Gay Marriage – re-drawing the line in the sand.

I got the chance to watch the second episode of Rev today, and it got me thinking. What would I do, if presented with the issue that Adam Smallbone did, that of being asked to marry two gay friends in one’s own church?

What stung me was the line from the ArchDeacon, himself a gay character in a relationship. He said “I believe in church unity”. For him, that was the reason why we shouldn’t marry gay people (ie preside over their marriage) even if we feel it is the morally right thing to do. Church unity.

I’m in favour of gay marriage. I think it’s what God wants, I think it is prophetic and life-giving, I think the church missed an opportunity to embrace more of God’s children, and we messed up badly.

So why on earth would I, who am wholly in favour of gay marriage, and have blogged about it here, even consider for the smallest moment whether I should or shouldn’t marry a couple based on their gender?

There are two “headline” reasons why I might refuse to marry to gay people – one, because I am not legally entitled to do so, and two, as the ArchDeacon put it, because of “church unity”.

As for the first, that doesn’t preclude me marrying someone in church in a spiritual, but not legal sense – in many countries these things are entirely separate – although I’m not entitled to do so under current church law either. But I am permitted to follow my conscience – I have the choice.

My real reason for not marrying people would be “chuch unity” – to do so would be to alienate friends, parishioners, colleagues and fellow Christians to the extent that they could no longer accept my ministry among them.

One of the difficulties we have as clergy is that we are very familiar with balancing what we feel God wants, with what we feel the congregation can cope with.

Being a priest of a church involves two sometimes contradictory roles. One is Pastor, a pastoral carer, a reconciler, a bringer-together, and another is Prophet – holding a mirror to the congregation and asking them whether we are what God calls us to be.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between challenging people without making them feel you’re judging them if they disagree with you. Many pastoral breakdowns in churches are caused by the prophet being more important to the priest than the pastor – and one’s own beliefs, magnified by the powerful position a priest is in, swamping the thoughts, beliefs and feelings of others.

So what what ends up happening is that conscience gets compromised, I justify this by my liberal feelings that I’m somehow doing the right thing, and I end up constantly re-drawing the line in the sand, constantly compromising what I believe in.

So when it comes to the gay marriage debate, I’m already half way towards not acting on what I believe.

But why? It’s not as though we have ever actually discussed whether it is a morally right thing to do as a church. The Scottish Episocopal church, and the C of E have never to my knowledge discussed whether gay marriage is right – but they have endlessly discussed how we might be able to live with difference, or what process we might engage in, in order to think about discussing the issues. It has been good at redefining the issues, and thinking about the reasons for this being an issue, but it has never discussed why some people think allowing people of all genders to marry is God’s will, and why some people think the opposite. What we’re left with is blogs and pub arguments, newspaper articles and comments sections.

So without that debate, the chance to actually articulate my beliefs in the way that I do in church – carefully, I hope, lovingly, but still with passion and truth – what I’m left with is a sense of implied threat – if I act on my beliefs, I will somehow aid the destruction of the church that I love.

That leaves me looking at the church, amazed at how enfeebled it is, and how morally feeble we are as it’s clergy. Saints Paul and Peter argued in public about what Paul was doing – note: about what Paul was actually doing, not what he thought he ought to do. They came to a compromise then changed their minds, and this happened throughout church history. The church never stopped being the church, but it did hold within it a multiplicity of views and arguments. The main, shoddy times of exception were times such as the Pelagian or Arian heresies, where the beliefs got horribly entangled with power politics, and the issue of who’s in charge became more important than who’s right, with the church as a bargaining tool for supremacy.

Is the church too weak, too scared to actually talk to one another? Still? If I refused to marry someone in my church, would it be because I was maintaining church unity, or because I was a coward?

Rev ends with the priest Adam Smallbone presiding at the marriage of his two gay friends. With the doors of the church locked. The camera very deliberately looked through the keyhole of the closed doors. One thing I do know – I’d not do that.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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9 Responses to Gay Marriage – re-drawing the line in the sand.

    • frpip says:

      But what if they wanted it to be, you know, really good? 😉

      My congregation aren’t there – yet. I pray they will be, but not yet. If it were simply a case of goodies verses baddies, I’d do it, but it’s not. It’s standing up for one’s beliefs, in the knowledge that I might damage a relationship with people I love, and am charged to care about.

      Did you have no-one who had a problem with this? How did you deal with it?

      • Damian says:

        Are you also being concerned to confront your congregation for practical reasons? People may stop giving their money to the church and you won’t be getting a salary, you may even lose your job!

      • It has been pretty much entirely uncontroversial.

        The first time (back in 2008, I think) I spoke to the Vestry about it and did something I’ve never done before or since – I asked each of them to go away and think about it and write to me with their views. Every one of them wrote to me saying that they believed that the service should go ahead. I then told the bishop I was going to do it. He asked what the Vestry thought and I had all the letters with me to show him. He then said that he would give me permission. I told him (this was +Idris) that I hadn’t asked him for permission and he responded by saying that he was going to write and give it anyway just in case there was trouble.

        In the end there was no trouble but I’ve always felt grateful to +Idris for looking out for me.

        The first ceremony that I did like this was not actually in St Mary’s but in the the chapel up at the University of Glasgow. On that occasion, +Idris asked me afterwards whether there had been any trouble from journalists. I was able to say that there had been no trouble at all and show him the four page coverage of the event in the Italian version of Vanity Fair.

        I’d say it has generally gone smoothly because it has all been in the open.

  1. David T says:

    Very thought provoking Pip, the harm to church unity of disagreement over something as marginal an issue as same sex marriage is troubling. There are far more pressing matters for Jesus and for his followers.

    FWIW I’d stand with you, continue to minister with you, continue to serve with you, if the Father affords us the opportunity to do so again in the future.

    • frpip says:

      Bless you David, and thank you. Like you, I find it bizarre that this is the issue the church gets itself in knots about. The bits I find far more troubling are the bits where we all agree, but fail to do, like giving to the poor and welcoming those who are very different from us. Mind you, your church is pretty good on both of those, better than many of the main denominational churches.

  2. Damian says:

    So far I have really liked Rev. Since yesterday my opinion about it has totally changed. No, it does not have anything to do with the debate on gay marriage. I know it is a comedy, but Rev. has turned into a caricature, almost mockery of the Church of England! This is the church where I have been baptised as an adult! Moreover, most people watching it do not really make a difference between different denominations, so for them church as a whole is bad and corrupted. And this is happening just a few weeks before Easter! What message would people (especially those who have never been to church) get?

    • frpip says:

      What was the issue you had a problem with in that programme, Damien? I didn’t notice anything different in this episode from any of the other episodes, other than the issue of gay marriage. I think it shows priests as humans, trying to get along and do the right thing in the midst of competing calls for attention and competing interpretations of what it is to be good and do God’s will. As such I find it a very honest programme.

      • Damian says:

        The programme is getting more and more critical of the Church of England. It looks like it only shows the controversial things. Understandably, you will have a different perception, that of an insider. Other people watching it may just see and focus on the mockery, and this may put them off going to church.

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