Is all the fuss that erupted yesterday over last month’s blessing of the gay civil partnership of two Church of England vicars just a storm in a teacup? Clearly not from the point of view of the many furious reactions from senior conservative figures in the Church. Some of these have called the ceremony blasphemous and have claimed it breaks church rules, which prohibit formal blessings of gay unions. The blessing service in question did apparently use many of the forms and words of a traditional, heterosexual marriage ceremony, while adapting it to the gay context. So, to all intents and purposes, it looked like a wedding even though it did not formally claim to be one, or even to be an official blessing.
I have quite a lot of sympathy with the conservatives, based on the fact that I believe in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and regard it as something sacred, mysterious and revealed. And heterosexual. Marriage has been handed down to us as such in Scripture and Tradition, and – in Catholic belief – through the teaching Authority of the Church. And we cannot change holy matrimony, and expand it to encompass gay unions, just because we wish it to do so. True marriage is a sacred thing that needs to be upheld; above all, modern, secular society needs the Church’s witness to the sacred character of marriage in a world where marriages and families are constantly being torn apart through personal failings and social pressures. The ceremony that is at the centre of the present controversy went too far in reproducing a traditional marriage service, which could indeed undermine some people’s faith in and understanding of the uniquely sacred character of the union in marriage of a man and a woman. And it is highly disingenuous of the vicar who conducted the ceremony to claim that it wasn’t a marriage or a formal blessing, and that he has technically not broken any rules; because it’s clear that the ceremony was making a strong implicit statement that the gay union at its heart was in many ways morally and spiritually equivalent to a traditional marriage.
Yet, at the same time, are not many of the objectors also going too far? To me, the whole thing appears trivial on one level, and it’s futile to waste so much time and energy over it. How does the Church think that the secular world it is trying to bear witness to will react to all this indignation over a ‘marriage’ that no one is technically claiming to be a marriage anyway while, at the same time, many – perhaps most – people would now accept that gay couples should have the right to get married, albeit in a civil ceremony? The whole thing does a huge discredit to the Church in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic towards its defence of marriage and other traditional moral values. As if the Church didn’t have other far more important and urgent things it should be concerning itself with, such as the social and spiritual deprivation of so many in our society, and the elimination of wars, famine and disease, and their causes and effects. Obsessing so much about the gay issue just makes many people dismiss the Church as a quaint, outmoded irrelevance – more interested in ceremony and petty rules than substance.
So the ‘gay clergy marriage’ story is important, in that the integrity and sanctity of marriage needs to be defended; but not that important that we should lose sight of the Church’s primary mission: to witness to and enact God’s compassionate love in the world. So how should the matter be dealt with? Well, if the policy of the Church is that there can be no formal services of blessing for gay unions, then church premises and property should not have been used in such a public ceremony: any blessing that was given should have been done properly in private, consistent with the claims of the vicar who led the service that it was just a personal response to a request from friends. The vicar should have been quietly reprimanded and informed that if he carried out another blessing for a gay marriage in church premises again, tougher action would be taken. Meanwhile, private blessings, held in non-ecclesiastical surroundings, should be tolerated, just as the fact of clergy entering into civil partnerships themselves is tolerated on the condition that the couple remain celibate. The gay vicar couple at the centre of the dispute are both still exercising their ministry in the church; and, to be honest, if they are truly expected to remain celibate while living together as civil partners, then they really need the blessing of the Church and any grace that that might bring!
After all, it’s not as if the church is sanctioning any gross immorality by giving its blessing to faithful, monogamous gay relationships. If anything, surely, they are to be encouraged in preference to a life of promiscuity. Indeed, does it really discredit – or does it not in fact honour – the tenets of Christian marriage if gay couples wish to place their relationship within the framework of the exclusive lifelong fidelity that marriage demands? At the end of the day – or at the end of life – I feel sure that gay persons will be judged more on the extent to which they lived up to their commitments to one another than by the fact of making those commitments in the first place. And so long as the commitment that remains in the first place for all Christians, gay or straight, is the commitment to Christ, then we need not have any fear. And that includes the misplaced fear of conservative, straight opinion that is worrying more about these issues than about bringing God’s love to a world that is starving for it.
A storm in a teacup, maybe; but one with a ripple effect that diminishes the Church’s stature and impact beyond the vicarage walls.