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UK: Pressure on orthodox Christian views politely and gently increased in nation and church

UK:Pressure on orthodox Christian views politely and gently increased in nation and church
House of Lords debates same sex marriage in the C of E; Pastoral Guidance steers towards unity in diversity.

By Andrew Symes,
Anglican Mainstream.
February 3, 2019

The day when the secular government seeks to compel the Church of England to conform fully to 'equality legislation' draws ever closer. An amendment to end the C of E's exemption from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 was tabled in the House of Lords on Friday 1st February, and debated. Although it was withdrawn after a number of significant speeches, it's sure to come back again and again, and as support for it grows within the Church, may eventually succeed, perhaps as a condition for continued Establishment.

The Parliamentary debate took place during the passage of a Bill which extends Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Hansard report can be read in full here.

If the reader scrolls down through technical legal issues about government powers, and the discussion about whether Civil Partnerships should be extended to siblings, the moving of amendment 2 by Lord Faulkner of Worcester can be found: "The Secretary of State must make regulations to amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to remove the exemption for members of the clergy to solemnize the marriage of a same sex couple." Faulkner went on to urge the Church of England to "follow the lead set by the Anglican Churches in Scotland, the United States, Canada and other countries and permit same-sex couples to marry in church".

He was immediately backed up by Lord Cashman, who first emphasised that the amendment wants to make the change optional not compulsory, but then went on to complain of how "religious belief has been used to deny people basic equality".

Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Scriven continued in the same vein, describing how he was not able to marry his same sex partner in church: "when we talk about same-sex marriage, it is not equal in law at the moment because of the provision concerning the Church. How do you think that makes me feel?"

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, then responded for the Church. He spoke of the balance between LGBT rights and freedom of religion, and quoted the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, which warns against state interference in religious doctrine. Explaining the long-running process within the C of E of debating issues of sexuality and marriage up to the current Living in Love and Faith project, the Bishop in effect asked the Lords to have patience; the amendment, if passed, would be seen as forcing the hand of Synod and creating legal difficulties. Clearly feeling himself to be in a hostile environment, pressed by a number of Lords with strong pro-LGBT views, he appeared sympathetic to the call for change, even mentioning the consultancy help that Stonewall are giving the C of E, but returned to the warning about state interference and compulsion.

In his summing up, and just before he withdrew his amendment, Lord Faulkner said:

"This is the first time since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed, more than five years ago, that we have had an opportunity to talk about the attitude of the Church of England...to same-sex marriage in church...the Church is moving--at glacial speed, I am afraid to say...and I think there is a genuine move for us to give the Church a little push in the right direction."

There is no doubt that a campaign within Parliament to pressurise the Church in this way will grow, suggesting that the ability to retain biblical Christian sexual ethics in the C of E depends less on our blogs and books, petitions and debates in Synods , and more on the extent to which LGBT rights activists pursue their cause within Parliament and the law of the land.


Living In Love and Faith: progress report to General Synod

Another area of concern is the way that the Living in Love and Faith project (LLF) is taking shape. One of the many agenda papers prepared in advance of General Synod (which begins on 20th February) is a briefing from LLF, which can be found here.

The first section of the briefing summarises the scope and content of what will be a major piece of work on Christian approaches to anthropology in the context of rapid shifts in cultural understandings, and gives some names of contributors.

The second part introduces and sets out 'Pastoral Principles' to guide attitudes and actions of church members who disagree theologically, and to ensure a warm welcome for all. It is assumed that these Principles are not contentious in themselves, and have already been decided as applying to all without discussion. However, this is far from being the case; in fact this document will be of great concern to orthodox Anglicans around the world, as if implemented, it will create a crisis of conscience for those committed to a biblically faithful ministry.

It appears as if the first part has been written by academics, and the second by political activists. Its first stated aim, that people would be "inspired" by the biblical vision of God's purpose for humanity, is rather different from the New Testament insistence that "God commands all people everywhere to repent", and so not an accurate description of how the gospel works in confessional Christianity. Other expected outcomes are: that church communities would have a deeper understanding of both the 'inherited teaching' on sexuality, and 'emergent views', and that they would, by critiquing "different hermeneutical understandings", see how "different theological perspectives give rise to different patterns of discipleship". This neutral, academic approach, which reads like the curriculum for an undergraduate theology course, appears already in danger of being incoherent in terms of practical Christian living. Why and how should I "deny myself" and go against my (what I believe to be) sinful desires, if giving in to and celebrating those desires is simply labeled as an equally or even more authentic pattern of discipleship?

A suite of resources are promised which include films and online learning material, a book which "combines the characteristics of a pedagogically well-crafted textbook with the aesthetics of a coffee-table book", and a series of scholarly papers. The expense involved in this exercise of helping people to appreciate a variety of different views, a bit like multi-faith RE at school, is not mentioned, but is obviously considerable.

Having established that the purpose of the project is a comprehensive exercise in mutual learning and understanding about different perspectives on sexuality within the Christian community in its broadest sense, the second half of the document goes on to outline six 'Pastoral Principles for living well together'.

Principle One asserts that "we will receive our differences as a gift", and "explore our own prejudices". We will "welcome people as they are" with "unconditional positive regard without judgement or question", while avoiding "subliminal actions or language" which might cause hurt.

Principle Two commits the Church to be a place of welcome, acceptance, challenge and hospitality. What might prevent this is "a culture of silence' and "abuses of power" which make vulnerable minorities who are "different" feel unwelcome.

Principle 4 speaks of the dynamic of fear which corrupts relationships. Care must be taken to include all, given different views on what constitutes sin and holiness. Reference is made to excluding people from leadership, and "coercive or abusive" pastoral practice.

What can be seen from this and the rest of the document is that these so-called Principles are not easy to understand -- they appear to be speaking in code, using language about analysis of power structures, the promotion of diversity and inclusion mixed with recognizably Christian themes. On the surface some of this is uncontroversial (eg a call to love and respect one another), but it assumes the primacy of the unity of the Church despite major differences on theology, ethics and lifestyles. In fact such differences must be celebrated as a "gift".

On closer reading, this pastoral guidance appears slanted towards an implication that conservative Christians are prone to prejudice, creating a culture of fear and silence, excluding those who differ from the norm, putting up barriers between people. For me, the way this has been done is highly manipulative. It raises the question whether, however carefully and lovingly the historic, bible-based teachings of the church about sex and marriage are presented, they will be seen to contravene these Principles.

Neither Parliament, nor the church leadership, are saying, yet, that the C of E has to make an imminent decision officially to permit practice which would put it at odds with Scripture, tradition and global Christian opinion. But the debate in the Lords and the slant of the LLF briefing seem part of a strategy to gently soften opinion, so that such a major change becomes less unthinkable in the near future.

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