The Church of England Bishops were undermining marriage. They also assumed that gay marriage is an issue so important that there has to be uniformity of practice.
As a charismatic evangelical clergyperson, I would have voted against ‘taking note’ of their report.
The Bishops started last September with "little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage…" (para 18) They ended with the same ‘let’s not go there’ recommendation.
Some Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is leading his Church into a truth which we have not been able to take in until now – that the Church’s teaching that sex is for a committed, faithful, lifelong, exclusive relationship with one other person, should be widened to include gay people. The Bishops appear not to have considered this change seriously enough.
Instead "the House of Bishops has affirmed that stable, faithful homosexual relationships can 'embody crucial social virtues' of fidelity and mutuality." They want to "explore how that affirmation in the case of both celibate and non-celibate relationships might be more fully articulated in our theological ethics and better communicated in our pastoral and missional practice…" (para 63) The Bishops note that this has implications for straight relationships too. They seem to want the Church to move further down the road of informally affirming various kinds of living together. This is moving further away from the teaching of Jesus than widening marriage to include gay people and then returning to traditional Christian teaching against living together.
The Bishops have a very hard task, trying to lead a divided Church. They understandably want us to "walk together" (para 59). They want "a consistent tone and culture" (para 32) with "options…for the Church as a whole to implement with integrity." (para 21) They seem to have assumed that this means having a uniform policy on gay marriage.
Yet the Church of England decided years ago to have no uniform policy on remarriage after divorce, nor on women in leadership. There is no uniform Anglican practice of Holy Communion – different clergy in different churches do different things with different understandings. Anglican "walking together" can mean recognising others as holders to the same Creeds and broad traditions, while not necessarily having the same practice on less essential matters.
The Bishops seem not to have thought through whether gay marriage is a matter about which there has to be uniformity of practice. Is it that important, that central, to our faith? The Report leans strongly towards saying ‘Yes,’ but without explaining why.
What now? It's best for the Bishops not to go ahead as they had planned but to look carefully at the two key questions from which they have kept away.
- Is the Holy Spirit leading us to widen our understanding of marriage to include gay people?
- Is marriage a matter about which we need to have uniformity of practice?
Let’s take our lead from Jesus first and foremost. The Bishops can be commended for making "fidelity to scripture" (para 1) more important than fitting in with society and Government. Yet Christian fidelity is to Jesus. When I became a Christian, I did not "turn to Scripture". I turned to Jesus.
We are to listen to Jesus alone, not equally with Moses and Elijah, or even Paul. It is high time that the Bishops kept the key questions in mind and studied the gospels to see what answers emerge. It would not take long for four groups of Bishops to read through one gospel each, asking 'What light does this shed on the possibility of gay marriage? What does this say about the centrality of gay marriage?'
Can we really love our gay neighbours while also saying they are not fit for marriage? Can we hold to a Jesus who can help people change their sexual orientation with which, it seems, they were born, either a little or dramatically, even though such people are, in our experience, few?
We are to listen to Jesus alone, not equally with Moses and Elijah, or even Paul
Is gay marriage one of the weightier mattes of Scripture? How do we apply Jesus' truth what comes out of hearts is more important than what we do with our bodies?
The Bishops will need the Holy Spirit to speak the fresh word of Jesus to our Church today. The Jesus we listen to is alive and speaking today through the Holy Spirit, sometimes in surprising ways.
Justin Welby believes this and knows something of how we listen to the Holy Spirit. He, or a good teacher he knows, can lead the Bishops in tuning in to the Holy Spirit together. Then there may be a fresh possibility for the diverse members of the Church of England to be faithful to Jesus in their own ways.