Slowly but surely, by hint, innuendo and prevarication, by a deathless procession of committee meetings and interim reports, the Church of England is working its way towards changing its teaching on marriage. Three years of “shared conversations” on the subject have just ended and the Bishop of Norwich has published a summary in which he says: “At present clergy are advised that they may offer ‘informal prayer’ to those registering civil partnerships or entering same sex marriage. The parameters of such pastoral support are unclear. The House proposes that there should be more guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples.”
Society has, as they say, “moved on” and the church is getting left behind. Archbishop Rowan Williams noticed this fact and referred to it in his last sermon before he retired: “The church has a lot of catching up to do with secular mores.” Thus this very modern prelate inverted the teaching of St Paul who, on the subject of pagan values, commanded, “Be ye not conformed to this world.”
But what did St Paul know, living as he did all those centuries ago and long before our great Enlightenment?
The bishops and the synod are hell bent – I choose the words carefully – on catching up with the secularists. How do I know this? Because the bishops and the synod have got form: they have fallen into line with every “reform” in social manners and customs since the 1960s. We can be sure that there will be no point in the process of continuous “reform” at which church leaders will declare: “This is a step too far. Proceed no further. Stop!”
But there will be no explosions, no nasty shocks. The ecclesiastical committees will proceed by stealth and duplicity. Press release will follow press release and memorandum of understanding will begat memorandum of understanding. It will take as long as it takes. Only the result is certain. The Enlightened Ones – Williams’ catchers-up – will not take the decisive vote until they are sure of winning it.
Meanwhile, what? Let the very progressed Bishop of Norwich spell it out:
“No change in doctrine is proposed but it is often pastoral practice – how we treat people – which matters most. This means establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, for those who experience same sex attraction, and for their families, and continuing to work toward mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church. And so we speak in the report about re-examining the existing framework of our pastoral practice to permit maximum freedom within it. We recognise two areas in particular where advice in relation to the pastoral care and support of lesbian and gay people needs fresh thought.”
Notice at once the trademark double-speak: There will be “no change” but there will be “maximum freedom.” Freedom to do what?
Our Lord’s teaching on marriage remains the same. We have a choice: obey his teaching or disobey it. That is the only “maximum freedom” Christians are permitted: freedom of the will.
The bishops and the synod will proceed with a shifty gradualism of which Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC) would have been envious.
This is the strategy: there is to be“…a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people.” On the Christian criterion of “hate the sin but love the sinner” this cannot be faulted. But the paradoxical willingness to accept those who deliberately disobey Christ’s teaching – while desperately balancing on one leg to insist that his teaching still stands – will lead to the eventual abandonment of the teaching; not (at first, anyway) by decree but by default.
Then Rowan Williams will be able to rest easy in his retirement, having seen that the church truly has caught up with secular mores. That is only for the time being. For secular mores will soon gallop off again into even more Progressed and Enlightened “reforms.”
And the church will do… Well, we know what the church will do. What it always does and that is to play catch-up, very successfully.