There Can Be No Half-Way House on Marriage Equality

by the Revd Andrew Forshew-Cain, Interim Chaplain at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford and former member of General Synod

Andrew Forshew Cain

Civil Partnerships have been in the news again, and it has got me reflecting on them, and their part in our journey towards a fully inclusive Church.

Personally, I had hoped that the government would decide to abolish Civil Partnerships entirely. Admittedly that was simply because I knew that it would force the Church of England into having some difficult discussions, but I happily acknowledge that if Civil Partnerships are going to exist then they have to be available to everyone, and an injustice has been removed by extending them to straight couples.

But I don’t think that the extension is going to do much for the struggle for full equality for those of us who are gay or lesbian within the Church.  In my view, the only possible logical response for the Bishops is to issue a statement reiterating the position that the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains unchanged, and that any straight couple in a Civil Partnership considering ordination will be subject to the same rules as any co-habiting straight couple or gay and lesbian couple in a Civil Partnership. Marriage is for straights, and sex is for straight marriage. Those are the rules, even if many of us are fully aware that those rules aren’t evenly applied.

The other recent development, this time in the Church in Wales, is perhaps more concerning.  It may be that I am misreading the signs there, even whilst being fairly sure of the problems ahead of us here in England.

The Governing Body of the Church in Wales has voted by a substantial majority to task their Bishops with looking at ways of making ‘formal provision’ for people who are in ‘committed same-gender relationships.’ The Archbishop of Wales has said that not to do so is “unsustainable and unjust”. He is not wrong  and the Church in Wales is right to look at this. We have to be hopeful that their Bishops will come back in due course with a way forward that honours and respects the reality of so many gay and lesbian Christians’ lives, and at the same time protects the conscience of those for whom any change will be difficult.  The Welsh Bishops deserve our prayers, and they are fortunate to have the model of the Scottish Episcopal Church to draw on.

In the Scottish Episcopal Church the decision was to amend the Canons and then to allow individual parishes and clergy to opt into the ability to offer marriage in their church to any couple approaching them, gay, lesbian or straight. Those who in conscience can’t do so can simply not register,  although they have been asked to signpost gay and lesbian couples who approach them to other local Episcopal Churches which do. Both traditional and modern understandings of marriage are therefore officially recognized.  It’s a simple solution and one that appears to be working.

Here in England we are waiting to see what will come out of the process of preparing the Bishops documents under the banner of ‘Living in Love and Faith’ in 2020.  In my mind, it is inconceivable that the Bishops will not also conclude that it is ‘unsustainable and unjust’ to offer no provision for committed faithful gay and lesbian couples in Church.

But what I am expecting from the Church of England, and possibly also in the Church in Wales, is not the “full monty” of equality in terms of marriage, but some form of half-way house that extends the allowance of ‘informal prayers’  after marriage or Civil Partnerships – which is the current Church of England position. In Wales there have been specific prayers available for some time, issued a few years ago by Archbishop Barry, though they lack the official approval of the General Assembly.

However, if this does happen then I for one think we need to say “No. not good enough!”

In fact, I believe we in England will need to campaign vigorously to have any such proposal rejected if it comes to General Synod, and I would hope that Welsh activists might respond similarly in their own rather different situation.

It’s perhaps not widely known that LGBTI activists in the Scottish Episcopal Church actively campaigned with their conservative colleagues to defeat a proposal to provide services of blessing for Civil Partnerships in the Scottish Episcopal Church. They did so of course for different reasons.  The LGBTI activists were absolutely clear that the goal, and the only goal in their mind, was marriage equality.  Nothing less would suffice.  Interestingly they did so whilst at the same time offering those very services, without official permission, in their parishes.

It is my strongly held conviction that the problem with the ‘any step on the journey helps’ approach is that some steps lead to dead ends, and that is the danger with any proposal that isn’t full equality.

I am not a member of the Church in Wales, and therefore my opinion on what that Church should do carries little weight. None the less I hope that those there who seek full equality will consider carefully how to respond if their bishops come back to the General Assembly with anything less than full equality.

Here in England we should also be prepared to say an official “no” to services of thanksgiving and blessing after civil marriages or partnerships even as an increasing number of us continue to do this unofficially in our parishes.  We should say no to an official liturgy or prayers not to say that we are going to stop offering those services in the interim, but so that we do not get distracted from the ultimate goal which is full equality in marriage and ministry.

The struggle for that ultimate goal means being brave enough to refuse to accept anything less – however well intended. Refusing to accept a half-way house would send a powerful message. It would underline that we are seeking full and equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples in marriage and ministry and that a side step is not acceptable.

We would then have to continue the pressure for that equality of treatment, ensuring that in every conversation, in every debate, in every way possible we keep making our point that the current situation is ‘unsustainable and unjust’.

We must not rest until it is possible for any lesbian or gay couple, ordained or not, can walk down the aisle of their local parish with as little fuss, and as much joy and happiness, as any couple on their wedding day.

 

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12 Responses to There Can Be No Half-Way House on Marriage Equality

  1. Carys Underdown says:

    If you’re going to comment on the processes of another Province, it is more credible if you get the terminology correct. The Church in Wales does not have a General Assembly it has a Governing Body

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  2. John says:

    Interesting article Andrew. I would say that Bisexuals enter same-sex marriage too, and so in terms of inclusive speech, lets either explicitly mention them or refer to same-sex marriage and all who desire to be married to someone of the same sex.

    I am not bisexual myself, but know friends who are hurt when it is a kind of gaysvandvlesbians vs. the straights scenario. just as we get annoyed when we have the Christian vs LGBT .

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  3. Thank you for your article, Andrew. Just note though that it isn’t quite the case that Scottish Episcopal clergy blessed couples without official permission. In fact, I never blessed any couple without permission from my bishop. In the case of the first such public blessing that I performed, my bishop insisted on giving that permission in writing and insisted that I carry the letter saying so in my pocket on the day.

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  4. Tina Beardsley says:

    And of course, some trans and non binary people are also unable to marry in church at the moment because they and their partner are legally of the same sex.

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  5. Christina says:

    The question of whether to advocate blessings/liturgies after civil partnerships or demand nothing but equal marriage is reminiscent of the argument about how to get an equal age of consent (in England, Wales and Scotland) Some people wanted no compromise – I have a sticker saying “16 or bust” – and others pushed for 18 as a staging post to 16, which it was, only 6 yrs later and in the meantime some 18-20 yr olds breathed a bit easier. We will achieve marriage equality eventually. Meanwhile, some couples would value a service with an authorised liturgy, which is probably achievable sooner..

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    • Kate says:

      Can it be achieved sooner? I am not so sure.

      If it became permissible to marry same sex couples within the Church of England without marriage equality, the provision in the Equality Act 2010 allowing the Church of England, its bishops and ministers, to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation would have to be retained. Otherwise, any couple turned away by a minister could sue for discrimination.

      Retaining the exception would leave same sex couples in the same sort of legal limbo as trans people presently suffer. One danger, for example, is that upon change of diocesan bishop, clergy in the diocese in same sex relationships could suffer discrimination from the incoming Bishop without legal protection against it.

      Theoretically the legal situation could be patched up but those LGBTI Christians who are following the events at Christ Church College in Oxford might reasonably have concerns that complicated provisions might prove ineffective in practice.

      I also recall the fear of women when Philip North was proposed as Bishop of Sheffield. That open sore hasn’t been fixed. We still have the question whether a woman could become Archbishop of Canterbury. How about a gay priest in a same sex marriage, could he become Archbishop of Canterbury? Or will discrimination just be tacit and covert? And what of an Archbishop of Canterbury implacably opposed to same sex marriage? How would he work with a gay Archbishop of York?

      I think many people are aware of the time bombs relating to the elevation of women to archbishoprics. Absent true marriage equality, we just risk the same for same sex marriage.

      I think Andrew is right in this regard. The Equality Act 2010 has to be amended to prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment or sexual orientation within the Church of England. Any other change is a paper tiger which might be circumvented by opponents. Put another way, I don’t see a fully stable outcome short of marriage equality.

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  6. Pingback: Opinion – Thinking Anglicans

  7. Anonymous to protect my priest and our church ministry to our community says:

    Sex outside of marriage either is, or is not, a sin.

    To bless civil marriages, but to refuse to carry out marriage in church, is inconsistent.

    It is abundantly clear that a growing number of local churches, their PCCs, their congregations, affirm LGBT relationships and want to exercise their consciences and marry non-straight couples.

    For the church hierarchy to keep blocking equal marriage is theological domination: the domination of one group’s conscience over another group’s conscience.

    It is absolutely obvious that the Scottish model respects conscientious belief, and yet maintains respect for individual church communities who conscientiously oppose gay marriage.

    For myself, as a lesbian Christian, I am marrying my girl in church regardless of what the Law or the Archbishops say. We do not live in sin. My church doesn’t believe that, my priest doesn’t believe that, my PCC doesn’t believe that. So we shall have a full wedding ceremony, and reception, and only incidentally, we shall sign some legal document somewhere else.

    Our marriage is a sacrament, its vows to be made before God and God’s people in our community. Justin is ‘not sure if gay sex is a sin or not’. He can hesitate. We will not.

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    • unholyjoe says:

      So, just to be clear, I understand that you regard both hetero and homo sex outside a church marriage (even if within another other form of committed relationship) as a sin? And both within a church marriage as not a sin?

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    • unholyjoe says:

      (Answer to your latest post.)

      The subject is not love, per se. You were discussing when SEX is a sin. Hence my question.

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