Gay Marriage and the Church of England – it’s not over yet

If I devoted this post to a rant against the homophobic Church of England, I’d certainly be following my own conscience and I’d probably be in good company. But in fact, I think the latest kerfuffle isn’t about homophobia as such. It’s about whether it’s appropriate, or even possible, to have a state religion in a modern, Western country.

The Church of England has a legal duty to solemnise marriages. It isn’t allowed to turn you away on the grounds of your faith or lack of it, or even whether you’ve been married before – although in practice, and in a very British muddle-through way, clergy will sometimes put barriers in place to make it very difficult for couples they consider to be unsuitable to have a church wedding. Back in 1987, when I was a committed Christian and a confirmed Anglican, I decided to marry an atheist. Our rector, who knew us both fairly well, was cautious in warning us of possible difficulties that lay ahead. “As a general rule,” he said gently, “because the Christian life is so demanding, we recommend that Christians should only marry other Christians.” But when he’d satisfied himself of my fiancé’s thoughtfulness and integrity, he went ahead and helped us to devise a service that both of us could, in good conscience, accept.

Shortly afterwards we were rather surprised to receive an invitation to take tea with the Area Bishop. I’d been to university with his daughter, so it could have been a social nicety. But bishops are busy people, and it was noticeable that our rector backed right off from his promises about our wedding service after that tea party, so something was obviously said. In the end, we opted for a civil ceremony followed by a service of blessing.

I tell this story because invisible muddle and compromise is the way things are generally done in England, and nowhere more so than in the CofE. Yes, the definition of marriage in canon law is between one man and one woman, for life. But hang on a minute. What about Charles and Camilla? They’ll be the head of the Church of England before long. Will it survive that piece of double-think? If the present one isn’t resolved somehow, I think the answer might well be no.

One man and one woman for life…eventually

The trouble is, if both partners in a ceremony are of the same sex, it really is pretty visible. That sounds flippant, but it’s not. The C of E has run on the motor of institutionalised hypocrisy ever since Henry VIII decided to dump his first wife over 400 years ago. The hand-wringing crisis of conscience he apparently suffered over whether his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was lawful in the eyes of God would have been a lot more convincing if he hadn’t been besotted with a woman who wouldn’t go to bed with him until she was promised the ultimate prize, and desperate to produce a male heir. Though thousands of people on both sides of the argument lost their lives over the following decades, the end result was a compromise. Elizabeth I, who knew more than most people about the horrors of sectarian bloodshed, took a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to establishing Anglicanism as a state religion, and continued to celebrate Catholic rites in private. It worked. Excessive stubbornness in either direction would have resulted in even more horrible purges, martyrdoms and possibly a successful invasion by a Catholic country.

I honestly don’t know if the Church of England will manage to fudge this latest crisis. It isn’t necessarily beneficial to have a state religion. Ask the Americans. There are many sound reasons for separating the spiritual from the temporal. It is worth reflecting that people like a little pomp and ceremony without having to think too much about its implications, though the minority of deeply committed and spiritual people in any church may find that statement difficult to accept. In addition, too rigid a separation of church and state may well create a climate where a thousand extremist sects bloom, all claiming freedom of speech and association as their right (Again, ask the Americans).

Anyone who believes in karma will smile at the situation that the poor old CofE finds itself in – concerned that their rigid definition of custom and practice hardened into canon law may be challenged by an international authority based on the European continent. Now there’s a dilemma that Henry VIII could have related to.


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