Not in my name?
There have been many recent statements from senior bishops and others within the life of the Church of England which have raised questions in my mind as to the nature of our Church and its relationship with our country. In response to the Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, public statements have been made which purport to give the ‘mind’ of the Church of England. We seem to have got ourselves into an invidious position in, on the one hand, trying to support gay people in their relationships and affirm the love they hold and not to appear homophobic and, on the other hand, seeking to uphold a traditional view of marriage as being exclusive to a man and woman. I am sure that all the statements that have been made are sincerely put, but they appear anodyne because of the tension between the two positions. However, they are united in affirming that marriage is not just about a legal contract but that there are also, perhaps more important, sacred matters to address and the way in which God’s grace inhabits human relationships and reveals Himself to us through them. For those guarded about same-sex marriages, the fact that God’s creativity is shared in human marriage through giving birth to new life in children is an essential part of the married state. For those in favour of such marriages, it is the primacy of divine love which is at stake. But it is another question that the intervention of the good bishops raises in my mind…
Which is: ‘in what way can the statements of the prelates be taken to be the mind of the Church of England in this and other related matters?’ For, in truth, the bishops in the media have not spoken for me or the way in which I understand this thorny matter and, I suspect, they do not speak for a sizeable minority or even majority within the life of the Church. However, it is possible that I will soon be approached by the local media to defend the position taken up by my colleagues and the pressure will be on to ‘toe the line’.
The issue is therefore, for me, one of freedom.
You see, the Church of England is not like the Roman Catholic Church or other ecclesial bodies in having a central magisterium which speaks authoritatively for the Church on any given matter. So, the Church of England has never been able to come up with the ‘party line’ about contraception, for instance, in the way that the Church of Rome has. Despite the countless people who ignore the injunction, the fact still remains that to be a Catholic is not to be a user of contraceptives. Still less is the Church of England like a political party with a manifesto that needs to be publicly shared by all adherents regardless of private belief. The religious life within the Church of England should not be about conformity to centrally created opinions at all costs-as the ‘voice of the institution’-but more ‘pilgrimaging’ together within the complexities and dilemmas of life under the refreshing and renewing guidance of the Holy Spirit. The ability for the Church in England to see things differently and to honour diversity was a hard won freedom at the time of the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries when folk died for the right to see the Mass, Baptism, the Bible and many other matters of the soul from different perspectives from those handed down through the, then, closely held traditions of the Church. It is this freedom of interpretation and of the need for structural adjustment to changing circumstances that has allowed our Church to leave many things to the individual’s conscience but also to make serious advancements such as the ordination of women to the priesthood. When we have veered from this freedom we have, for instance, caused ourselves the embarrassment of condemning Darwin. At the heart of this very attractive aspect of the Church of England’s life is the knowledge that we are a diverse and highly inclusive Church from which there can be no unified voice or opinion in these matters, and it this aspect of our Church that has kept me faithful to Anglicanism all my life.
So, I am forced to say that those of my colleagues who have spoken out on same-sex marriage do not speak for me and neither, I dare to say, do they speak for the Church of England-they are rehearsing their own opinions.