Why the Bishops are wrong: Marriage and gay relationships

Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain (right), former Vicar of West Hampstead, blacklisted by the Church after marrying his partner Stephen

 

 

A sermon preached by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at St Peter’s Church in Hammersmith on 26th January 2020. You can listen to the sermon online at https://stpetersw6.org/sermons/

 

Some of you will know that earlier this week, the House of Bishops issued what they called a Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships. It was issued on Wednesday, and got coverage the next day in almost all the mainstream media: The Telegraph, the Guardian, The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Daily Mail all covered it; it was discussed on the BBC and on Sky News.

“Only married heterosexual couples should have sex, says the Church of England” was more or less the headline in every paper that I read. Which was a pretty accurate summary of the statement. That is what the House of Bishops declared in this statement. And if, like me, you went on to read the actual statement itself, it spelt out the implications of that view:

  • Only married heterosexual couples should have sex. So heterosexual couples who are not married, should not have sex – even if they are in long term partnerships or cohabiting. Even, slightly weirdly, heterosexual couples in a registered civil partnership should be celibate.
  • Gay people, therefore, should not ever have sex under any conditions. If they are in civil partnerships, they should be celibate. Even if they are married, they should be celibate. And they shouldn’t be married because the church does not recognize gay marriage, even though it is allowed under the law of the land.
  • Only heterosexual married couples really should have children. But it might be alright, as a kind of second-best, for others – single people, gay people, divorced people – to look after kids, if the only alternative is long-term institutional care.
  • As far as the church is concerned, therefore, gay clergy who enter civil partnerships must pledge celibacy. And they will be interrogated on this point by the bishops; gay clergy in civil partnerships will be asked about their sex lives, and if they don’t pledge celibacy, they will be disciplined and sacked. If gay clergy enter a marriage, they will disciplined and sacked.
  • And heterosexual priests like me who bless a gay relationship can also be disciplined and sacked.

This is not hypothetical, by the way. This is the current Church of England practice. This is what they do. Gay friends of mine who are priests and have got married are unemployed as a result.

So this was the gist of the bishops’ statement. And it’s been a bit controversial, to put it mildly. I have had quite a few people emailing me with their views over the last few days, some of whom have used language I can’t repeat here and now. What are we to make of this?

Let me say very clearly: I think this so-called ‘pastoral’ statement is nonsense. I think it’s badly drafted, theologically illiterate and at points offensive. And feel free to quote me. I’m recording this. It will be up on the website.

The essence of the bishops’ views is that marriage can’t change. (When I say bishops, by the way, we’re talking about current diocesan bishops. There are some assistant bishops who have disagreed with this statement, and there are retired bishops who disagree. But so far as I know, none of our current serving diocesan bishops have distanced themselves from this statement. Some, such as the Bishop of Gloucester, have expressed unhappiness with the way in which the statement was released, and with its tone. But none have disagreed with the fundamental content.)

The essence of the bishops’ views is that marriage can’t change. And that’s that. That’s the line. Marriage as an institution has come down to us from God, and therefore, we can’t change it even if we wish to.

And I think that’s simply not true. Marriage, of course, has changed. If you read the first half of the Bible, they have polygamy – with apparently God’s approval. The patriarchs of the Old Testament have multiple wives. They have concubines. King Solomon had a harem. But we no longer share that view of marriage. We have changed our understanding of marriage.

It’s true even in the history of the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer, as some of you will know, is the founding liturgical document of the Church of England, dating from 1662, with most of it written probably in the previous century. And in the Book of Common Prayer, women had to promise their husband to obey: in fact, to obey and to serve.

It wasn’t in brackets. It wasn’t optional. That’s what the Prayer Book said. Some you will have been married using those words. And that reflected the culture of its time. Marriage was a hierarchical institution, and a patriarchal one. The man was the head of the household, and the head of his wife. And therefore the wife had to promise to obey and to serve.

And that had implications. Some of you will know there was no law against marital rape for most of English history, because it wasn’t a crime. It couldn’t be a crime, because the woman had given her consent when she got married, and no further consent was therefore required. And that only changed very recently. For most of English history, the man could be charged with other offences, but marital rape could not exist because the woman had already given her consent – because in the marriage service she had pledged to obey and to serve the man.

So we’ve changed – and for the better. We now think of marriage as a relationship of equals. In all the wedding services I have taken, I have never had a couple who wanted to use the word ‘obey’ in the vows. You can still opt for it, but the main wording has changed. And if I ever did have a couple who came to me who wanted to use the word ‘obey’, I’m not sure I would even allow it. I would certainly question pretty hard. Because that’s not where we are. That’s not what we understand a marriage to be. We’ve changed.

We’ve changed in terms of our understanding of the procreation of children. In the Prayer Book, back in 1662, the purpose of marriage is laid down in the order of service, and it states very clearly that the first purpose of marriage is procreation. That’s the main focus. Secondly, it’s ordained as ‘a remedy against sin’. And thirdly, it’s about companionship. But the primary focus is procreation.

And you might think, well, that makes sense in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is probably true in developing countries today. You need to have lots of children because half of them are going to die young. And when you get old, there is no welfare state, so you need to have children to look after you. So in any developing economy, there is a great emphasis on having large numbers of children.

But we don’t have that view today. We have changed in our understanding of marriage. It’s why the Church of England today permits artificial contraception. It didn’t always. It changed in 1930 at the Lambeth Conference, when the Anglican bishops gave their approval to artificial contraception. Before that, they condemned it. And by giving that approval, therefore, they were saying sex is not always about procreation.

And that’s a shift. That’s a change. So if you read our orders of service today, the marriage service today focuses on companionship. That’s the number one priority in our liturgy today. That’s what marriage is about. Children may be part of that. But if a heterosexual couple get married and they are beyond the age where they can have children, or they are infertile, that is still a marriage. We have changed our views on the centrality of procreation.

We’ve changed our understanding of cohabitation as well. I reckon I’ve taken perhaps 70 or 80 weddings in my time and I think in all but two cases, the couple were already living together. That is the norm. I think I’m right in saying Prince William and Kate Middleton lived together before they got married.

50 years ago that would have been a scandal. I recall a lady in a previous church where I was vicar telling me that when she was younger and went to see the then vicar about getting married, she was already pregnant and living with her boyfriend. And the vicar refused to marry her until she had undergone a period of public penitence. So she had to repent. She had to go to confession. She had to go to live back at home with her mom for three months. The man didn’t have to do anything, of course, but she had to do all of that. And if she went through that, and then came back and was truly sorry, then maybe the vicar would marry her.

But it is unthinkable for clergy today to act like that or to do that. We understand this is the modern world. Couples move in together. It’s a stage for most of them, a step on the way to marriage. But we don’t pass judgment on that. We don’t talk about living in sin.

And we are changing, too, therefore, in terms of our acceptance of gay relationships. If sex is not always about procreation, and if marriage is primarily about companionship, then we want to be able to welcome and recognize gay partnerships. We have in this church quite a number of gay people, some of whom are in civil partnerships or marriages, and they are amongst the most valued, faithful, and respected people in this congregation.

We see this in our own families. My cousin is gay. He lives here in London, and is married to his partner, and I don’t even think about it. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it before in church, and why would I? I don’t even think about him being gay – until I read a statement from the House of Bishops where they say that his relationship is second rate, that it “falls short of God’s purposes”, and suggest that he would make an unfit parent. And then I’m offended on his behalf.

I worry about what this does to our kids as well. Because what I’ve tried to teach my children is that we respect people, and we don’t discriminate. We don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. We don’t use racist language. We don’t discriminate on the basis of gender. Boys and girls are equal, and there should be equal opportunities for all. And we don’t discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Their gay uncle and his husband are no different or better or worse than their straight uncle and his wife. That’s what I try to teach my kids.

And I worry, therefore, when we get a message from our bishops which says that we can discriminate and we should discriminate. This is not a lesson I want my children to learn.

It seems to me that love is difficult to find in the modern world. And when you find it, it’s difficult to keep it alive. Relationships come under so much pressure nowadays. So when we find love, when friends of ours find love, when people in our own family find love, when members of our congregation find love – whether they are gay or straight – we celebrate their love. We rejoice with them, and we do everything we can to support and uphold them in their love.

“God is love”, it says in the first letter of John in the bible. “God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.”

As the kids would say: “End of.”

 

The BISHOPS’ STATEMENT is available online,  and here are useful links to media coverage and various reactions from across the church, including from some bishops, at the THINKING ANGLICANS website (scroll down for entries dated 22nd,  24th and 25th January 2020).

For those who wish, there is an LETTER OF PROTEST to the Archbishops you can sign online. Others may wish to write directly to their local or diocesan bishop. Contact emails for bishops or their PAs are usually easily available on the Diocesan websites.

To find out more about how you can help the campaign to make the Church of England more inclusive, visit  THE CAMPAIGN FOR EQUAL MARRIAGE, the OZANNE FOUNDATION, and ONE BODY ONE FAITH

One thought on “Why the Bishops are wrong: Marriage and gay relationships

  1. Mark Stiebel says:

    I think this might be one of the post powerful and relevant sermons I have ever read. As a lapsed Catholic I am used to having to filter out large parts of Church dogma to try and hold on to some of the underlying spiritual meaning – but its hard and when Bishops do this it makes your job ten times harder.

    Like you I don’t see my gay friends as different, but I feel very concerned that they are facing this sort of backlash in this increasingly facist world. Differences, no matter what they are – should be celebrated and embraced – that was Jesus’s message. I find your bishop’s message very alarming and ironically if you look at history – they broke from the Church of Rome – on the question of divorce and marriage and an English King had found that times has changed as had his definition of marriage. What a bitter irony.

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