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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday 7 June 2013

The Bishops and Same-Sex Marriage

I got into trouble on Face Book yesterday over the Bishop of Leicester's statement as convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords about equal (same-sex) marriage.

To recap, Lord Dear's so-called 'wrecking amendment' was decisively defeated in the House of Lords. It had been supported by most bishops, though a number abstained. None voted against. Bishop Stevens' statement said that in the light of the clear majorities in both Houses, the bishops needed to 'recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape'. In that context he mentioned fidelity in marriage and the rights of children. 'It is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.  Our focus during the Committee and Report stages...will be to address these points in a spirit of constructive engagement.'

On FB, I suggested that given the bishops' well-known and publicly aired hostility to equal marriage, to speak in this rather different tone will have taken courage. For some of them, to recognise that the fight is over and equal marriage is the wish of the majority must have been a bitter pill to swallow. So I want to honour the spirit of Realpolitik that the bishops have shown, even if some of us, with Lord Harries and the Bishop of Salisbury, wish that the Church of England's leadership could have shown a more open and generous attitude to gay people during the debates.

I was in trouble with those who responded by saying that this was too little, too late and too grudging. But I'm reminded of Jesus' parable about the two sons whom their father asked to go and work in his vineyard.  One said yes, but didn't go.  The other said he wouldn't but in time came round and went. It was this son Jesus commended as having ultimately done the right thing. I read the statement as a sign that the bishops intend to be collaborative over equal marriage and help make the measure a better one. For me, this is honourable because it is doing the right thing in the end. Better to be late in doing it than not doing it at all.

As to what the bishops say about marriage, I agree that the proposals are not nearly strong enough on marriage as a covenanted relationship of fidelity.  In this respect, the Archbishop is right: same-sex and other-sex marriages would not be entirely equal. But for this reason, I don't think it is correct to speak about the measure as 'redefining' of marriage. The public covenant between two people who love and wish to belong to each other can and should be precisely the same in both.  It's no more a redefining of marriage than the remarriage of divorced people. In some ways, that is the more radical step to take because it entails considering in what way a covenant that has been broken for whatever reason could be entered into a subsequent time with another partner. So if the church is (largely) content to bless and even solemnise such marriages, this next step of making the institution more inclusive should not necessarily pose new difficulties. To enlarge the scope of an institution is not the same as changing its essential meaning.

There is something worryingly familiar about the bishops' statement however.  It is too often the case that the church is on the back foot, at first resisting social change that is wanted by the majority, then coming round to it slowly and grudgingly. This was precisely the case when artificial contraception was being debated in the early 20th century. Lambeth Conferences were root and branch opposed to the idea that sex could be for recreation as well as procreation. It would have been better to adopt the Gamaliel position of saying 'let us wait and see whether this might be of God'. Much the same can be said about women as priests and bishops in the church.

If you scroll down my blogs on this Woolgathering site, you'll find my piece on Gamaliel and equal marriage.  It's clearer now than then which way history is moving. It's not too late for the Church of England to be on the right side of it this time. Without grudge.


  1. Thanks for a measured and thoughtful response to the debate.

    I've been troubled by the Bishops stance, but am heartened that they might be about to change direction, whether or not it has been forced on them or not.

    Your point about remarriage after divorce is well taken. I'm in that position and was only to well aware of the limitations and married in a register office. Only after 20 years was this new covenant blessed in a Church.

    I don't see Equal Marriage as redefining marriage, but affirming it. But the points about fidelity and children are well made and taken.

  2. I don't understand this at all. There has been no change of heart among the bishops, not even slow and grudging one. There is nothing but the obvious realisation that the battle in the public sphere is over and that they might as well make the best of it in their own interest.

    We will know that there is a change of heart when they start discussing giving lgbt people a more equal place within the church, however slowly and grudgingly.
    Until then, none of this is any more than realpolitik

  3. UKViewer, do you see a difference between changing direction as far as civil legislation is concerned and changing direction within the church? I would welcome the latter as a genuine change and I would welcome it even if it was slow and grudging. The former, now that we will get marriage equality, is neither here nor there.

  4. Dear Michael -

    I am not sure that civil marriage, which after all, is what the legislation is primarily about, is very strong on "marriage as a covenanted relationship of fidelity." If you look here (http://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/vows-and-promises-your-wedding), for example, the forms of promises made between the couple are entirely optional. The legal matter is completed without any of this, and certainly without any emphasis on fidelity as there is in a church wedding.

    I think part of our difficulty is that some of us have had our experience of marriage entirely shaped in one context. Mine is Church. I don't think I have ever been to a wedding in any other context. So I think of marriage as covenant, and of fidelity as right at the heart of it. And were I to contract another marriage (as indeed I hope to do), I would want that understanding central to what we do. But I don't think that the government can really strengthen same-sex marriage to say things that it does not expect the heterosexual population to say! You might want all marriage to be about faithful covenanted relationships - but that is another bill and a much bigger fight!