What is the point of the Church of England?
It seems the Church of England wishes to replicate the Free Church of Scotland's role as backward-looking insular moral guardians of the nation - south of the border, at least.
In a "pastoral statement" issued today, the House of Bishops - in supposedly addressing the issue of Civil Partnerships - not only reaffirmed traditional church teachings but actively went beyond them, essentially redefining marriage in the process.
The bishops' statement read: "marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman making a public commitment to each other, is central to the stability and health of human society." That much is unsurprising. It reiterated the church's teaching as "classically summarised in The Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage service lists the causes for which marriage was ordained, namely 'for the procreation of children, …for a remedy against sin [and]…. for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other'." I'm not convinced consulting the 470 year old prayer book was the right approach to dealing with the new reality of civil partnerships, not least as the nature of marriage as we understand it socially has evolved beyond recognition in nearly five centuries, but I understand this is the Church of England we're talking about.
More disturbingly, the statement went on and concluded: "With opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church seeks to uphold that standard, to affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.
This is worrying for three principle reasons. Firstly, it determines that people in civil partnerships - and, indeed, any relationship that is not a marriage as the Church of England understands it - are in somehow lesser relationships. Secondly, it assumes, incorrectly, what the "Christian" position is: it is simply untrue to say that "for Christians" the criteria used to determine whether relationships are whole in the context of opposite-sex marriages don't apply in relation to same-sex couples. Many of us disagree and the bishops don't speak for us; the arrogance of that assertion defies belief. Thirdly, and finally, the bishops have actively redefined marriage in their statement without wider consultation. The "lifelong union between a man and a woman" is, of course, nothing new - but the insistence on defining marriage according to wedding vows very definitely is.
Nowhere before has marriage been defined in this way. I understand the advent of civil partnerships, and opening them up to opposite-sex couples, represents a challenge to the "traditional view" - but the response should be to revisit this view rather than to reinforce it, especially in such a knee-jerk fashion. At least until recently the church has at least made the pretence of being informed by Biblical guidance, but where is there anything within the pages of the Bible that requires vows to be exchanged in order for a relationship to be considered whole? Why have the bishops taken it upon themselves to redefine marriage in this way?
As someone within the Scottish Episcopal Church pointed out today, the statement actually has the effect of excluding people married in Orthodox churches, whose marriage ceremonies do not include vows. In the eyes of the CofE's bishops, such people are clearly not married and their relationships somehow "lesser". The same applies too to anyone whose relationships don't conform to the ideal as set out in "traditional church teaching". It's difficult to present this as anything other than discrimination based on ill-informed prejudice. It's also a ruling based on a distinctly Western church culture and legal systems that require the exchanging of vows, rather than on any theological basis.
I know many LGBT+ people within the CofE who valiantly - and publicly - resist this kind of insular bigotry. Unfortunately, the idea that the CofE can somehow be rescued by progressives from within has been shown today to be little more than wishful thinking. This statement defines the CofE better than it defines marriage: reactionary, theologically confused and backward-looking. We deserve so much better.
Perhaps eventually the bishops will realise that marriage is not something that is to be defined, but something that is lived - and, I might add, is lived out in so many different ways. Until then I imagine we will see many more of these statements as the CofE gradually drifts towards cultural and spiritual irrelevance.
What really is the point of the Church of England? It has so much potential to be a positive force for change, but at every critical juncture its intrinsic ultra-Conservatism wins out. As a national church it has little appeal in the nation; as a "united" church it succeeds only in alienating; as a spiritual community it has today reinforced a hierarchy of relationships that actively discriminates and excludes. Is that the purpose of church?
Give me the absolutism of the Free Church of Scotland's undeviating moralism over this confused mess. At least they can be relied on to take a particular position. The CofE, on the other hand, promises conversations and engagement that offer glimmers of hope to religious progressives... before, ultimately, cruelly dashing any such hope with unnecessarily ill-conceived statements.
I am not one to suggest that social media provides an accurate reflection of societal attitudes. However, with "Church of England" trending on twitter, I had a check to see if I could find any comments supporting the bishops's statement - but no, not one. Not even from the usual suspects. The principal effect of the statement have been to create distress to people of faith who happen to be either LGBT or whose relationships are not united in marriage. A secondary effect has been to subject the church to national ridicule.
We may well feel that the CofE is irrelevant to our lives, especially those of us in Scotland. But, lest we forget, the House of Bishop includes the 26 Lords Spiritual who have a privileged place at the heart of our parliamentary system (I can't bring myself to say "parliamentary democracy" in this context). Such a hasty and ill-conceived statement does not instil much confidence that these people are able to grasp the wider issues or even consider the human ramifications of their words - let alone serve the interests of the country.
Sic a parcel o' fools in a nation.