I was recently discussing the rapid rate of change that as a society we are now used to and how quickly we adapt to changes when they occur. That’s true for the younger members of society as well as those of us who are older. This is reflected in our attitudes to subjects which, just a few years ago, were not acceptable to a majority of the population. The passing of the Marriage Bill for same sex couples by Parliament in the last few months and the first marriages that have taken place is an example of this. I doubt whether, ten years ago, the passage of this Bill through Parliament would have been met with as little opposition as it was. This is a sign, I think, of a mature and tolerant society, one that wants all of its members to be included and not excluded. It’s also a sign of a society that is comfortable with itself.
Some changes are accepted more easily than others and I suspect that, for many, this may be the case with the new Marriage Act. Since I began my working life – nearly fifty years ago – we have seen attitudes to same sex relationships gradually change from outright hostility to one of quiet acceptance. Sadly, as yet, the Church of England does not feel itself able to either bless these partnerships or to conduct ceremonies legitimising them.
Many in the Church, not least its clergy, feel some discomfit with the present arrangement that has been created by the new Act and which prevents us, officially, from offering the same pastoral support to same sex parishioners as we currently do to those of the opposite sexes.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken about this and clearly he feels torn about this arrangement. His heart tells him one thing and his head another. A reminder to those of us who work ‘on the ground’ in parishes that the role of a parish priest is somewhat less hindered by the same considerations as those an Archbishop has to contend with.
In February another major hurdle to inclusion was cleared as the vote in the General Synod of the Church of England for the legislation of Women in the Episcopate (Women Bishops) went in its favour, paving the way for the ordination of the first women bishops, probably in the New Year. The contentious issue of the ministry of women looks likely to be consigned to the place where it should have been when the first women were ordained, twenty years ago – the pages of history!
Again, when I began work fifty years ago, just about the same time when I started to be a practising Christian, the notion of a woman as a priest, let alone a bishop, could not have been on the radar, just as the possibility of the Marriage Bill that gained its Royal Assent in these last few months would have been.
I don’t pretend that the Church of England has got it right or that it is going to change its policy on the marriage of same sex couples overnight. The Archbishop has called for a continued debate and reflection about this rule and any change, when it does eventually come will be, I’m pretty sure, a gradual one.
It does leave clergy, those of the same opinion as me – which is broadly supportive of the current law of the land – in a sort of limbo. We want to follow our ordination vows with integrity and obey the Church we are ministers of, but we are also aware of the pastoral ‘gap’ that has arisen with the passing of this new law, in seeking to serve and care for people. And the Church is nothing if it fails to serve God and his people.
We may not ‘officially’ be able to bless same sex partnerships, or for that matter conduct marriage ceremonies of this type in our churches in a recognised liturgical setting, but pastoral considerations to the care of those in our parishes (what is archaically but accurately termed ‘the cure of souls’) does not prevent us from offering our prayerful support to those people who make such a commitment and who want God to be a part of it.
In turning people away, what statement does that make about a caring and compassionate Church?
(This article by Rev Robert Williams was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in June 2014)