Press Release

Bishops uphold teaching on marriage

27 January 2017         Issued by: Christian Concern

Statement from Christian Concern following the House of Bishops’ publication of its report on sexuality:

The Church of England released a report from the House of Bishops today on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.”

No change in doctrine

The report makes very clear that Church doctrine on marriage will not be changing. It upholds the teaching that marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman. It also affirms the Church’s teaching that sexual relations are properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage. It states that there is no proposal to change the law so that clergy can solemnise a same-sex ‘marriage’. Furthermore, the report clearly states that ordained ministers should abide by the Church’s teaching on these matters.

It states:

“It is clear, then, that there are good grounds in law for holding the clergy to an exemplary standard of behaviour consistent with the Church of England’s doctrine where the laity are not bound in the same way, and that the clergy open themselves to discipline if they contravene the guidance of the bishops on such matters.”

Questioning of Ordinands

Current practice is for homosexual clergy to affirm at ordination that they will be celibate. The Bishops felt that this questioning about sexual conduct at ordination unfairly singled out homosexual clergy. The Bishops were inclined to the view that:

“any questioning about sexual conduct should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form – establishing that the person concerned understood the Church’s teaching that sexual relations were properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage and that they understood the principles of clerical obedience to the Church’s teaching.”

They also explored the view that:

“questioning about sexual morality should form part of a wider examination of ordinands and clergy by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and bishop.”

Thus, the practice may change, and be equalised between homosexual and heterosexual clergy, but there would be no change in the expectation that clergy should abide by the Church’s teaching on sexual conduct.

New teaching document

While there is no change to Church doctrine, the Bishops felt that there was a need for a new teaching document on marriage and relationships. This document will reaffirm the current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life. It will explore the distinction between the state’s conception of ‘equal marriage’ and the Church’s doctrine, and consider the implications of this. It will also affirm the place of lesbian and gay people within the life of the Church. The report says that:

“There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church.”

It is not clear what exactly this would mean.

New guidance

The report states that the Bishops weight of opinion was to:

“[Interpret] the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.”

It states that there should be guidance for clergy about pastoral care for same sex couples. This would include clarifying what kinds of liturgies may and may not be used in liturgies for same sex relationships.

The Bishops have affirmed that “stable, faithful homosexual relationships can ‘embody crucial social virtues’ of fidelity and mutuality.” They state:

“One challenge is therefore to explore how that affirmation in the case of both celibate and non-celibate relationships might be more fully articulated in our theological ethics and better communicated in our pastoral and missional practice, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England on marriage and relationships. Nor can this challenge be separated from the Church’s response to the prevalence of stable, faithful heterosexual relationships other than marriage in our society.”

It is not clear what form such affirmation might take.

Changes to practice

In general, whilst affirming current doctrine, the report makes various suggestions of changes to practice. An Annex to the report specifies various legal options open to the Church of England. One option is to differentiate holy matrimony and civil marriage to the extent that civil marriage with a person of the same sex is considered a different institution to holy matrimony. In this case:

“a person who enters into such a civil marriage should not, merely by doing so, be considered as acting in a way contrary to the doctrine set out in Canon B 30”

If this was agreed, then the effect would be that clergy are entirely free to engage in same-sex ‘marriage’, and it would thereby undermine the church’s official teaching on marriage. Another option considered in the Annex, is to allow clergy:

“to use a form of service which celebrated the relationship between two persons of the same sex provided that the form of service did not explicitly or implicitly treat or recognise their relationship as equivalent to holy matrimony.”

Again, this could mean that a civil same-sex ‘marriage’ is celebrated in church without breaching doctrine because the civil marriage is not regarded as holy matrimony.

There are a number of areas that need clarification here and that leave the door open for significant changes to the church’s practice. Whilst upholding the church’s teaching in name, if holy matrimony is redefined so that a civil same-sex ‘marriage’ is not regarded as a breach of the church’s teaching then in effect the church’s teaching has been changed.

General Synod to Discuss

General Synod will discuss this report when it meets in February.

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, and a member of General Synod said:

I am pleased that the Bishops have clearly upheld the teaching of the church that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, and that sexual relations are properly conducted within heterosexual marriage.”

“The Bishops urgently need to clarify what is meant by affirming homosexual unions and what is not meant. There should be no room for a change of doctrine by redefining holy matrimony so that it bears no relation to civil same-sex ‘marriage’. How clergy who contravene church guidance should be disciplined also needs clarification. What do the Bishops mean by pastoral provision and shaping of prayers for those entering same-sex unions?”

“It is time for the Bishops to uphold the Church’s teaching, not only in words, but also in practice. There should be no double-standards. Clergy who openly and defiantly live and teach in contravention of the Church’s doctrine should be disciplined.”

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