation and the Prayer Book on their side, the ethical issue was as sharp: were they to be required to bless adultery? The Bishops acted: while marriage in church was not allowed, the clergy were allowed to offer a Service of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage. It was not called a “blessing”. Eventually, after the Scott-Joynt report in 2000, the Bishops persuaded the Synod to rescind the Acts of Convocation, but declared that the Church’s teaching had not changed. In some parishes such weddings occur; in others, they do not.
Of course, over those two decades, the voting numbers changed. So, are we back to waiting to see whether and how opinions change among the Church’s leadership? There is, indeed, no logic or theology in acknowledging that a marriage has taken place elsewhere and then offering to bless it — and, at the same time, allowing a neighbouring parish to refuse. But the opponents of same-sex marriage are more numerous and vocal now than indissolubilists. Those who plan to back the Bishops’ motion next month must know that they are setting themselves up for further wearying debate.
Episcopally led, synodically governed — this C of E formula must not be forgotten when a divided episcopate struggles to give a lead. We are confident that an amendment to the Bishops’ motion is even now drafted, to allow a vote on whether, besides blessing same-sex unions, clergy may solemnise same-sex marriages. It is even possible that several bishops would prefer the initiative to come from another House, to maintain their image as figures of unity. The lack of a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops means that any motion to change the formularies would fall, however. Episcopally led, synodically governed — parochially performed. Church discipline over the blessing of same-sex unions in church has held remarkably well during the past few years because clergy cannot know to what extent they might be disciplined. We cannot see this acquiescence continuing. If at the heart of this lies the concept that clergy consciences must be protected, then that will have to work both ways. Similarly, bishops cannot be expected to propose a solution against their conscience. But the Church is bigger than the bishops, as next month’s debate will show.