Thought for the Day, 15 February 2011 The Rt Rev. Tom Butler

People are getting very exercised about the rumours that the regulations concerning civil partnerships are to be changed to allow religious readings to be included in the ceremonies, and indeed to allow the ceremonies to take place in churches. The reason, of course, why religious input was excluded in the present legislation was because the then government was insisting that civil partnership ceremonies must not look like weddings because they are different. In fact in the popular media and more generally they are now usually referred to as gay weddings, and so it’s not very surprising that it’s now being proposed to lift the restrictions. Some denominations are welcoming this, The Church of England at the moment is not amongst them.

The issue raises an important question as to the nature of the Church of England as the Established Church of the land. For many centuries now, it seems to me, the Church of England has acted as a bridge between the contemporary beliefs and attitudes of the people of England, and the traditional beliefs and values of the Christian Church. At times, such as over the question of the abolition of slavery, this has meant that the Church, or at least parts of it, has been ahead of public opinion, at other times, such as over the question of the remarriage of divorced people in church, the Church, or most of it, has been behind public opinion. The role of bridge has been important, however, because it has helped Church and nation to eventually come to a, more or less, common mind, and then move on. To do that effectively, particularly over divisive issues, a church bridge must be both flexible and firm.

Over a decade ago I gave the sermon at the service in St Paul’s Cathedral marking the opening of the new Millennium Bridge, a wonderful construction bridging the river Thames and drawing the more traditional City of London to its exciting, dangerous and entertaining shadow, the South bank of the river. Given the civil engineering conditions it had to be a flexible bridge, but it proved to be a little too flexible, because as the first people began to cross, it began to sway rather alarmingly, and a week later it had to be closed. The designers got to work damping down some of the flexibility and the bridge reopened, bringing pleasure to millions, and over the years through their passage, changing the nature of both North and South of the river.

An inflexible Millennium Bridge would have fractured; a too flexible bridge would have shaken itself to pieces. I believe that the same is true for our national bridge church. The Church of England has learned to accommodate those who wish to remarry divorced people in church and those who don’t. In this it has bridged the gap between public opinion and traditional belief and practice, given time I believe it will do the same with civil partnerships.

Copyright 2011 BBC

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