by David Taylor
from Signs of the Times No. 19 - Oct 2005
ONE WISHES, first of all, that the House Bishops would learn to express their thoughts in recognizable English, rather than in the deliberately vague 'Spiritualese' that they always adopt on these occasions.
There is a great deal in this document that has no real meaning at all, and seems deliberately intended not to have, the aim to all appearances being to keep evangelicals quiet while hinting to the rest of us that the bishops don't necessarily agree with them.
This cloud of unknowing appears quite early on:
"It has always been the position of the Church of England that marriage is a creation ordinance... "
Well, no it hasn't, because this striking phrase 'a creation ordinance' is of very recent appearance indeed. What is it supposed to mean? We have two accounts of creation in Genesis, one stretching from 1.1 to 2.3, the other from 2.4 to 2.25. Towards the end of this second account we are told:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
Do the bishops simply mean that this account of creation concludes with this ordinance? That, surely is rather feeble. What they seem to want to imply is that the appearance of the ordinance here is a clear indication that it comes directly from God, who is here expressing his essential purpose in this whole act of creation. It seems that, unlike the sabbath, in this case man really was made for marriage and not marriage for man. Now marriage is undoubtedly a fine thing, but this seems to be going much too far; why should the appearance of this 'creation ordinance' in Genesis invest it with such overwhelming authority?
We are told that:
'the Church of England's teaching is classically summarized in The Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage service lists the causes for which marriage was ordained'
- firstly 'for the procreation of children',
- secondly 'for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication',
- thirdly 'for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other'.
In same-sex marriages the first of these causes does not apply, but the other two are just as relevant to same-sex marriages as to traditional heterosexual ones, and the document nowhere sets out arguments why such blessings should not be offered to homosexuals also; unless, that is, there is an underlying assumption that homosexuals do not really fit into the pattern of God's creation, so that meeting their needs must be deemed incompatible with Christian virtue.
Next we learn about "the key Church statements"; in summary they are:
- The General Synod motion of November 1987, which affirms that 'homosexual genital acts' fall short of the Christian ideal, and are to be met 'with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion'.
- The House of Bishops' statement of December 1991 - Issues in Human Sexuality - which states that 'heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation, as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry'...
- The 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which drew a clear distinction between homosexual orientation and practice, rejecting the latter as 'incompatible with Scripture'...
- The Windsor Report 2004 examined the implications for the Anglican Communion of developments in North America which are at variance both with the Lambeth Resolution and the declared teaching of most of the worldwide Church.
The first of these is now nearly twenty years old, the view of society as a whole has vastly changed during the period, and it is unlikely that even the Synod would be so confident of airing its nasty prejudices quite so boldly today. The statement that 'heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation' is in its first assertion simply false, in its second vitiated by the pre-emptive use of the word 'insights', where an honest arguer would have more accurately used 'viewpoint'. Observation tells us that homosexuality is in fact an ordinary part of nature, though Scripture undoubtedly takes a more hostile view. But there are numberless questions on which even Evangelicals side with the modern world against the position of Scripture without any qualm of conscience, capital punishment being one of the most obvious; but there is also the beating of children and slaves, execution for adulterers and blasphemers - and also for the hideous crime of gathering sticks on the sabbath. On all these questions Evangelicals commonly adopt an utterly unscriptural position; so why should homosexuality, which harms no one and gives enormous pleasure and happiness to multitudes, be singled out as an exception?
The Lambeth Resolution of 1998, even apart from the fact that we now know it was arrived at by highly unscrupulous means, can offer no justification for its 'clear distinction between homosexual orientation and practice'. The claim that the latter is 'incompatible with Scripture' is conceded but, as shown above, is insufficient as a basis for condemnation. The resolution accepts the existence of a homosexual 'orientation', which destroys any argument that it is not a part of nature. If marriage was ordained 'as a remedy for sin and to avoid fornication', what remedy were the Lambeth bishops offering those of a homosexual 'orientation'? Or were they assuming that homosexuals, unlike heterosexuals, simply did not need one? And at this point we may as well look at the more recent suggestion that it's all right for the laity to satisfy their needs, but not for the clergy to do so. If the whole thing is immoral, it is just as immoral for the laity as the clergy; if it is morally acceptable, it is just as morally acceptable in the clergy as it is in the laity. The position here, like the official position on the whole subject of homosexuality, is not merely indefensible but obviously so; and the most scandalous aspect of it is that most of the bishops subscribing to the document are fully aware that it is, and do so simply to keep Evangelicals quiet.
Finally let us return to the theme with which we started: the glorious, golden notion of marriage as a 'creation ordinance' - instituted by God, as it were, in the (wholly mythical) time of man's innocency. Neither of the two New Testament figures who pronounce on the subject take quite such an exalted view of it as that. Paul is on the whole quite grudging: he doesn't rate the idea of children much at all - not surprising in one who clearly believed right up to the time of his own death that he would actually live to see the end of the world, so what would be the point of having children? The main point of marriage, as far as he is concerned, is not the first but the second of the three reasons given in the prayer book; marriage is necessary as a remedy for 'those that have not the gift of continency'. As he himself quaintly observes, '... it is better to marry than to burn' (I Corinthians 9:9b). Despite the claim of Evangelicals to be uncritical disciples of the Pauline view on all subjects, and particularly this one, Paul's view of marriage is one of reluctance.
If that comes across as discouraging, what shall we say about Jesus' own view? The Church has always taken a triumphant stand on the following:
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?' He answered them, 'What did Moses command you?' They said, 'Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.' But Jesus said to them, 'For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female'. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh'. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder' (Mark 10:2-9).
We take this as the nearest we can get to the authentic saying. Ought we to question whether Jesus really meant what even the very early Church seems to have taken it for granted that he meant, namely that there ought to be no divorce? There are two approaches available: and the first is to point out the hatred (the word is not too strong) Jesus felt for those (particularly clergy) who insisted that God's commands could be recognized by the heavy and unreasonable burden they imposed (see Matthew 23 for a full statement of this view). When Jesus said (assuming that he did say):
'Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.' (Matthew 11:28-30)
he did not mean, as Christians have been fond of interpreting him to mean, that 'although it looks hard and heavy, once you shoulder the burden you'll find it the only "real" easiness.' If he said it, he almost certainly meant just what he said: 'Forget about burdens. Chuck them. That is what I teach.'
In July 2005 the Church of England's House of Bishops responded to the Civil Partnerships Bill by issuing a Pastoral Statement. The Bill permits registration of same-sex partnerships. Whether registration adds up to 'gay marriage' is a debated point. The Pastoral Statement attempts to defend the Church's position. On the one hand the official line states that clergy may not be practising homosexuals; on the other, it is well known that many clergy are homosexuals, and the Church would be in dire straits without their ministry. What if some of them register their partnerships?
Fortunately, help is at hand. The Act permits registration, without asking whether the partnerships are sexually active. The Pastoral Statement therefore accepts that some clergy may register, on the understanding that their relationships will be celibate.
We all know that this defeats the whole point of the Bill. The Anglican Province of Nigeria, which condemns homosexuality, has responded to the Pastoral Statement by dissociating itself from the Church of England; it has even changed its constitution, to remove all references to being in communion with the See of Canterbury. From the other side of the debate, Inclusive Church declares that:
'With its years of hypocrisy on gay matters, this new statement is a clear indication of the corner the church has backed itself into... It is hardly surprising that the church is becoming increasingly marginal when it so signally fails to speak to the nation.'