February 19, 2014

A Few Problems with the Pastoral Guidance from Church of England Bishops

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Quite a bit of commentary has appeared in response to the pastoral guidance regarding same-sex marriage from the Church of England’s House of bishops. (See Thinking Anglicans posts here and earlier. Note that that guidance was necessitated by the fact that same-sex marriages will be legal in England next month, even though the Church of England does not approve of them.) Reactions to the pastoral guidance have been largely negative, though occasionally apologetic. A Web petition has even been created urging the bishops to withdraw their statement.

It is hardly necessary for me to attempt a complete analysis of what I view as an unfortunate statement that has been well assayed by others. I do wish to make a few observations, however, pointing out some of the less obvious problems with the episcopal directive. Let me begin by calling attention to this sentence:
However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.
This is an arrogant assertion.What the bishops really mean is that the official doctrine of the Church of England has not changed. Other equally Christian men and women—including many in the Church of England and, one suspects, even in the House of Bishops—have a different understanding of marriage.

Probably, the most worrisome statement in the pastoral guidance is this one:
We have already committed ourselves to a process of facilitated conversations across the whole Church of England in the light of the Pilling Report. These conversations will involve ecumenical and interfaith partners and particularly the wider Anglican Communion to whom we rejoice to be bound by our inheritance of faith and mutual affection.
Both the Pilling Report and the statement from the College of Bishops of January 27 anticipate a sexuality conversation throughout the Anglican Communion. (Note, for the record, that the House of Bishops is a more restricted group than the College of Bishops.) The Pilling Report even contains an entire section entitled “The obligations of belonging to the Anglican Communion,” which reflects the viewpoint of the Windsor Report and of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The general sense of this section is that all Communion churches must move together on matters of doctrine and can only differ on inessential matters, and then only with permission of the Communion. The College of Bishops statement says
We accept the recommendation of the Pilling Report that the subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations, ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level and that this should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture. These conversations should set the discussion of sexuality within the wider context of human flourishing.
All this is distressing for at least three reasons. First, we seem to be seeing an attempt by the Church of England to drag other churches—my concern is with The Episcopal Church, of course—into yet another unnecessary and resource-draining process. As it is, our church is still recovering from the havoc wreaked by our sister churches and the former feckless Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the completely legitimate actions by the Dioceses of New Westminster and New Hampshire.

Second, the notion that no Communion church can evolve without the permission of all the other churches, many of which exist in radically different societies, is ludicrous and an affront to the workings of the Holy Spirit. It is as if the Industrial Revolution were not allowed to proceed in England until machines could be made available in America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Progress in England would have to wait until China could progress in lockstep. Were that the case, we would all be eating gruel by candlelight. Anyone who has studied the diffusion of innovation knows that progress simply doesn’t happen when everyone everywhere is required to buy into it. To punish early adopters is to leave us all benighted.

Third, and most significant, is the implication that the institutional church is more important than God’s people. The Church of England seems even to think that the Anglican Communion is more important than itself. The English bishops are terrified that actions they might take regarding same-sex marriage will lead to a fracture of the Communion, and they are willing to sacrifice LGBT people and the respect of the English population generally to avoid that risk. To this, I can only ask the non-rhetorical question: What would Jesus do?

Moving on, we find this passage:
The Book of Common Prayer introduces the Solemnisation of Matrimony by saying, ‘Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee…’
This paragraph is meant to illustrate the church’s current teaching on marriage. I have always found the analogy between holy matrimony and the relation of Christ to his Church to be problematic. To be sure, the love between husband and wife— something that, at some level, we understand—can be used to suggest the love of Christ for his Church—something that is, well, mystical. On the other hand, I don’t think that marriage universally signifies anything in particular. For much of history, not even love between the parties could be assumed. (Marriages were often more about family alliances and property until fairly recently.) More perniciously, the analogy has been used to invest in marriage more significance than it deserves. A divorce is not the equivalent of Christ’s abandoning his church. More importantly, for the present circumstances, the standard description of matrimony subtly works against the notion of equal marriage. The analogy is really patriarchal—the husband is the analogue of Christ, and the wife is the analogue of the Church. The wife is to subject herself to the husband, and the Church is to subject herself to Christ. When the “husband” and “wife” are of the same sex, the analogy breaks down, as Christ and the Church are quite different in nature. The unjustified over-theologization of marriage, therefore, makes it difficult for the theologically oriented to accept same-sex marriage. The average English subject doesn’t give a fig about this, of course.

Finally, there is this:
The Lambeth Conference of 1998  said ‘in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage’ (resolution1.10 [sic]) This remains the declared position of the Anglican Communion.
This remains the declared the position of a particular collection of Anglican bishops more than a decade and a half ago who had no power to impose their views on their respective churches. Resolution I.10 was passed under very peculiar circumstances and has no legal standing in either England or the U.S. This statement is a smokescreen used as an excuse to justify inaction.

For a more general criticism of the bishop’s guidance, I recommend reading the press release from the LBG&TI Anglican Coalition.


  1. "Traditional marriage" is a contract between two men concerning the "property" of a woman. Perhaps we should have each of the bishops in the CofE trade in their crosier for a Neanderthal club.

  2. Somehow basing your marriage theology on a drunken wedding reception is very iffy.
    And then there is the whole problematic statement in the opening piece of the Marriage ceremony about it being God's will that the couple has children or not.

  3. Excellent critique, Lionel. The "tradition" of marriage as between one man and one woman is pure BS, and the bishops well know their house is built on sand. I presume either that they don't care, or they think we're too stupid to take note. Such arrogance!


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