A critique of the Bishops’ Report
I welcome the Report of the Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality upholding of the doctrine set out in Canon B30. It is to be noted that this Canon is not just about marriage being between a man and a woman but also about its lifelong nature, the birth and the nurture of children and the ‘hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affection’. This cannot go hand in hand with wanting to make pastoral provision for public prayer for those in others kinds of relationships.
I miss any treatment of a biblical anthropology in the document and, even more, of the detailed work both of biblical scholars and by the Church of England of the biblical material as set out, for example, in Some Issues with Human Sexuality (Church House Publishing, 2003). Although Scripture, tradition and reason are mentioned as a ‘classic Anglican triad’ the primacy of Scripture is not affirmed. Instead, the report, mistakenly, invokes ‘provisionality’ in theology, although Lambeth Conferences have done this only in relationship to ecclesiology.
We are told repeatedly that pastoral provision for same-sex couples is required, that those in committed relationships should be affirmed and that guidance should be issued for clergy to ‘shape prayers’ for those entering same-sex relationships. How will such prayers be different from public liturgy and how will they relate to the marriage service and the Church’s teaching on marriage? The precedent and parallel of the Service of Prayer and Dedication for the divorced entering a further marriage is tellingly invoked. All of us know how this has led to further marriage in church becoming common-place, whatever the original intention may have been.
The Report, again and again, tells us that clergy will have to uphold the teaching of Canon B30 in their own lives. But the point of this, in the Ordinal and in Canon C26, is so that they may be examples to their people. What value will this have if lay people are permitted to depart from Canon B30’s teaching on marriage and the clergy are given guidance on how to officiate at such departures?
The report tells us in several places that the Church’s teaching has to be related to a fast-changing cultural context but makes no value judgements about the desirability of such change nor to the principles of development which should guide our engagement with culture.
In the useful Annex on legal issues, option 8Cii and 13d need to be watched closely as they could lead to the Church permitting the celebration of any relationship if it is not understood as ‘holy matrimony’ in the sense of Canon B30. The latter would, of course, be limited, to heterosexual couples eligible to marry.
The thrust of the report seems very much to be that there should be no change in doctrine but that there should be a change in pastoral provision and in the public prayer for those entering same-sex unions. The question is, of course, when does ‘usual practice’ become teaching, especially when provision is made for public prayer. As Anglicans and other Christians say, ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’. The biblically orthodox members of General Synod will do well to affirm Lambeth 1:10, both in its declaration of God’s love and the Church’s care for those who experience same-sex attraction and in its refusal to provide for the sanctioning of unions which do not reflect God’s design for human beings as set out in Genesis 1 and 2 and Our Lord’s teaching in Mark 10 and parallels.