IF ONE is looking for scandal and outrage in church circles, almost the last place to look is where people, priests or laity, live in same-sex relationships. As the row intensifies over how the Church of England acknowledges such relationships, it is easy to overlook that it is about ordinary, unremarkable couples, living and ministering with the minimum of fuss. Most of those in our acquaintance survive in the Church because they long ago stopped looking for support or affirmation from their superiors, though there are notable exceptions. But, every now and again, something pierces their layers of protection, and they feel again the injustice of a situation in which the conduct of their intimate lives is deemed to be of equal weight with the opinions of a minority of Christians in the Church to which they belong.
One such shard must be the extraordinary mess that the Bishops are making of the General Synod’s decision in February to commend the Prayers of Love and Faith (reporting back after five years on their use), and to replace the discredited Issues in Human Sexuality, which forbade “sexually active homophile relationships” among the clergy. The Bishops’ 36-4 majority in favour of the February motion has been sustained in the College of Bishops, which voted by 75 to 22 in September for something roughly approximating to the Synod’s agreed path for the Prayers — a period of experimentation under Canon B5a; and by 72 to 26 to work on giving permission for clergy to enter same-sex marriages. Not so the House of Bishops, who have just voted 19 to 16 to kick the Prayers back to the Synod for its formal approval (under Canon B2), a move explicitly rejected (68-28) by the College. About marriage for same-sex clergy couples, they cannot bring themselves to say anything much, but have announced a “time of uncertainty”, as if that were a thing.
The use of unnatural, coded language is always a bad sign in the Church. The phrase “pastoral provision”, much favoured under the current papacy, is used to denote an acceptable deviation from common practice which acknowledges the complexity of individual circumstances. It is odd to see it applied to a wholesale change made with a formal vote. Then there is the emphasis in the Prayers of Love and Faith on “covenanted friendships”, a deliberately vague term used by nobody. It seems that these can be blessed when other things are going on, but not in a way that anyone would want. And there is “dynamic”, which is what the Pastoral Guidance document for clergy is going to be. For the foreseeable future, this translates as “unfinished”.
No twisting of language can disguise the fact that the House of Bishops appears to have forgotten three things: the will of the majority in their Church and the nation; the appalling impression of Christian charity which they are giving; and the people whom we mentioned earlier — the couples whose love contrasts so sharply with the obduracy currently on display.