Saturday, 15 February 2014

When it is Time to Go

I comment on the Church of England less and less. I made a decision to leave it completely once I moved locally, and have settled on that position. I used to argue against its institutional position on just about everything (!) but retained a sort of dissenting local connection until just over three years ago. I'd go on and on about Rowan Williams standing on his head thanks to his theology: I've hardly mentioned Justin Welby. Basically, I don't care about his position.

However, after the Pilling Report has appeared, the Church of England's guiding House of Bishops have now issued a Pastoral Letter and of course people with whom I had most in common find it a statement of incredibly stacked institutional duplicity. Nevertheless, the Pastoral Letter makes a statement that is more than a form of 'collective cabinet responsibility' to be found in government, when it says:

As our statement of 27th January indicated, we are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church's response.  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.

In other words, they are all in agreement, simply so. Ah, now the next question is, 'do we believe it?' but then this would accuse them as a whole of lying, or the few we suspect don't agree agreeing for the sake of it, or perhaps the few would prefer a non-Christian or semi-Christian understanding of marriage. But again, the statement is not 'The House of Bishops' view remains that same that' but that they are all in agreement.

After all, it can be argued that the Church for all practical reasons has a semi-Christian understanding of divorce. It is more Christian, perhaps, from a different perspective, to allow remarriage of divorcees, than it is to have a set Christian understanding of divorce (which would be the Jesus view of not to permit it). I doubt all the bishops are in agreement about the flexibility regarding divorce.

So what is the practical outcome of any of this? Well, some people who are Church of England confirmed and communicant will likely have (secular or other Church) same sex marriages. These couples may then receive prayers, but also will hear teaching that what was done was against the Church viewpoint. I'm sure they will appreciate being told that something so utterly shaping of their union was naughty in the eyes of their Church.

However, such a union will be forbidden to Church of England clergy, who have to set the standard. The most the clergy can do is have a Civil Partnership (if the choice remains that long) and thus can give a direct undertaking that their love does not involve connecting any of the body's plumbing. In reality, they won't (usually) be asked because the act of having a Civil Partnership will be seen as being sufficiently one side of a fine line to avoid the question.

Now I should be clear that I support same sex marriages for all folks, and indeed same sex marriages should be taken by clergy and offered by them. It's not a big issue for me.

Where I part from those who'd agree with me, and those I agree with, is about their place in the institution. It seems clear to me that the reason the Church of England is stuck with this policy and will be is because a large constituency within it is opposed to same sex marriage. It is 'biblical' or 'traditional' (Protestant, also Catholic in a long-standing duplicity sort of way) or 'evangelical' or 'New Wine' and all sorts. These are the people who are increasingly the sectarian ballast of that Church, and increasingly concentrated in fewer mainly suburban congregations they are also increasingly directors of the money. Whether these folks are a minority or majority, the fact is that in a Church of dogmatic statements they are the dogmatic upholders: they recite the list and give it plain meaning. The most conservative of these overplay their numbers, but as the Church shrinks their proportion rises.

Furthermore, calling itself 'Anglican', and with a legacy of Empire, the Church seeks to be in communion with some of the nastiest homophobic Churches in the world. The Episcopal Church, born of a Scottish non-juror connection to the Church of England (and all that) has always been at one remove to be freer in ethical actions than the Church of England and its more 'motherly' role regarding the homophobes.

But there is choice! We here live in a liberal democracy (just about) and certainly so when it comes to the increasingly marginal activity of Churches and institutions of faith. The compulsion that the Church of England has over society continues to diminish, even if it is still too great regarding schools (with people falsely attending church to get their children into certain schools). However, there are all sorts of Churches out there now, with varying degrees of orthodoxy from the most Orthodox to the strangest of heterodox, and some of these even have bishops. You can join groups that overlap with your real beliefs to your own acceptable extent.

And if you can't find a group that fits, you can always start your own. No one will come knocking and you can do as you wish. Just get disclosure clearance as no one implicitly trusts clergy near children these days.

In other words, in the end an existing institution has the right to determine its own boundaries, and for what ever real reason as opposed to the stated reason.

Now it may be that these boundaries shift, and there is a perspective on these things that protest may cause change and that it is worth staying for the duration until the change comes about. However, on this matter, this intsitution is clearly digging its feet in: it is not going to budge on its view of marriage, and after all how can it when so many of its core supporters would be less 'pastorally generous' not more and then homophobic institutions in Africa won't accept inclusion?

The conclusion I reach, and reached long ago, is that the simple matter of having equality in this matter is not going to happen. So clergy of similar sympathy really ought to do the honest thing and leave. Your complaint, protest, moaning even, only has purchase if the institution would change, if you could bring it about. But if you can't, and you don't want to be part of the duplicity, then get out. Do what you do somewhere else.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

A different option, that I have suggested, is for inclusive priests to organise in such a way as to afford each other some sort of protection as they deliberately go against their bishops' commandments. The Oxford Movement, ironically, is the precedent I have in mind. Of course, this is messy and there will be many casualties. Unfortunately, I doubt that many "liberals" have the guts and integrity to follow such an extremist course. The term "wishy washy" is funny because it is true as Homer Simpson would say.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes, resistance is an alternative. I also doubt they have the guts and integrity. You, of course, were left with no choice but you as independent can now show a different approach.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

I don't see how the clergy can organize effectively when unelected bisops are their bosses. I suspect younger people will simply not consider ministry in the C of E as an attractive option. Those priest who are not paid by the church might have an easier time rebelling.

The gulf between the Episcopal Church, where bishops in states with equal marriage have told their same-sex-partnered priests they must marry, and the C of E has now further widened. The C of E moves backwards, while the Episcopal Church looks for ways to demand the same behavior from straight and LGBT priests.

Another issue is this notion that the faith doesn't change. A more flexible, Unitarian approach wouldn't get all worked over change.

Gary Paul Gilbert