February 15, 2014

Incoherent Hypocrisy

The Church of England continues not to serve its members or itself very well. The latest is a statement of pastoral guidance from the House of Bishops in response to movements towards same-sex marriage. The full text, and much comment is available at Thinking Anglicans.

I call this statement "incoherent" due to its many internal contradictions, as well as its frequent assertions that contradict both received tradition and plain sense. Not being in a mood to "fisk" it (as I've done with things like Some Issues in Human Sexuality), I leave it to knowledgeable readers to do the work themselves. Leave it at this: a church that has come to tolerate remarriage after divorce cites the teaching of Jesus and its own tradition (including the plain text of its own traditional marriage liturgy) as a reason not to include same-sex couples. It is as if we were living on Animal Farm: the values of monogamy, permanent fidelity and mutual love (which the document cites as evident in at least some same-sex relationships) can be erased from the constitution, leaving only "man" and "woman" — the crucial defining adjective "one" no longer being applicable, even, as has been noted, for the likely future governor of the church. The Bishops have hinged the sole significant virtue (fidelity and so on being all very well but not restricted to mixed-sex couples) upon heterosexuality itself. Gender has become a virtue, and virtue insignificant. And they have the gumption to call this the teaching of Christ.

The document also calls upon the notion of a higher standard for clergy. This is a notion with which I am not entirely unsympathetic, as I do think clergy ought to model behavior that attests to a moral and virtuous life. However, in this case we are back to an Animal Farm model whereby all people are equal but clergy are more equal than others, and virtue now resides not in recognizable goods such as fidelity and love, but gender. In a further astounding application of this clerical principle, a cleric can say "informal prayers" for a same-sex couple in church (though not as a special "service of blessing") but cannot be so informally prayed for him or herself — so clergy who are gay or lesbian must remain celibate (which is to say, unmarried), while celebrating (informally!) the very thing they are forbidden to enjoy (because it would be an unwholesome example to the flock before whom they've just invoked their "informal" prayer. Moreover, even that informal prayer must be accompanied by a lecture to the effect that it is all rather out of keeping with the teaching of the church — surely the church giveth and the church taketh away.) I said it was incoherent, and it is.

Moreover, citations from Lambeth 1998 notwithstanding, this requirement of celibacy for gay or lesbian clergy is not in keeping with the church's own proper rule concerning the marriage of ordained persons. Article XXXII states:

Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God's Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.
The emphasis in the last line is mine, and is intended to remind us that this is a matter of individual conscience, not to be tampered with or tempered by ecclesiastical authority.

It is distressing that a document that so often calls upon Christ should be so blind to his actual teaching, and one that cites tradition so blind to its own history. I shall pray the bishops take a trip to Damascus, and a new bright light shine upon them, as it knocks them for a loop.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

Brilliantly put, Tobias, thank you.

Anonymous said...

You know, i did not cry this morning when I read the bishops' allegedly pastoral statement, so used am I to episcopal waffling; but your reading makes me want to wail.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Whatever the claimed reasoning, the fact is that institutionally the Church covers ground that is contradictory, and it is also contradicting directly the settled if new secular view of marriage. These bishops are also taking account of maintaining relationships with some viciously homophobic Churches. Whether it is true or not, the stance seems to be that they are all agreed on their narrow definition of marriage.

If this is true, and the next two years of 'discussions' are already wasted, then surely people who have a different view of Christianity ought to leave.

It's not as if there are not other Churches, and people are free to move about and change. They have varieties of orthodoxies however understood. Some of them even have bishops.

If the Church was compulsive, like the State, then there would be no option but to protest, but this Church seems to have set out its (admittedly duplicity-laden) boundaries and surely it has that right.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks all.

Adrian, I share your perspective, and can only give thanks I am not a member of the Church of England, lay or ordained. Were I, I think conscience might well call me to withdraw. As it is, I delayed entering the ordination process in my own church until it was abundantly clear that my ordination would not have to be under a "don't ask, don't tell" regime.

The C of E seems to me to be taking a step backwards to the era of duplicity. I could well see principled ecclesiastical disobedience (on the grounds that the Church is disobeying its own rules, in terms of Article XXXII (noted above) as well as Article XX (in that it is requiring something that cannot be proven from Scripture.) I suppose a form of hopeful entryism is also possible, but the whole thing stinks.

I'm reminded of Blake, whom I would amend as follows, "The Bishops' cry from street to street, will be the Church of England's winding sheet..."

Simon Sarmiento said...

Oh yes, Tobias, thank you.

For those not familiar with Blake's original (Auguries of Innocence) it reads thus:

The Harlot's cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old England's winding sheet.

WSJM said...

I don't remember who wrote the original version of Article XXXII (I probably have a history of the Articles around somewhere, but I'm too lazy to try to find it), but I can't help but think that the backstory includes Cranmer's marriage while he was in Germany trolling for support for Henry's annulment. When he came back to England it was apparently "Don't Ask Don't Tell" for a while. On the other hand, he did marry the woman, which clearly "served better to godliness" than taking her as a mistress (which Margarete presumably would have refused to be). If we taught church history honestly, we would recognize that we have been flexible about many things over the centuries. The English bishops need to get over themselves. (As do we all.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Simon; and for reminding me of the "weave" in the actual verse... a good bit of alliteration by good William B. (one of my favorite poets).

And WSJ, that is very likely. You'll be sending me back to my copy of Bicknell to check out the backstory. There is likely a bit of Lutheran influence in this (besides the Mrs.) given the Lutheran attitude towards the civil estate...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tobias - especially for the reminder of Art.32, re the possibility of clergy marriage. My big problem about the Bishops' Statement is that it refused the Pilling advice about allowing for a 'Blessing' on Civil Partnerships. If the Bishops had allowed this in the first instance, there may not have been, now, the clamour for Same-Sex Marriage in Church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Fr. Ron.

The question of how to move forwards seems to revolve to some extent on the meaning of "lawful" in the phrase "all things lawful" when it comes to disciplining clergy who may balk and get wed. Is a pastoral direction, or even a direct admonition not to do something which is legal under the law of the state and not expressly forbidden under the law of the church, a "law." Being an American I am not familiar with the intricacies of English law beyond knowing how intricate it is! So the questions are:

Does this Pastoral Guidance have the force of law?

Is there a canon or other actionable statement in place already forbidding a cleric entering a same-sex marriage?

And if neither of these be true, does the disciplinary language of "in all things lawful" fail to meet the standard of justice and equity. From the cases cited above, it would seem not.

Please note I did not cite Article XXXXII as a "legal" point as I do not know the standing of the Articles in English church jurisprudence. (Though I'd be interested to know if they still have any application. After all, the P.G. cites the 1662 marriage liturgy.) I was instead highlighting the principle that from the time of the Article marriage was held to be a matter of conscience for the individual to frame (at the time) his life in a godly fashion.

As to marriage being a matter of doctrine, in the absence of reference in the creeds and the catechism, one might then bring in the Article on the Sacraments, which holds marriage to be "an estate allowed." One could argue that same-sex marriage is not "allowed" by Scripture, but the argument that it is expressly forbidden is not definitive, and to cite another article, only that which can be "proven" can be mandatory. In short, one can allow what cannot be proven, but only require what can be.

Sorry to bash away on the Articles, but it does seem to me we need a sort of Traditional Anglican Settlement to all of this, by allowing diversity and letting God sort out all the rest...

Erika Baker said...

Fr Ron,
I think blessing Civil Partnerships would have delayed the crisis but no more than that. Priests in particular tend to regard marriage highly and were always more likely to want to marry than be civil partnered.

The other interesting thing to watch will be what will happen to civil partnerships. There is currently a government consultation process about their future. This ends on 17 April, and then there will be a parliamentary debate whether to keep them as an option for same sex couples, whether to open them to same sex couples, or whether the abolish them entirely.

Can the church stop priests from seeking the legal security of marriage once the CP option is no longer available to them?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, I really wonder if the church can stop priests from marrying once it becomes legal. They seem to have created a tangle that doesn't help them one way or the other, either as discipline or doctrine. Seem my later post for the details...