The Church of England’s General Synod certainly made the headlines this week with the rejec-tion of the Bishops’ report that the teaching and practice of the Church in relation to marriage should maintain the view that marriage, designed by God, is only for a man and a woman. The media’s prophecy that ‘gay marriage’ is just ‘around the corner’ might get clicks or sell papers but it isn’t a foregone conclusion. The report, which was criticised by a group of retired bishops, came about after 3 or so years of ‘shared conversations’ within the Church about identity, sexuality, the Bible, tradition and had more in it than the headlines would suggest (eg. there was a strong call to end homophobia). What Gen-eral Synod has done is to tell the Bishops to go back and do the work again.
What is this work? The Church has always existed in places with varying views about marriage or cohabita-tion. As I’ve mentioned before, the Bible is silent on many details regarding marriage – age of marriage, how the couple meet and relate, where they are married – while at the same time recognising polyg-amy and concubinage. Our church ‘default’ view today about marriage has its roots more in Vic-torian culture and 16th century canon law than we usually acknowledge. But what hasn’t been disputed theologically is that the Christian view of marriage – however it is contracted, solem-nised, ‘done’ – is a matter for a man and a woman who promise in pubic – somehow – to be faithful to each other (I will be your man; I will be your woman) until death separates them. And those promises are recognised by society – somehow – oh, they’re married. One thing that has certainly complicated matters is when the Church is tied to the State so it can seem that the Church is doing the marrying when what the Church does is bless couples who are married.
And that’s the issue today. How, why and should the Church bless marriages? We might con-sider how the Church has responded to marriage of divorced people or polygamous marriages as an indicator of past practice and views.
Today I hear the question asked ‘Did God really say …?’. I am not against going back to the Bible to see what it says – about marriage, about who may marry, about our sexual behaviours, about anything. I don’t expect people – or myself – to blindly follow whatever was done in the past – though it shouldn’t be ignored. It is ok to question and seek clarity. Ok, I am uneasy about pastors doing ‘theology on the run’ and would much prefer for the Church to confer about what it believes the Bible says but you’ve got to say something when asked (as I discovered when inter-viewed on BBC Radio Essex a few weeks back). Nevertheless I don’t hear the question ‘Did God really say …?’ as a neutral question seeking clarity. I hear that question as a challenge to God. It is the question the serpent asked. It is a question asked when we already know God’s answer but we just don’t like it. The question, I think we should be asking about this issue – any issue – when seeking God’s will for God’s people – is the question we learnt in the Catechism, ‘What does this mean?’.
Then we can sit around a table – not opposite each other – and work out what the ‘this’ is and then together read God’s Word to find an answer. GS