Marriage is a major problem for the Church of England. It shouldn’t be – after all we’re all pro-marriage – but it is. Well, when I say that we’re pro-marriage you’ll understand that I mean that we’re pro the sort of marriage that we all understood twenty or more years ago; the sort between a man and a woman until death us do part. And we still don’t have a problem with that sort of marriage. But the world has moved on – quickly.
It is less than fifty years since homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalised in England (1967). A mere 46 years later in 2013 same sex marriage was enshrined in British law while the Church of England stood by – some of us watching, some of us protesting, more than a few of us feeling left out as the so-called triple lock meant that same sex marriages could not take place in parish churches or be solemnised by Church of England clergy – and neither was it possible to bless a same sex union in church.
And that is why we have a problem with marriage. It no longer means what we always thought it meant. And although the Church has not changed its definition of marriage, so much a part of normal life in our society has same sex marriage become that already the Church of England appears to have been left behind by a society which cares little about what it thinks or does.
Last weekend the Church of England General Synod met in York. Among the things it discussed was marriage. It did so in closed sessions at the end of Synod – group meetings with about twenty members in each group with the intention of listening to what others had to say in the hope of understanding more about the breadth of opinion held within the Church. The purpose was not to make decisions to change our practice but rather to discuss the issues in a grown-up and inclusive way. There were some at Synod, though, who excluded themselves from the discussions on the grounds that they would not be party to discussions about issues that, in their opinion, directly contradict the clear teaching of scripture.
That’s a shame. Of course, we need to be true to our tradition and there is no question that scripture has an authority which we should not ignore. But, historically the Church of England has never considered itself to be a fundamentalist organisation. We base our doctrine and teaching on the threefold pillars of scripture, tradition and reason. That will always leave room for interpreting scripture in new ways when we find ourselves in a new situation. And we are in a new situation. At least, we need to have the discussion.
The General Synod will have done us all a favour if they have opened a discussion within the Church about the status of marriage. And because of the society of which we are a part that must include an open, full and frank discussion of our response to same sex marriage. Simply saying that homosexuality is a sin and that therefore there is nothing to discuss is not good enough.
Jesus in his ministry challenged that sort of attitude frequently during his earthly ministry and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Holy Spirit (always the Spirit of the times) is leading and challenging us to open our minds and our hearts. Surely we are being asked to consider whether same sex couples should be able to have their marriages blessed in church, and even whether they should be able to be married in church.
The discussions won’t be easy or straightforward. How could they be? But it seems clear to me that the Spirit will not allow us to remain as we are. Jesus was more in tune with the society of ordinary people than he was with the representatives of conservative religion. A Church which stands against society on every issue can never make its voice heard. Perhaps if we were genuinely inclusive we might be able to be heard.