THE dust is settling on the recent decision by the Church of England Synod not to permit same-sex marriage, but rather to allow clergy to bless the couple after a civic ceremony. So I think it is time to review the decision and the underlying issues.
In our increasingly secular society many will regard this as an irrelevance given the far more serious events in the world, and that the C of E should simply get on with it and reflect what society in general has already accepted. I beg to differ. I think that this is a far more important issue than many think. However the real issue facing the C of E is not same-sex marriage and other gender matters, but the Church’s view of the Bible. This is key to understanding the controversy.
There are three main groups within the C of E: the liberals, the conservative evangelicals and the traditionalists.
The liberals were heavily influenced in the early twentieth century by theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and so-called higher biblical criticism. Broadly they view the Bible as a text to be studied critically, and they view it through the lens of our current culture. So if cultural norms change the biblical text must be reviewed, revised and, if necessary, rejected.
The conservatives take the opposite approach. They view the scriptures as God-inspired and authoritative, and view our culture through the lens of the Bible and hold society accountable to this.
The traditionalists who lean to a more sacramental approach to the faith tend, in my experience, to swing either way, although it is interesting to note that the vast majority of female priests are liberal in outlook.
The two views are completely incompatible with each other and reconciliation is impossible. This is borne out by the Synod’s response to the extensive consultation on the paper ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) which was circulated to C of E churches in October 2020.
The blunt reality is that no consensus view on same-sex marriage could be reached, resulting in the compromise proposed by the bishops and ratified by the Synod. This satisfied no one and resulted in extensive criticism by both sides.
This is far from the end of the matter, as I am sure both sides know. I think, in fact, that it is a significant win for the liberals, and although an unsatisfactory compromise at present, the direction is set and in my view within five years or so the C of E will accept same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Welby has been in the role for ten years, and is clearly struggling to keep both sides together. But fence-sitting is never comfortable and I am sure he will announce his retirement fairly soon. By background he is a conservative evangelical, and by custom the next Archbishop will be selected from the liberal wing of the church, probably the Archbishop of York who is a strong supporter of same-sex marriage in the church. When this happens the inevitable will result.
In addition there is a faction of MPs who wish to see the C of E reflect society’s values, led by Sir Chris Bryant MP, who was previously an Anglican priest. Since the C of E was established by statute (by Henry VIII) it is subject to parliament, and indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury is formally appointed by the Prime Minister. So there will be strong political pressure for change (some might call this political bullying).
The response of the conservative evangelicals is informative. The parochial church council of All Souls, Langham Place, perhaps the largest and most prominent evangelical Anglican church in the country, wrote to the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, before the Synod debate stating their misgivings about the contents of LLF, and announcing that they proposed to pause payments to the diocese of London pending final action on LLF. The compromise solution, it is asserted, although in theory does not support same-sex marriage, it does in practice.
Where All Souls goes, others will follow. In fact the late Mervyn Tinker, vicar of the largest Anglican church in Hull, led his congregation to secede from the diocese of York over sexuality and cultural battles. What I am saying is that I believe that serious schism is now inevitable in the C of E, and same-sex marriage is the trigger.
This will have significant consequences. Many parishes with small but faithful congregations currently struggle with severe financial problems, sometimes so serious that there are clergy lay-offs or vacancies deliberately unfilled to make ends meet. This has been highlighted by the organisation ‘Save the Parish’. In contrast the large evangelical churches are far more prosperous and they frequently support smaller parishes, both with finance and personnel. If more of these secede from the local diocese, the plight of the smaller congregations may become more severe.
Again the secular world will ask: does this matter? I believe it does for a number of reasons, of which these are some.
First, almost every aspect of our Western culture is based on Christian doctrine as revealed in the Bible. Chuck that out and what has been put in its place? Atheistic humanism did not prove very successful during the nineteenth century (think Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc and the millions who died as a result). We now have woke ideology with no hope of forgiveness or redemption, along with cancel culture and equality, diversity and inclusivity (as long as you sign up to every woke doctrine). Is this the best we can come up with? If you hack away at the roots of our culture soon the fruit will start to die.
Next the relationship with the Anglican communion throughout the world will be comprehensively destroyed, especially with the African churches which remain deeply conservative, especially on issues of sex and gender. This already happens to some extent due to the organisation GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference. This is a global network of conservative Anglican churches set up in 2008 in response to what they saw as the growing theological crisis around issues of sexuality in some parts of the church, and a departure from biblical truth. The latest Synod decision will reinforce this view and further promote schism. The arrogance of Western thinking on these issues which insist that our values are the correct ones and that other cultures must embrace them is simple colonialism in another form.
Last is the effect on traditional marriage, and more seriously the effect on children. Successive governments have been undermining marriage in the UK for decades. Cohabitation has increased by 144 per cent since 1996, and the children of such couples are three times more likely to see them separate before their fifth birthday.
Every single metric shows that children from cohabiting or single parents do significantly worse than those brought up in a traditional stable marriage between a man and a woman. By ignoring this we are inflicting incalculable damage on the younger generations. Visit any sink estate in any town or city and you will witness gangs of feral youths on the streets with associated drug taking, violence and knife crime. We, as a society, are already paying a bitter price for this and the Church of England’s refusal clearly to endorse traditional marriage is another nail in the coffin.
The Church of Scotland and the Methodist churches are further down the road on this matter than the C of E. Both are witnessing a catastrophic collapse in their congregations and their future survival over the next few decades is doubtful. Although I am not an Anglican I believe, with sadness, that the Church of England will follow. The irony is that the latest census estimated that only 3.1 per cent of the population identify as LGB and, given the increased secularism in our society, the number of same-sex couples seeking to marry in church must be vanishingly small.
There is a sad little story in the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament concerning the High Priest Eli and his two sons who openly lived sexually immoral lives. The Israelites were at war with the Philistines, and things were going badly for them. So they sent to Shiloh and brought the Ark of the Covenant back to the battlefield as a sort of talisman, the Ark symbolising the presence of God. However God was obviously not with them and things went from bad to worse. The Philistines triumphed, capturing the Ark in the process. Eli’s sons were both killed.
When the news was brought to Eli he fell back in shock, broke his neck and died. His daughter-in-law, in advanced pregnancy, learned of this and went into labour, delivering a son. She also died, but before death she named her son Ichabod, meaning ‘without glory’ saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel.’
I believe that Ichabod will be inscribed on the door posts of many Anglican churches in the UK.