For a brief period we are back in the green season. Candlemass falls at he beginning of this month and Ash Wednesday sees the month out. A little respite before the rigours of Lenten fasting take over. Meanwhile, I write this as the United Kingdom eases itself out of the European Union and British Nationals are brought home from China in the hope that, following a period of quarantine, the Coronavirus has escaped them. (I never thought that I would hear Arrowe Park Hospital mentioned in the news. Being my local main hospital when I lived on the Wirral, I can guarantee that that is the correct spelling.)
February is the month of the spring meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England. This is the last London meeting of the present synod – that body of bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people who are the decision-making body of the Church of England. Elections will take place later this year. The final session will take place in York in July. A new synod will be inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen in the autumn and the opening eucharist (mass) celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in nearby Westminster Abbey. I have been a member of the General Synod for the present quinquennium (five years) and it has been an interesting time. During that period there have not been the fierce and emotional debates about the ordination of women and the introduction of new service books. A great deal of what has been discussed has been, quite frankly, booring but necessary for the well-being of the Church of England. Perhaps the most emotive have been the discussions around same-sex relationships. In recent years, same-sex marriage has arrived on the secular scene and civil partnership has been extended to heterosexual couples. How does “the church” view these developments?
For the Roman Catholic Church, the situation is relatively simple. Marriage is a sacrament which binds a couple of the opposite sex in a union which lasts for their earthly existence. It is to provide the setting for the birth, care, and nurture of children and the well-being of the couple concerned. Divorce is not possible but the annulment of the marriage is. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the couple entered into a flawed relationship, then that relationship can be declared (by the Church) to be null and void and the people concerned free to remarry.
The Church of England has a more complex understanding. Until a few decades ago, there was no possibility of a previously married person remarrying in church unless their previous marriage had been annulled. The only grounds for annulment was the non-consummation of the marriage. There was a debate about divorced individuals being granted the freedom to remarry following a diocesan investigation into the causes of the divorce. (This raised the whole question of “guilty” and “innocent” parties.) The decision was taken to leave the decision to marry divorcees in the hands of the parish priest in conjunction with the Parochial Church Council. This, inevitably, has led to the accusation that some (horrid) clergy “won’t” marry divorcees while (nice) clergy will. What is forgotten is the belief that God and the couple make the marriage and that the unmaking of the marriage is not simply a matter of a Court of Law but of God and His Church. In other words, priests can’t marry divorcees, not won’t. (It is not unlike a priest being asked to provide adult baptism for a person who was baptised as a child. It is simply not possible. Baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament.)
Now we have the situation with the Church of England accepting same-sex couples but being very clear that there must be no sexual interaction. This is the position stated in a recent document from the House of Bishops about the nature of civil partnerships. Clergy are now being accepted as having same-sex partners while the demand is being made that that relationship must remain celibate. Curious that no questions are asked, as far as I know, about the individuals belief in the divinity and resurrection of Our Lord.
Marriage is always going to be something of a dilemma in a Church which operates in a pluralistic society. Marriage came before the Church. It took on a specifically Christian understanding as Christianity became the dominant religion. Is there now a distinction between Christian marriage and secular marriage? Has the advent of same-sex marriage changed the very nature of secular marriage which, itself, took much of its understanding from its Christian antecedents? It is for that reason that some heterosexual couples want a civil partnership and not marriage because of the so-called “cultural baggage” and expectation which goes with any form of marriage?
Doubtless the next General Synod will have to embrace these thorny questions. Will anyone get hurt? Will anyone rejoice? Wait and see.