It has become a cliché to say that the Church of England is in a mess. But a new chapter of messiness began just recently with the “marriage” of two Anglican clergymen in a festive ceremony in St Bartholomew’s church in London. One of the men is a doctor at the nearby famous St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The wedding – in grand style, with music and flowers and “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” and vows and bouquets – received widespread publicity.
At no time among any Christians at any stage since Christ himself walked this earth – or at any stage in the long years before that, of preparation and teaching by God to his chosen people – has it ever been regarded as possible or right for two people of the same sex to go through any form of marriage ceremony, or to engage on any form of sexual relationship.
Down all the centuries of Christian life, through so many different eras with great massive changes in laws and politics and dress and food and human customs, through wars and dynasties and famines and explorations, through the building and re-building of cathedrals and hospitals and schools and universities, through debates and arguments and massive splits and heresies and mutual antagonisms and fights and persecutions…through all that, and through more, through the passage of the years and the discoveries in science and medicine and engineering and technology, through changes in transport and travel and art and writing and language and means of communication, through great writings of music and drama and literature and great mapping of the stars and planets and explorations of the human mind and its possibilities…through all of that there has never, absolutely never, at any time, been any sort of recognition by the Christian Church that it was anything other than repugnant to the law of God and contrary to His plan for the human race for two people of the same sex to attempt matrimony. Until the last five minutes, that is.
|'Christ’s miracle at Cana is reversed – no long water into wine at a
wedding, but water splashed everywhere, on any sexual relationship that
humans seek to honour.'
Now, with the Lambeth Conference imminent, the actions of the clergy involved in the St Bartholomew’s debacle (there were many senior clergy among the 300 guests) make it more likely that the church will split over homosexuality and other issues, including the consecration of women bishops. A breakaway group has already held an alternative “Lambeth” in Jerusalem, declaring, among other things: “We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family.”
This isn’t a tiny obscure niggling aspect of our Christian faith. This is connected to human begetting – to the essence of how we are made, to God’s creation ordinances. Matrimony is a sacrament instituted by God, not something of our making, and done on his terms, not ours. Just as bread and wine are the “matter” at the heart of the Eucharist, so one man and one woman, united for life, are the essential “matter” of matrimony.
Why do some in today’s Anglican Church think differently? Chiefly, it seems, because it is regarded as cruel and unjust to make anyone feel uncomfortable simply because of a desire to engage in same-sex relationships. And no one wants to be regarded as cruel or unjust. So, instead, there must be a decision that, somehow, God got things wrong from the beginning, or…no, perhaps it is simply his Church which has been wrong from the very start, and the Jewish tradition in all the epochs beforehand.
This understanding brings in the idea that a new revelation came to people in America and much of Western Europe in the late 1970s, and thus now we must rewrite things and make a claim for the Anglican Church which sets it irrevocably apart from all the Christians belief of centuries. In this understanding, God’s plan for the human race is not essentially based on man and woman, there is no uniting of the two that reflects the great reality of Christ and Church, there is no mystery of marriage which draws us ultimately to the marriage feast in heaven. Christ’s miracle at Cana is reversed – no long water into wine at a wedding, but water splashed everywhere, on any sexual relationship that humans seek to honour. And the Eucharist no longer contains within its heart a nuptial mystery, but is merely a decorative feast that we can use to honour what we will.
A mess? Of course it’s a mess. And heartbreaking. The Church of England has been for many a thing of great goodness: an introduction to God, a place where the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer and the beauty of Christ’s message could be learned and loved, an institution through which the name of Christ was held high in public places. It has been custodian of some of the world’s most glorious churches. Their walls have echoed to exquisite music, and seen enchanting displays of flowers created by loving hands for God’s glory. For many, many families – and schools, and colleges, and regiments, and institutions the Anglican Church has provided a framework for the honouring of birth and death, of life’s landmarks and memories. Soldiers have been sent to God with Anglican prayers, and battle-worn flags have been hung in peaceful parish churches to honour courage and valour. Dying patients in hospitals, the lonely and the sick at home, people in prison, the bereaved, have met with kindness from Anglican clergy who spoke to them of God and led them in prayer.
This is a terrific heritage. It is something good. It is cherished and valued by many who are not themselves members of the Church of England.
And what happens now? Ordaining women was a break with the solemn tradition of the Church and has closed the door to any possible unity with the See of Peter and the Church centred in Rome. But there remained much goodwill and a common understanding of Christ and of God’s plans for human flourishing. There remained faithfulness to God’s word, and common endeavours to spread it among people everywhere. But now this is going too.
For the immediate future, things will muddle along. Compromises will be made. A structure of sorts will remain intact. Some bishops will formally break communion, and there will be wrangles over property. Those who adhere to the traditional and orthodox teachings will be deemed the rebels. There will be factions. Meanwhile, quite apart from the debates about homosexuality, other issues will continue to cause splits. Some provision – inadequate, muddled, slightly illogical – will be made if and when women are consecrated as bishops.
Probably, various forms of Anglicanism will continue for quite a while yet. Some will be very good, and much will be compromised and pointless. Decent men and women will be confused, and the great mass of people in Britain – unchurched, untaught, in a culture dominated by a celebrity-obsessed media and much vulgarity – will drift further and further away from even the folk-memories of Christ that they have at present.
Can one same-sex wedding ceremony in a London church cause all this? Of course not. The problem is a much larger one. It wasn’t just one iceberg that caused this shipwreck. This is about church authority and whether it exists or not. It is about how true doctrine is preserved and safeguarded. It is about our understanding of God, and how much authority he has and how we can discern what is his will and what isn’t, and whether it matters.
The people within the Church of England who love the scriptures and are convinced that there are deep unchanging teachings, are on the right path. The Anglicans who simply love their church and ache for the days when things seemed simpler and issues such as same-sex marriage didn’t seem to arise, have a right to a spiritual home and good guidance. The sincerely confused, who went along with women priests and will accept women bishops too and vaguely feel that endless changes are somehow creative, need a vision which is larger and stronger and points to ultimate truth.
How will God provide for all these people? We don’t know, but he won’t let them struggle without aid in the stormy seas of the 21st century. He seeks out his own. Keep members of the Church of England in your prayers. The story isn’t over yet.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.