Men and Women in Marriage and the Church of England

In 2012 the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops authorized the Faith and Order Commission [1] to produce a short summary of the Church of England’s understanding of marriage. Following the bishops’ discussion of the draft in December, the final text was authorized for publication in March and the report, Men and Women in Marriage, was released on 10 April. In addition to this work, a group headed by Sir Joseph Pilling is considering the Church’s approach to human sexuality.

The Archbishops’  foreword describes the objective of the Report as

“… to explain the continued importance of and rationale for the doctrine of the Church of England on marriage as set out in The Book of Common Prayer, Canon B30, the Common Worship Marriage Service and the teaching document issued by the House in September 1999 [2].

 It examines this through considerations of:

  • belief in God the Creator
  • marriage and society
  • parenthood and partnership
  • freedom and growth
  • State and Church in relation to marriage

The Report enlarges on the Church’s position on marriage as set out in by the bishops in 2005 “drawing on what has been said by the Church of England historically and more recently, and especially on how the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God”, ie:

“marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children[3].”

The Church’s current position on marriage is to be found in paragraph 50:

“The reality of marriage between one man and one woman will not disappear as the result of any legislative change, for God has given this gift, and it will remain part of our created human endowment.”

Perhaps the most telling statement in the document is in paragraph 26:

“Biological differences do not simply cease to matter at the level of personal relationship; persons are not asexual, but are either male or female. Their sex attains a personal meaning, as relationships are built constructively on the endowments and strengths it offers. The relationship of marriage is more personal, not less, as the partners come to it in receptiveness of what only the opposite sex can bring to their own [our emphasis].

Which seems to suggest that, notwithstanding recent statements about the value of stable, faithful same-sex relationships – such as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s acknowledgement in a BBC interview that “You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship” – the Church of England still regards them as basically disordered.

Comment

Despite its lengthy gestation the Report does not appear to clarify or advance the Church’s thinking on “men and women in marriage” and is perhaps best approached as a document for further study rather than one pointing possible directions for the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the summary of the media responses produced by Thinking Anglicans noted the “confusing headlines in this morning’s newspapers“:

Church of England gives blessing to recognising civil partnerships”, John Bingham, Daily Telegraph.

Church of England rejects blessings for same-sex couples“, Sam Jones, The Guardian

Church of England gay prayers plea“, Daily Express.

Blessings for same-sex couples rejected by Church of England“, Pink News

Gay Couples ‘Should Be Accommodated’ By Church Of England Priests, Bishop Says“, Huffington Post.

Church of England may allow ‘responsible’ gay couples to have their relationships blessed by a priest“, Steve Doughty, Daily Mail.

Marriage: a ‘gift from God’ that does not include same-sex couples, says report“, Madeleine Davies, Church Times.

The Report itself actually has very little to say about same-sex relationships (it is, after all, about marriage) other than a rather gnomic statement in paragraph 49 about

“… accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm. Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide.”

The problem, it strikes us, is this: that the Church appears to be trying to have it all ways at once. Either you decide on biblical grounds that same-sex relationships are wrong in all circumstances and stick to that (which is an entirely consistent position even if it is one that looks increasingly at odds with the views of wider society) or you decide that they are not – in which case when you try to accommodate them you run the risk of getting tangled up in conflicting arguments in the way that is currently engulfing the C of E. But seeming to suggest that same-sex relationships are not always wrong and then maintaining that, nevertheless, they are basically second-class strikes us as the worst of all worlds – and much the most difficult position to defend, whether intellectually or pastorally.

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer


[1] The Faith and Order Commission of the General Synod, (FAOC), came into being in 2010 and replaced the Faith and Order Advisory Group and the Doctrine Commission.  The FAOC advises the House of Bishops, the General Synod and the Council for Christian Unity on ecclesiological and ecumenical matters and acts as a theological resource for the Church of England as a whole.

[2] Marriage: a Teaching Document from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, (Church House Publishing, 1999).

[3] Civil Partnerships: A Pastoral Statement from the House of Bishops, 2005, para. 2. A doctrinal statement is also incorporated in the legal setting of Canon B30, stating ‘according to our Lord’s teaching’ that marriage ‘is in its nature a union permanent and life-long, for better for worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman’.

7 thoughts on “Men and Women in Marriage and the Church of England

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  5. Postscript:

    Stephen Bates of The Guardian reports that some diocesan bishops have taken issue with the Church’s which the standing faith and order commission had subcontracted to be written by two conservative academics, Oliver O’Donovan and Michael Banner.

    Criticism had been levelled by members of the Commission, conservatives in the Church as well as liberals who believed that it is badly written, incoherent and theologically superficial. Likewise, its launch was said to be “naively mishandled”.

    Significantly “John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, apologised – a very rare event – at a private meeting of diocesan bishops for the botched publication and the way the report was railroaded through.”

  6. Pingback: Forthcoming events in religion and law – Update: June 2013 | Law & Religion UK

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