The Church of England has issued some ‘pastoral advice’ that sex is only for heterosexual married couple. Whilst I have no doubt that there will be some lauding this as a brilliant statement from the Anglican Church, I can’t help but feel if you have to issue this sort of ‘pastoral advice’ i.e. some guidance about following what everybody has understood as the historic teaching of that church for 500 years (and, incidentally, every other church until very recent years) the jig is up.
That there needs to be serious discussion about this speaks to the fact that there are plenty within the hierarchy who demur. That such people can reject this teaching without facing any sort of discipline for departing from the clear and unequivocal historic teaching of the church, and it is dealt with instead by issuing some ‘guidance’, rather speaks to the detritus within.
But buried within the guidance is something similarly troubling. Each time this teaching comes to the fore, the Church of England has to clarify its position on same-sex civil partnerships. This leads us to the murky and somewhat awkward policy that clergy may be in same-sex civil partnership but must remain celibate therein. So, we are told to believe, that clergy in same-sex civil partnerships are all simply co-habiting for the purpose of friendship but definitely not having sex. Which, whilst not utterly unbelievable, does seem unlikely. And leads inexorably to the question, why not just live together without the civil partnership? Which, in turn, leads equally to another: why is it only same-sex couples doing this and not, for instance, clergy mates who fancy house-sharing?
But clergy guidance is one thing. The latest round of ‘what does the CofE think about sex?’ has been sparked by the introduction of civil partnerships for mixed sex couples. The Guardian report:
The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, the C of E’s director of mission and public affairs, said: “Civil partnership is not the same as marriage, which is founded on the taking of solemn public vows and is recognised in the church’s teaching as the only proper context for sexual relationships.
“So, as with same-sex civil partnerships, there is no formal service or blessing but clergy will, as always, be encouraged to respond pastorally to couples wishing to formalise their relationship in this way.”
Quite what ‘respond pastorally’ means is anybody’s guess. Maybe they won’t do a formal service for you but, such as your vicar will allow it, anything else is potentially up for grabs? It reads a bit like me telling somebody we won’t conduct a formal service to bless the particular choice you’ve made because we technically think it’s wrong but we will, nonetheless, welcome you into membership and affirm you at the Lord’s Table regardless of our view because *wink wink* we don’t really think it’s wrong. It sounds like the usual fudge we have come to expect.
In their pastoral statement on civil partnerships, the Church of England bishops stated the legislation:
leaves entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership. In particular, it is not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship.
Because of the ambiguity about the place of sexual activity within civil partnerships of both sorts, and the church’s teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse, we do not believe it is possible for the church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the church.
So, it doesn’t ‘unequivocally’ reflect the teaching of the church, and they wouldn’t say so without conditions, but we will kind of recognise them on the pretence that people probably aren’t having sex because they would definitely get married to do that (even though we don’t let certain people get married so they can’t do that).
Naturally, the LGBT+ inclusivist wing are not going to be pleased because this is not a full and unequivocal affirmation of their position. The we’ll stay under any circumstances, even if Satan himself becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, crew will crow about how the doctrine of the church remains unchanged. But those who are willing to see a fudge when they are presented with one, will struggle to call this anything else. It all feels like a lot of fudge so that those content to do so are given enough room to wiggle around in it.
The problem then, of course, is those who see a fudge must also be prepared to ask why the fudge and what should be done about the answer to that. But should you ask those, further questions of whether anything has been done about it and what should happen if nothing is actually done about it must follow. And soon, one you start pulling the thread, you must be prepared for the whole thing to unravel.