Wednesday, 7 December 2011

For Magazines: Why not civil partnerships in Anglican churches?

As previously, this has been kept to a length and style hopefully suited for parish magazines and the like. The article is about 600 words. If you use it, please give appropriate credits.

Why not civil partnerships in Anglican churches? (By Rev John Richardson)

To answer this question we must first venture into territory unfamiliar to all but a very few.
 Most people imagine that this is simply a matter of ‘inclusion’, allowing the ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ minority to enjoy the privileges of the ‘straight’ majority. Church ceremonies, they believe, should be open to everyone, and indeed it is the government’s clear intention that this should be so.
But as experts in this field are well aware, things are far from being that straightforward. One such is Professor Adrian Thatcher, a Research Fellow in Applied Theology at the University of Exeter, and a strong advocate of change in church policy.
In a paper presented to the 2011 ‘Inclusive Church’ conference, he wrote as follows:
... there are other sexualities than straight and gay. Intersex, bisexual and transgender people, are generally excluded from the rigid and inadequate frameworks within which the Church discusses sexuality ...
And he added,
... sexual inclusiveness will not be complete until they too feel wholly affirmed as members of the Body of Christ. (‘Gender and the Gospel’, Nov 2011, p1)
What Thatcher says about the Church, however, is clearly the intention of others for society in general. For them, the idea that the world divides into either ‘straight’ or ‘gay and lesbian’ is already outmoded. Instead, human sexuality has a multitude of expressions.
According to Thatcher, “new research in Classics, New Testament Studies, Medical History and Queer Theory” are revolutionizing what has until now been a “sterile theological discourse”.
And if you’ve never heard of Queer Theory, you really don’t understand the current debate.
The fact is that in the long term the aim is not simply the inclusion of people in the existing institution of marriage but to go on broadening the patterns of relationships society accepts and endorses. Marriage, Thatcher notes, “is a flexible institution that has incorporated many changes”. The only question is “whether marriage can accommodate the change that some same-sex partners want” (p14). If not, then presumably other relationships will be have to be found.
It is against this background that we must understand the position of the Church of England. For Anglicans, marriage is not a “flexible” institution but a divinely ordered one, which ultimately reflects the relationship between God and his people.
What makes a marriage ‘marriage’ is two things: covenant and sex.
Where there is no covenant — no promise ‘to have and to hold ... till death us do part’ — there is either promiscuity (expressed in the prevalence of sex outside marriage) or widespread unfaithfulness (leading to divorce and marital breakdown).
Within the marital covenant, however, sexual activity is properly channelled — to bearing children and building love.
But as even Adrian Thatcher recognizes, sex is inextricably linked with reproduction: “Beings who reproduce,” he writes, “need to be sexed”, meaning they must have one of the two genders (p9, his emphasis). Thus although health issues and age may impose limits on fertility, ‘sexual’ intercourse is intercourse between two people of opposite sexes. ‘Same-sex’ sex, by contrast, is a contradiction in terms.
The Church of England has therefore taken the view that it will only recognize and bless ‘opposite sex’ unions as having the status of marriage. And insofar as civil partnerships are already widely treated as ‘gay marriage’ (as any follower of Coronation Street will know), it would thus be inappropriate for Anglican ministers to conduct them in church.
Ultimately, therefore, those who question the Church’s stance need to ask where they themselves would draw the line. The answer matters not just to us but to the future of our society.

(John Richardson blogs as The Ugley Vicar)
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  1. I would draw the line at marrying a horse. They often go to sleep standing up.

  2. I am deeply saddened that at several regular watering holes in cyberspace the threat of same-sex weddings has been discussed with gay abandon... There is much talk about ‘Same Sex Weddings in Church of England Churches’ – despite the fact there is little – if any – evidence that these are likely to come to pass in the near – or distant - future. It may surprise those eager to believe the Church is under attack from the wicked secular state that there is a good number of exemptions in place in various laws to protect religious organisations or the like from having to abide from certain aspects of Equalities’ legislation. I think it is more than likely that ‘gay marriage’ will not be forced upon the Anglican Church for similar reasons. Yet there is this strange desire to scaremonger around at present on the part of some of our dog-collared friends. At present there is not the remotest chance of gay weddings taking place in Anglican churches. But still, if we believe some people’s blogs, gay marriage is imminent.

    I do find myself wondering just what the Church could achieve if her ministers spent less time wondering about the vagaries of the future and concentrated on matters a little closer to home. Gay marriage is (both here and in the US) touted as something that will rock the foundations of heterosexual marriage and society will be ripped asunder by the allowing of such an abomination. Yet the truth is heterosexual marriage has been in trouble long before gay rights – and if we look across the herring pond the places where opposition to gay marriage is most vehement also – and ironically – happen to be the places where church attendance is highest, where Evangelical Christianity has political and social power – and yet are also the places where divorce rates are the highest (particularly and sadly among Evangelicals... ( Which I think suggests whatever ills ‘the gay problem’ is suppose to cause for straight society are probably rather mild compared to what heterosexuals seem to be doing themselves and have been doing for at least the past four decades. Of course the reasons for the rise in divorce, single parents families and cohabitation are legion - but perhaps it is just easier to have a readymade scapegoat in the shape of the homosexual and their silly little antics.

    On a personal level (as one half of a same-sex couple) I am not a great fan of ‘gay-marriage’. But I think the current ‘hype’ and resultant nastiness concerning the subject is alarming and does border on homophobia. When there are definite plans to make it law, please, please complain – fight – object. But for now it is such a peripheral issue that the right attitude for any Anglican minister of religion is to tell parishioners just how remote the possibility is, rather than whipping up ill feeling on little more evidence than rumour...

    Peter Denshaw

    1. saw blog CF tip of iceberg ask round

  3. Peter,

    Whether the line would remain steady at allowing churches to have an opt-out is not certain - but assuming it to be so, still misses the point. It still remains the case that we have a gospel of salvation and forgiveness for every kind of sinner - the greedy, for example, as well as every kind of sexual sin (such as the divorce you mention), and for love's sake - for compassion's sake, we can't sit tight in a ghetto where we are allowed to hold on to an "old-fashioned" doctrine of marriage. We still need to call people out of sin, and into the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus, and enable struggling Christians to know that the personal fight against sin matters in every area.

    That is why hostility and hatred towards those who are homosexual people is not only wrong,but counter-productive,and anti-gospel. But while we call people to new life, we must continue to declare that the old life is wrong, just as surely as when we are told that "greed is good" or "you've got to look after number one", we oppose that message (though nobody is seeking to enshrine it in law)

    Of course you won't agree that you need to be called out of anything - nor is it the main point of the gospel, which calls people first to Jesus- in the light of whom every area of life can be addressed - but it is currently a strong presenting issue.

    Dominic Webb

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. @ Dominic

    "Of course you won't agree that you need to be called out of anything..."

    It is an unfortunate trait of some Christians that they believe they know the hearts and minds of others better than they do themselves...

    Your present suffragan bishop (and near neighbour) was my former boss (I was on the staff of the church where he was vicar and later rector in Leeds for two years). Which I think is enough information to tell you I am not on the outside looking in.

    What I have written above is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour. Oddly enough something Jesus rarely comments on either - his most vehement condemnation is of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and the folly of believing one can win God’s favour by deeds enacted without love, humility and selflessness... An interesting little piece of research would be to do a search of Christian blogs and websites and compare how often Lev 18:22 is discussed and how often John 13:14 is mentioned – the latter is one of Jesus’ few commandments, yet you’d be hard pressed to find a passionate blog post on this verse and its implications – which I think speaks volumes... My comment is rooted in the spirit of Matt 5:9 & Matt 6: 34 - in that I believe it is ill advised to write about a topic that is as yet a distant, remote and as yet uncertain possibility. Particularly when the topic is so emotive.

    Revd Richardson - unlike many who write on this topic – is reasonably even handed in the challenges he presents to his readers – and no doubt his parishioners. Noting that we can’t always cherry pick our topics for opprobrium - the Bible has many verses that can and should challenge the lives of every parishioner (i.e. in matters of business and finance). Yet, I think even Revd Richardson will admit that the ‘gay’ issue is probably a little over represented in his canon of blog posts.

    My comment above is really just a friendly caution that perhaps, until there is a REAL threat of same-sex weddings being conducted in Anglican churches, that the best plan is to remain silent on the topic - Matt 5:9 & Matt 6: 34 and all that...

    I hope this clarifies my position.


    Peter Denshaw

  6. Hi Peter. I am trying to avoid getting too involved in comments at the moment, but there is just one thing you said which I want to pick up, namely this: "even Revd Richardson will admit that the ‘gay’ issue is probably a little over represented in his canon of blog posts".

    In actual fact, since the end of October, the 'canon' is as follows (ignoring posts about my new book and the latest on civil partnerships):

    1. The Bishop of Chelmsford’s Christmas appeal

    2. Germans mucking round in bulldozers

    3. The Bishop of Chelmsford leading on evangelism

    4. The lack of care in some ‘care provision’

    5. Prayer in the ‘public domain’

    6. God’s judgement and economic justice

    7. A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

    8. Cross post to ‘Clive’ cartoons on the St Paul’s protests

    9. The Aussie thumping by South Africa

    10. Magazine article on the St Paul’s protests

    11. Long comment on the St Paul’s protests

    12. Animal suffering

    13. Crime, race and statistics

    14. Human nature and Darwinian morality

    15. Whatever happened to EFAC?

    16. Cross post to article on ethics and the Big Bang ...

    17. Cross post to article by Michael Poon on Undercurrents in the Anglican Communion

    In fact for the last article on sexuality, you have to go back to the the 19th September, over two months ago. And as far as I can see, the one before that was the 27th June.

    The reason I point this out is that I have actually sought to avoid commenting on this issue since I don't want this to be a 'single issue' blog.

    I think if you compare the output to that on 'Thinking Anglicans', or even 'Fulcrum', you'll find this blog itself is quite reticent.

  7. Revd John

    Yes, I freely admit that is one of the reasons why I stop off at this blog, is because there is less discussion of the gay issue. Tho' whether it is proportionately different, is a matter of debate. In the main, even on the more reticent blogs, there is an over interest in this topic. Moreover there is also a temptation to load homosexuals with a burden many heterosexuals wouldn't/couldn't carry concerning other Biblical injunctions - how many parishioners washed their neighbour's feet this week - in actuality or a in personally and costly figuratively way (and | don't mean slipping a few pounds into a Christian Aid envelope, but hands on - get those socks off and let me at 'em)? The gay 'issue' is an all too easy means of cheap righteousness and the less said about it the better at the moment for the health of the Church. The fact that most comment is disproportional and often is accompanied by a degree of finger pointing and self-congratulation that 'I'm may be sinful, but at least I'm not queer' suggest that much comment lacks charity and self-accusation (and there is much we can accuse ourselves of and anyone who thinks otherwise has missed the point of faith in the crucifixion!).

    Thanks for this.


  8. Peter,

    I agree that we are often too eager believe we understand what other people think - I am slowly learning not to become frustrated when people attempt to deduce the whole rage of my opinions, from my words on one topic. They are usually wrong (and I hate being put in a box). I just deduced from your comment that you were one half of a same-sex couple,that you would disagree with me on the subject - I am not trying to put you in any other "box".

    Dominic Webb

  9. Dominic

    Thanks for your comment.

    There is something rather sad about much of the factionalism that is so much a part of Christian thinking at present. Though in truth this seems an endemic property of religious belief throughout history. I sometimes think Jesus’ words: ‘For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.’ (Matt 18:20 NIV) could be paraphrased: ‘Where three or four groups of Christians come together – all will say I am with them as well as noting which group they think I most certainly wouldn’t be with!’. Paul sums this up rather aptly in 1 Cor 1: 12.

    Obviously it is difficult to fully comprehend someone’s meaning from a blog comment. Yet it would appear, in your eyes, one half of a ‘same-sex’ couple denotes that a person has a very particular and prescribed (and perhaps proscribed!?) worldview. I have noted on such websites as etc. phrases like ‘the gay rights’ lobby’ and ‘the gay lifestyle’ are used as a condemnatory shorthand to mean ‘the other’ – usually something that can be easily and piously dismissed as worthy of contempt. I think homosexuality has become such a big issue for many conservative Christians simply because it is one of those subjects of easy condemnation; a ‘low investment (in that if you don’t happen to be homosexual there is little personal cost)/high return moral stance. It is something conservatives can present a united moral front – when if the subject was about other doctrinal issues, many would be at each other’s throat – and if they started looking at matters of personal morality (particularly what goes on behind closed doors or in the darker recesses of the closed mind) they’d really be into painful territory. No, thank God for queers – they are like a lightening conductor, drawing all that hatred and tension to a convenient and safe location. The Church building may be ruinous and dangerous, but as long as the lightening conductor is able to provide a safe discharge for all that atmospheric tension, it will stand for a little bit longer without the need for personally expensive scrutiny or repairs!

    As noted, I am not a big fan of gay-marriage, nor do I believe places of worship should be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies against their users’ wills. However at present it is a remote and distant possibility that ‘force’ would ever come to pass. I see much of the hype concerning ‘gay-marriage’ as yet another exercise in making a great deal of fuss about the inconsequential – more in the spirit of the lightening conductor noted in the previous paragraph than Matt 6: 34. I am sure there are far more worthwhile campaigns with which Christians could involve themselves. There is a pertinent example of this at present on the Anglicanmainstream blog concerning Tesco . There has been much that could be complained about concerning the ‘morality’ of supermarkets – esp. in light of Mal 3:5 – and the general injunctions concerning trade, commerce and employment in the Torah. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a lobbying campaign highlighting these moral evils (tho’ they have and do take place from time to time) – Tesco decides to support ‘Gay Pride’ and there is a mobilisation to lobby the company (this is a company that freely breaks the 4th Commandment by the way, without comment or censure on the part of our anti-gay lobbyists!). A case of Matt 23:24 me thinks!

    I give this as an example of just what is wrong with this current trend of factionalising – putting people in boxes is another part of the same whole. Alas, hierarchies of righteousness may make for easy judgements (and people feel better about themselves) but they seem – to me at least – far removed from the Gospel and I suspect that it is the latter that suffers in the end...