I am trying to work out what the response should be to clergy who marry their same sex partners. The highest profile was Jeremy Pemberton who was refused a licence to take up his appointment as a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. This led to an employment tribunal case which he lost last month. There may be an appeal. This week another case has come to light as the former Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral has been refused a licence in the Diocese of Winchester after he married his partner of 30 years. Whatever anyone may think, these men cannot be accused of lacking fidelity and faithfulness in their relationships. Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz with anger at how these men have been treated.
The Church of England has a very clear definition of marriage which is enshrined in the Canons (laws governing how the church operates and because it is established these are the law of the land too). The definition is also set out in the marriage service. It is clearly stated that marriage is the union of ‘one man with one woman’. There is no ambiguity about it, so like it or loathe it, those who act outside of that are directly going against a clear statement of doctrine. This of course is now against the general law of the land which allows same sex marriages. We have the strange position of two laws saying different things.
A further complication here is that there is a rising mood in the church for change and there are strong voices that oppose any change. This is not news, but it is news to journalists who think that ‘official’ statements are the only word. Every church I have been vicar of has included people in same sex relationships and the parents of those who are. They are loving and caring relationships and I came to view them as blessing and blessed a long time ago. But I recognise that this is not yet where the church is officially.
Anyone who enters into a same sex marriage is going against where the church is at the moment. The angry response shows just how passionately many want change. And change is often brought about through conflict. Each time someone is refused a licence, the bishop’s permission to function as a clergy person, the volume rises. Each one is a pounding of the walls of the current position and my guess is that in time those walls will not stand up to this barrage. A law that is either ignored or widely condemned is one ripe for change.
There is certainly a call for change, but it hasn’t yet happened. Nor is there a proposal under consideration. What there is are shared conversations which aim to do some ground work for a future debate. That ground work aims to mean different voices hear one another and understand where the other is coming from. While these are taking place each marriage, each licence refused and the response becomes a marker on the way. The pressure mounts.
There is one aspect that is not often commented on. Converting a Civil Partnership to a Marriage is being treated as a bureaucratic exercise. There is no exchange of vows. For Christians marriage is more than a piece of paper recording a legal contract. It is a covenant between two people and forms a union that is a coming together to make a new entity and identity. It may be for this reason that Christian clergy want to enter into a marriage not just rest with Civil Partnerships, which do not raise the same concerns over doctrine or discipline. Many find that hard to understand; if Civil Partnerships are acceptable why not marriage, but they are not the same, otherwise why bother making the change.
I don’t know if writing this will rule me out of being a bishop – a recent document on the selection of bishops says they can take account of what people have written on this. I’m not on anyone’s list for such jobs any way, so there’s no loss there. I wouldn’t relish having to make the call on this. It is difficult to see how given the official position of Canon B30 a licence could be issued. Living through times of transition is never an easy place to be.