Friday, February 21, 2014

England Is Way Out In Front of Its Church

Giotto, The Wedding at Cana, from the Arena Chapel in Padua

"For once, the Bishops are being decisive, distinctive and clear about the scriptural teaching of the church and sanctity of marriage. Good on them!" -- "Benedict," a poster on a comment thread on Thinking Anglicans.

 I'm arriving late to the furious arguments over the House of Bishops' Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage from the Church of England. On a certain level, I should be indifferent to this document since I am not English and I am not part of the Church of England. However, I am Episcopalian, part of a church that claims historic ties to the Church of England and remains in communion with it. I am a gay man, so I do have some stake in this, if only indirectly. The document is long and very ecclesiastical. The UK no longer distinguishes between same sex and different sex couples in its marriage laws. The Bishops' Pastoral Guidance acknowledges that this change in England's marriage laws passed both houses of Parliament by large majorities and with the support of the government. However, the Church's practices and teaching on marriage will remain unchanged:
19. As noted above, same sex weddings in church will not be possible. As with civil partnership, some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship.
 20. The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances. The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.
 21. The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.
The Pastoral Guidance addresses clergy in particular:
26. Getting married to someone of the same sex would, however, clearly be at variance with the teaching of the Church of England. The declarations made by clergy and the canonical requirements as to their manner of life do have real significance and need to be honoured as a matter of integrity.
 27. The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.

It is widely known that the Church of England, like a lot of other churches, has a large number of gay men and lesbians in holy orders, including a few bishops.  Many of those gay clergy are already living with partners, many openly so.  Under British law, they can now marry their longtime partners.  However, they must forfeit their vocations and careers as ministers of the Church of England.

This Pastoral Guidance is being greeted with storms of protest both from gay and lesbian laity and clergy and their supporters in the Church of England, and from right wingers who think that the Bishops' statement doesn't go nearly far enough in its prohibitions and condemnations.  For example, while the statement closes churches to same sex marriage, it urges clergy not to deny communion to gays and lesbians and to same sex couples, but to remind them of the Church's teaching that the unmarried (and especially the gay) are supposed to remain celibate.  Gay clergy are also expected to remain celibate.  Those on the right in the Church point out the relaxation in the Church's regulations on divorce and remarriage over the last 50 years and see this prohibition as too little too late.  On the other hand, there are a lot of divorcees among the leadership of the conservative evangelical faction of the C of E ( just as divorce remains strikingly common among evangelical, and even fundamentalist, clergy in the USA).  Some on the very far right believe that gays and lesbians should not only be denied marriage, but communion.

I'm not an expert in matters of theology or canon law, and far better minds than mine have already weighed in on this.  For example there are the criticisms of Tobias Haller,  retired Bishop Alan Wilson, Colin Coward of Changing Attitude, and Savi Hensman.  And there are the long comment threads on Thinking Anglicans (here, here,  and here) which make for fascinating reading.  Among my favorite comments on these threads are those by Interested Observer, Martin Reynolds, Erika Baker,  and our own JCF among many others.

What fascinates me about this statement from the C of E bishops is the larger context of the rapid liberalizing of social attitudes and laws in the West (and in much of Latin America, the Pacific, and parts of the Far East) toward same sexuality and sexual minorities, and the growing backlash in the Muslim world, in much of the Global South, the southern and central USA, and in Eastern Europe.  The Church of England or any of its hierarchy has yet to make one peep of protest over the new draconian laws and mounting violence against gays and lesbians in central Africa.  I read their pastoral statement in the context of utterances like this one from the President of Gambia Yayha Jammeh:
Homosexuality is anti-god, anti-human, and anti-civilization. Homosexuals are not welcome in the Gambia. If we catch you, you will regret why you are born. I have buffalos from South Africa and Brazil and they never date each other. We are ready to eat grass but we will not compromise on this. Allowing homosexuality means allowing satanic rights. We will not allow gays here.
The Westboro Baptist Church, Scott Lively, Pete LaBarbera, and any number of mullahs would agree with this enthusiastically.  All of them advocate the extermination of homosexuals and homosexuality.  The right wing Americans cheerleading, organizing, and financing these pogroms exploit deep lingering colonial resentments against the West (never mind that Africa didn't have any prohibitions against "sodomy" until Western missionaries came).  Ironically, these same Americans are usually the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for American imperial adventures, including those at the expense of Africans.
And in the USA, Arizona is set to enact what is in effect a segregation bill aimed at gays and lesbians permitting businesses to deny them them the public accommodation required by law for everyone else.

I think the Bishops of the C of E chose to appease (or to try to appease) deeply homophobic Anglicans in Africa (and their far right American backers with all their money), the hierarchies of the Roman and Eastern Churches, and Muslim leaders over the welfare of their own charges in England; and all in the name of some kind of "unity."   It appears to me that their charges are doing just fine without them, and seem to have overtaken the shepherds in guiding and caring for the flock.  I think a very secular UK is largely indifferent to all of the factional fights in a shrinking Church of England.  The bishops' hypocrisy and mendacity on the gay issue only confirms the quaintness of the Church in the minds of the increasingly secular young; an archaic institution that has become a bastion of superstition and bigotry.  I think it is very striking, and doesn't speak well about the bishops, that only 27 out of more than 100 bishops signed a statement criticizing the Cameron government's welfare policies.  Their compassion is apparently very selective.  I don't remember Our Lord being all that particularly choosy with His charity.

The bishops created an impossible situation for themselves.  A priest somewhere in England will eventually marry his/her partner and challenge them to enforce their pronouncements.  Even if the bishops win all the legal battles in ecclesiastical and civil courts, they will have lost the war.  Public opinion will entirely desert them except for the shrinking minority of fanatics and crackpots who want to restore the anti-sodomy laws.  What little moral authority they have left in their own country will be spent.

So called champions of traditional marriage point to Christ's presence at the Wedding at Cana as the sign of His blessing upon the institution of marriage.  And yet, Christ called His apostles to leave behind wives, children, and livelihoods to Take Up the Cross.  The Gospels say not one word about what happened to their dependents. The Christian religion was created by celibates expecting to see the Apocalypse.  Saint Paul does not conceal his contempt for marriage.  He allows it very grudgingly as a concession to human weakness.  None of it will matter in the Second Coming which he fully expected to see.

Christianity is a rotten family values religion.  As its Jewish critics (like Martin Buber among others) rightly point out, it is a very individualistic religion.  Christianity's appeal is to the individual, not to the family or the nation.  The Christian community is one of individuals, not of families or clans.  If states and societies really want to create a religious foundation for marriage and family life, for the procreation of new citizens, then they should bring back the ancient Roman religion of hearth and ancestors where the family and home were literally sacred.  Take down the crucifix and bring back the Lares and the ancestral busts.

Few institutions have changed as much over time as marriage.  Polygamy, child marriage, dowries, arranged marriage, forced marriage, marriage for political alliances, all of these were once commonplace and blessed by the Church at one time or another.  We forget that people didn't start marrying for love in any great numbers until the 19th century.  The Victorian domestic ideal that still shapes many people's conception of family life is the exception in history and not the rule.  And now, marriage and family life are changing again to meet changing circumstances and expectations as they always have down through the centuries.

Our Lord said nothing about the nature and responsibilities of matrimony at the Wedding at Cana.  He was there to join a party, not to preside or preach.  The party belonged to the bride and groom, not to Him.  His act, His changing of water into wine was to save the celebration, to make the guests happy.  He made the best wine of the whole evening, and more of it than the guests could possibly drink.  The Wedding at Cana was a tiny foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven where all are joined in love and joy overflows in abundance.  The good news of the Gospel is that our salvation is already accomplished by God Himself, that we are on our way to join Him not because we deserve to, but because we are wanted.  We die alone, but we rise again together and join the Eternal Feast with God who we recognize as one of us.

The Romans saw Christians as living affronts to all that they held sacred; the gods, the Patria, and the family.  Christians were traitors and blasphemers as far as the Romans were concerned.  Philhellene Romans coined the term a theoi, "without gods," atheists, to describe the early Christians.

I say we should embrace that radical heritage.

William Blake, the concluding plate from Jerusalem


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

A superb reflection. I enjoyed seeing bits of it at Thinking Anglicans, but the whole thing holds together very well indeed! A luta continua!

By the way, have you read the "liberal" papers in the US House of Bishops Theology report. They flummoxed the "conservatives" by emphasizing an asectical discipline of same-sex marriage, not the libertine approach the conservatives were expecting to rebut. Delicious.

JCF said...

"The Church of England or any of its hierarchy has yet to make one peep of protest over the new draconian laws and mounting violence against gays and lesbians in central Africa."

OK, that's not true. Whether or not you consider the following adequate (of course it isn't!) the ABC and ABY did say something:

Beyond that---since I don't disagree w/ you Doug (and THANKS for the props!)---my only questions are about art: in the Giotto, who's the old guy w/ the halo? Is that St Joseph? And what's the Blake about? Some crazy-@ss vision of his? [In all honesty, it resembles the kind of work I've seen done by mental patients---that's no disrespect, mind you!]

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I love the Blake image. Of course I adore his poetry too. It seems this final plate is about the transformation of humanity itself into Jerusalem above.

Blake's madness is more sane than the sanity of the English House of Bishops!