Editorial, CSCS NEWS 41, Autumn 2011

Anthony Woollard

I begin with two pieces of rather mundane news about CSCS itself. The first is to apologise or the late and out-of-order appearance of issues of the journal Theology and Sexuality; this is beyond our control but we are working with the publishers to improve the situation. The second is to say that we are still negotiating with a rather outstanding possible speaker for our next Annual Conference, which, to suit the convenience of that speaker, might well be a Saturday in March rather than in February; we will let members know the outcome as soon as possible, but meanwhile please keep diaries as clear as you can.

 This issue of the newsletter is largely devoted to a single theme: the Churches’ attitudes to civil partnerships including the possibility of their being solemnized in religious buildings. The government’s proposals, earlier this year, to allow that caused some fluttering in ecclesiastical dovecotes – not least those of the Established Church, as Bishop Tom Butler explains in his Thought for the Dayon BBC Radio 4, reproduced below, and as our patron John Gladwin, still fairly newly retired from the bishops’ bench, also admits. CSCS responded to the consultation and Martin Pendergast has summarized that response.

 We are in a rather strange place here, and it has been made all the stranger by the lawyers’ suggestion that the Equalities Act prohibits a church from ruling out a candidate for office, even a major leadership role, purely on the ground of sexual orientation, though apparently it is still OK to cite “scandalous” sexual practice (presumably including any kind of homosexual practice) as a bar to appointment.

After all the horrors of Section 28, the State seems to have thrown its weight behind genuine equality for people of all sexual orientations, including the possibility of legally sanctioned non-heterosexual relationships which have most of the features of marriage. This may be seen – and was certainly seen by many in the Churches – as an exclusively secular turn, from which many Christian groupings claimed exemption on grounds of faith, and which was to be kept firmly in its place in the secular sphere, with not even the slightest reference to religion permitted in civil partnership ceremonies. But the boundaries between faith and the secular world are too permeable to permit such a neat distinction. Faith – not just Anglicanism or indeed Christianity – is a real factor in society, as it is in the lives of many individuals not all of whom are heterosexual. Now the new, more open social culture is spilling over into the Churches and other faith groups.

 Some may fear the implications of this; but they are not to be compelled to give religious blessing to gay relationships, nor to accept “practising” gays into leadership positions (despite the fact that, as we all know, practice makes perfect!) For others it will be seen as an opportunity to bring a deeper dimension into human relationships through acts of acceptance and blessing. It is common enough for clergy to bless everything from pet dogs to nuclear submarines. The latter (and, a few dog-haters or anti-pet militants might argue, the former) raise considerable theological and moral issues, yet a great many Christians would feel that prayer and blessing on human endeavours are appropriate even where thereis scope for debate about the rights and wrongs of those endeavours. Perhaps there are lines to be drawn; most clergy would not, I think, be happy to bless a brothel. But it does seem odd that in most denominations they should be unable to bless two people in love, if those two people happen to be of the same sex. .

What about the distinction between the “legal” and the “spiritual/sacramental” dimensions of civil partnerships? Some would argue that the former is strictly the business of the State, and the latter that of faith groups. But within Anglicanism the two are firmly fused by both civil and canon law. Martin’s response to the consultation raises an interesting issue within Roman Catholicism, where heterosexual marriage as seen as a sacrament (and hence under the jurisdiction of the bishop of each diocese, whether it occurs in churches under his direct control or otherwise) whereas civil partnership, not being seen as a sacrament, may escape that jurisdiction in the churches of religious Orders and the like which are outwith full diocesan control.. That may or may not offer an interesting opportunity for flexibility. The situation in other denominations and faith groups will obviously be very different. Yet in the end of the day, a public commitment between two people has both a legal framework and also deeper dimensions which might be seen by many as sacramental (whether marriage is considered as technically a sacrament or not).

 In another journal which I edit, a lively debate has been going on about whether (heterosexual) marriage in church is being forced by the Anglican authorities too far down a “churchy” road when it might be better seen as a “sacrament of creation” and not the possession of the Church in any sense. All one can say here is that public commitment will mean different things to different couples. An exchange of specifically Christian vows, perhaps even within the context of a Christian Eucharist, might be right for some (gay or straight), whilst something else on the spectrum between “explicitly Christian” and “fully secular” is right for others. Where the Church, the clergy, and the use of religious language, symbol or ritual fits in will differ according to theologies and traditions. And all that is of course made even more complicated when the beliefs and practices of other faith groups are brought into play.

Meanwhile, in the USA, an interesting situation is arising in those States where full gay marriage has been legalized. Some bishops in the Episcopal Church, that hotbed of liberalism, are suggesting that those clergy in civil partnerships (which that Church of course recognizes) should convert their partnerships into marriage as soon as possible because marriage is the proper Christian exemplar of a sexual relationship. Are they right? There is no doubt that Scripture and tradition hold out marriage as an ideal. There is equally no doubt that human relationships are infinitely complicated; that the concept of marriage has acquired over the millennia a great deal of baggage which some good Christian people – no doubt including clergy – find alienating; and that it is a pastoral priority to show that the Church recognizes this, at the same time as being ready to encourage and celebrate committed relationships in all their forms. I have written before of the campaign of Sharon Ferguson of LGCM and her partner, with others, to give both straight and gay people a choice between marriage and civil partnership. Are they right, or is this insistence on choice just another example of postmodern consumerism which Christians should resist? I should be very interested in readers’ views on this.

But the US dilemma is one which I suspect many Christians in this country would be quite happy to face. At the moment, the only choice officially open to them, and open to blessing by most of the Churches, is the stark one of heterosexual marriage or celibacy.

Recent weeks have seen activity in another area where “choice” is much debated: that of abortion, where certain conservative Christian groups have been seeking changes which could have the effect of restricting that choice. Jane Fraser’s article below offers one reaction from a Christian practitioner in the field of sexual health. There are, of course, at least as many sensitivities in the area of abortion as in any other with which CSCS has had to deal, but it may be a topic with which we should wrestle more and on which we should speak out more boldly.

Where, then, do all these developments in social policy leave CSCS? We are not a campaigning organisation but a body devoted to study. We continue to work with theological educators, in the hope that a new generation of clergy may be formed who will be able to deal with the diversities of human relationships with a greater subtlety than has so often characterized the Churches hitherto. We continue, too, to support the efforts by Jim Cotter and others to develop liturgies which will reflect that more subtle approach. We continue to ask the awkward questions about just why a narrow understanding of human sexuality should be a shibboleth of Christian orthodoxy, when even the fundamentalists recognise (and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian is aware) that there are many other purity laws within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, right down to the wearing of garments with mixed fibre, which passed their sell-by date centuries ago. And above all we continue to remind others asking similar questions, and struggling existentially with the conflicts that arise within their churches and within themselves, that they are not alone. We may pray that from these efforts there may arise a new generosity of spirit in the Churches, which does not uncritically accept the obsession with sexual self-fulfilment which characterizes parts of our society, but acknowledges the struggle of those who seek to be true both to themselves and to the essence of the Gospel, and, in that struggle, to find a blessing.

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