Towards the back end of last year two gay friends rang me. ‘Good news,’ they said ‘we have got married, and are having a celebration, please do come.’ So, we went.
At both parties my friends asked me whether I would bless their wedding. Both sets of friends knew that I couldn’t marry them, but neither knew that I couldn’t bless their union.
This is in itself interesting because both couples are deeply involved in the life of the church, both in their parishes and further afield. They are all confirmed, regularly share in the Eucharist, offer their houses to host church events and, visit the sick. In quaint, old fashioned terms, they are obviously, demonstrably, both hospitable and charitable; their relationships are manifestly fruitful.
On both occasions I suggested to my friends that the best course of action was to hold fire and wait. I explained that the Church of England was coming to the end of a period of ‘deep’ reflection and, a that a small group of bishops had been asked to prepare a report to be presented to, first the bishops, and then General Synod.
The report, I suggested might provide a road map ahead so that their relationship, and the good fruit that grows out of it, might be formally recognised. In my heart of hearts I felt that an official blessing was unlikely, but hoped that some form of formal liturgical prayers of dedication might result from the bishop’s ‘deliberations.’ My friends agreed to wait, in fact they were happy to wait, so that ‘things can be done properly.’ They clearly didn’t share my feelings of inner pessimism. Why? Because they already experience God at work in and through their relationships.
So now I can go back and share the ‘good news,’ with my friends. I am now in a position to tell them that the bishops have met and written a report. I can tell them that report is up front in stating that all of humankind are made in the image of God and, that the Church of England wishes to affirm the integrity of this foundational scripture. In doing so I suspect that what I will be doing is leading my friends not up the church path but, sadly, the garden path, for what I will then need to tell them is that there can be no formal recognition of their union. I could seek to ‘reassure’ (but not patronize!) them by telling them three other things:
First, that the C of E recognizes the need to repent of historic (but not current) attitudes to LGBTI Christians (and non Christians?), secondly that I can offer them a couple of informal prayers and, thirdly that I will be able to give them, in the fullness of time, a shiny new, and presumably beautifully branded, teaching document on all matters relating to sexuality and, marriage.
I will also be able to offer some words of comfort by telling my friends that there really is going to be a change in tone and culture towards the LGBTI community and, that the unity of the Anglican community seems to have been preserved with the ‘executive leaders’ (for that is how they now regard themselves) of the Anglican Communion celebrating this remarkable achievement at a shindig later in the year arranged and hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now I wonder what my friends might say to me when I present to them the outcomes of the bishop’s report, and make my offer to say a few ‘informal’ prayers?
I suspect what they might say is simply this:
‘Andrew there is no good news.’
I understand that some (perhaps even many) bishops are not happy with the report, despite significant efforts to present a united front, so wouldn’t it have been better to ‘do a Birkenhead,’ asking that their dissent was noted in an appendix to the report?
Also, wouldn’t it have been fairer and more transparent to be upfront in stating that the desire to achieve some level of (apparent) unity was the guiding ethic, to which all other ethical considerations played second fiddle?
I understand that several priests have resigned their orders over the course of the last week whilst others, including yours truly, are still considering what it means to be a priest in the Church of England, at this time in (salvation) history.
The report allows for flexibility in interpretation of what constitutes informal prayer. In allowing such flexibility is it the case that the bishops intuitively understand that subsidiarity if not granted will be taken and that, de facto, the authority of the bishops and the nature of the C of E as a liturgical and episcopal church, has been undermined, paradoxically, by none other than the House of Bishops, through their insistence that apparent unity (across the Anglican Communion) must be preserved at all costs and, their resulting decision not to sanction official and formal prayers?