Marriage Equality's Arrival Shows Who Counts In the Church OF England

The Church of England is about to be in a very awkward position of showing who counts and who doesn't. On the one hand the whole worlds is watching as the leaders of this church wrapped themselves into a pretzel to meet the demands of conservatives who reject the idea that a woman can serve a priest or bishop. On the other we all see these same leaders in accomodation refuse to allow individual bishop, priest,  or congregation any freedom in deciding whether they will bless same sex marriages.

This is what millions of people across the UK now see: while the Church of England dithers and stumbles toward allowing women to become bishops, the church adamantly refuses any accommodation to clergy who as a matter of faith believe they should marry same sex couples. Once again, the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown he cares deeply about protecting the religious views of conservatives who refuse to ordain women while he also cares not a wit for protecting the religious views of those who would bless same sex couples. And that is why the crea at Lambeth Palace is leading the Church of England into a period of increasing irrelevance and decline. That’s what happens when you choose the wrong side of history.

“When the clock strikes midnight on Friday, gay and lesbian couples across England and Wales will begin exchanging vows as a historic law legalizing same-sex marriage finally comes into force,” reports The Inquirer. Inevitability the arrival of marriage equality will also bring a wave of challenges to the Church of England’s policy banning any blessing of same sex couples in any of their churches. Some clergy have promised to marry same sex couples in their churches, some gay and lesbian clergy are planning to marry and live as married couples, and on the other side of the issue some are gearing up for what they hope will be a successful inquisition to drove more and more LGBT clergy from the Church of England. All in all it is looking to be a bit of a debacle as the Church of England lumbers farther along into irrelevance and arcane theological distinctions.

In fact, the conflict has already started - this week’s Church Times carries a report by Madeleine Davies headlined Bishops start quizzing their clergy that reports:

“Gay clergy have this week been describing the ramifications of the pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage, issued by the House of Bishops last month. Bishops have begun meeting gay clergy, at least five of whom are reported to be planning to marry…”

The report continues: “The Vicar of St Mary with All Souls', Kilburn, and St James's, West Hampstead, the Revd Andrew Cain, said on Tuesday that speaking publicly about his plans to marry his partner of 14 years ( News, 21 February) had resulted in an "uncomfortable" meeting with his bishop, the Rt. Revd. Peter Wheatley, on Wednesday last week.” I can’t imagine why the meeting was the least bit uncomfortable – after all the vicar had his union rep there and the bishop had his top HR person. Doesn’t sound like much of a pastoral response to me, but as Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?”

But it’s The Church Times article by The Rev. Dr. Will Adam that really steps you head a buzzing. Let’s say the bishop wants to respond to a vicar who – against the Bishops’ dictates – blesses a same sex marriage. You might think that would be a disciplinary case – but not in England. As Adam points out: “This question falls outside the scope of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, as it concerns things doctrinal or liturgical. The relevant statute remains the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.” So now instead of a simple case of disobedience a poor bishop has to deal with a case that goes before the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved. As Dr. Will observed “There is a great deal at stake: mission and pastoral care in parishes, the ministries and livelihoods of the clergy, the mission and peace of the diocese, finances, and, in the words of Section 42(7)(a) of the 1963 Measure, "the interests of the Church of England". A test case may well come. Until then, we are all sailing in uncharted waters.”

The real damage, though, is being done to the Church of England’s standing with people across the UK. In the House of Commons marriage equality passed with a majority of 225 votes. A recent poll found “three in five people of faith support government plans to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples, despite a vitriolic campaign against the proposal by some faith leaders.” If 3 of 5 people of faith support same sex marriage while the Church of England does not, then many may just move to churches that see marriage equality as a matter of faith.