Early last year I was talking to Jayne Ozanne about the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project (LLF). For information about LLF click the link below.
Inevitably the phrase ‘long grass’ soon entered our conversation. My expectation, at least, was that LLF would not solve the problems that the church of England is having in understanding sexuality, identity and relationships but that it might move the conversations forward. It was that conversation with Jayne that led to the idea of thinking about the long grass like obstacles on a golf course. LLF might not get us to the clubhouse but it might move us onto the next hole on the course and a bit closer to a meal and a drink at the bar. Or in my case a cup of Earl Grey tea (very Jean-Luc Picard).
This image of church progress like a golf course has been very helpful in seeing how things do develop in this long grass march.
With a lot of time on my hands during lockdown I was able to catch up on some reading, including the excellent, but expensive and very academic, The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century by Ann Sumner Holmes
I have found that trying to discuss same sex marriage or relationships with some in the Church of England is a waste of time. As soon as the subject comes up, the conversation gets shut down quickly with bland sayings like ‘I believe marriage is between a man and a woman’ or ‘the Bible says its wrong’ etc. No discussion, and a real unwillingness to engage with the big questions about what marriage actually is or what healthy relationships look like or what makes a Christian marriage. To find what the Church of England thinks and believes about marriage, you have to look at divorce.
The Church of England has produced lots of reports about marriage and divorce and then marriage, divorce and remarriage and then, after more long grass, marriage, divorce, remarriage and remarriage in church. Lots of kicking the can down the road. Reading Ann Sumner Holmes’s book, the roadmap became very familiar, the sexuality strategy has been played out before. It took the Church of England from 1857 until 2002 to accept remarriage in church after divorce. One hundred and forty-five years.
As each new Church of England commission produced a report, which went to the dioceses who studied and wrote reports that needed working parties to collate and analyse and then report back on what had been decided, the debate moved slowly forward. It moved slowly forward because the middle moved. As people of influence had to engage with material before them on commissions they had to be challenged. Those who couldn’t accept a report because it didn’t contain X [insert X of choice, parish clergy, working solicitors, marriage counsellors, academic theologians, ethicists etc] had their objections met or exposed for being simply intransigence.
The path to the current position on divorce shows us the roadmap for the current debates. In 1857 the Matrimonial causes Act introduced secular divorces by court order into this country. It gave clergy the right to marry divorced people in church, but it gave them the opt out so no clergy were to be forced to carry out the marriage of a divorced person. The opt out was personal, so they could not refuse to let their church be used by a different clergyman for the wedding. It was the bishops who decreed that clergy could not carry out these marriages.
Then that eventually started to break down as parliament introduced further Acts affecting divorce and introduced the idea of the ‘innocent party’ to the divorce. Then there was pressure on the church to allow the innocent parties to be able to remarry in church, then exceptional cases were allowed to remarry but there was no consensus on what the exceptional circumstances were and who could decide… This led to that wonderful Anglican fudge of inconsistent practice. That needed to be studied, of course. Eventually it had become such a convoluted mess that there was no way to enforce any particular position. So at the November 2002 General Synod synod voted to rescind the rules prohibiting remarriages and allowed clergy to exercise the right they had always had since 1857.
I took away some lessons from this:
One – parliament always moves first and the church always resists, but as the established church, it has to obey the laws eventually.
Two – the long grass runs out; each patch moves to the next hole and we will reach the clubhouse.
Three – the quadruple lock must go. When clergy have the legal right to carry out all marriages then they will eventually be able to exercise that right.
Four – it is right that clergy can opt out of officiating marriages they feel is against their conscience, but the church is for all the people and must be for all marriages. This means removing separate registrations for mixed sex and same sex marriages. Registration for marriages would be for all marriages.
Five – Make the marriage preliminaries the same for everyone. That way nobody can be treated differently from others.
With LLF materials soon to be published on November 9th, we are back on the fairway. It has only taken since February 2017! Let’s play this out and get through this hole and onto the next one.
Marriage consultation paper, see especially chapter 9 . Clock the following link Marriage consultation
Online response form (till 2 December 2020) https://consult.justice.gov.uk/law-commission/weddings/
by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or
by post to Weddings Team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.