The same-sex marriage debate, consuming with increasing intensity the Church of England and not a few provinces of the Anglican Communion (most recently the Anglican Church of Southern Africa) is having some synodical time-out, to coin the sporting phrase usually identified with American baseball.
The Shared Conversations, the facilitated process initially proposed in the Pilling Report, have concluded and the baton passed for now to the College of Bishops to discern and develop questions and hopefully answers. There are times when a church that regards itself as episcopally led and synodically governed needs leadership from its bishops. This is such a time, although it has not been without its critics.
Members of the General Synod, the church’s Parliament, have had nothing substantive on the table to debate as yet. How long their patience will last remains to be seen. Readers who pray might well be encouraged to find time in their devotions to commit the whole situation to God.
The debate can be viewed from myriad angles and it would take the foresight of a Hebrew prophet to know how it will proceed. However, one aspect that has so far received little comment is the extent to which the Church of England’s position as the Established Church is relevant. How should a national Church react when it finds itself at odds with the law of the land that it is committed to serve?
Not much of this is new. The Church has had to play catch up in the past, for example, with the question of the remarriage of divorcees and, more recently and spectacularly, with women priests and bishops.
The discussion turns to a large extent on what your understanding is of Establishment, an issue that is less discussed in the modern age, despite the advent of social media. It is significant that the Church of England has not participated in any kind of formal dialogue on what is meant by it being ‘the church by law established’ since the Chadwick Report in 1970.
Various developments in the relationship between Church and State have taken place since then, the principal outcome of that report being the creation of the Crown Appointments Commission, now the CNC, in 1976. The Church rightly got its way by being able itself to nominate candidates to diocesan bishoprics. Not much changed until 2007 when Gordon Brown decided to amend the convention further such that the Prime Minister now accepts the Church’s first choice of name.
With the Church appointing its own bishops, who continue to sit by right in the House of Lords (by seniority, as amended by the Lord’s Spiritual (Women) Act 2015), little else remains of the connection between Church and State, save for the requirement of Parliament, through its Ecclesiastical Committee, to declare Church legislation expedient. Of course Archbishops of Canterbury will remind us that they have a key role in administering the Coronation Oath, although given the health and vitality of Her Majesty the Queen, who has so far known seven archbishops during her reign, this is hardly a preoccupation.
Therefore on the rare occasions in recent times that the question of Establishment has been raised, it has tended to be in the context of its advantages and disadvantages to the Church of England; there has been less focus however on the duties and responsibilities. Whether or not Establishment is about the higher level issues of Church and State or the lower level issues of the parochial system, the better question is how should the Church conduct itself over issues that divide it from the nation?
The same-sex marriage debate is a prime example of such an issue.
The Church of England, as with the Church in South Africa, finds itself in a situation whereby same-sex marriage is permitted by law but its Canon Law does not permit such a development. Establishment and its relation with Parliament are such that matters of doctrine are for the Church of England alone to determine.
The questions to be posed are what a national Church should do when it is out of step with the law of the land and the people it serves, and whether this conundrum strikes at the root of Establishment. The fact is that the Canons of the Church of England define marriage, in accordance with the traditional understanding of Christ’s teaching and the doctrine of the Church, as being between a man and a woman, and would render it in conflict with statute law, but for the so-called quadruple lock.
Increasingly that teaching is being tested and challenged, both for reasons of moral logic and for reasons of different contextual interpretations of the relevant scriptures. Overall, the Church of England is being tested in relation to a doctrinal position that has as one of its consequences an apparently irreconcilable pastoral position.
The long and at times complicated relationship between Parliament and the Established Church of England is likely to be tested further in the months and years ahead. Commentators have noted the extraordinary lengths MPs and Peers went to in engaging with the debates on women priests and bishops and there is no reason to believe that there will not be a repeat of this over the question of same-sex marriage, in all its aspects. Traditionalists will resile at attempts by Parliament, which can be anticipated, to urge the General Synod to change its teaching, if only permissively, to allow clergy to bless same-sex marriages, to remove the restrictions on celibacy for clergy in same-sex relationships and, ultimately, to permit clergy to conduct same-sex marriages. There will be renewed claims of Erastianism. But the Church cannot have privileges associated with being the Established Church and not be aware of the potential for disestablishment over this issue, with all that that might imply for the mission and ministry of the Church of England.
Anthony Archer is a member of the General Synod and serves on the Dioceses Commission. He is a former member of the Crown Nominations Commission.