THANK GOODNESS the silly season is coming to an end. The press, as usual, have been at their old game of sensationalising the most humdrum of church business. They always seem to be in league with the rent-a-quote merchants. They have something to say on every subject – the ones they know about and the ones they don’t. And when they have run short of responses, they can always say, “Why not?” It saves them having to understand the issue and justify their position.
I have to confess that for some time it puzzled me how some fairly average folk always seem to be quoted in the press and others, who might have weightier things to say never seem to get a mention. Then I discovered that one of them, at least, made a habit of faxing official looking press releases at regular intervals giving him the opportunity to unload all the bees in his bonnet.
It was nearly three years ago that a little known vicar from an obscure parish in suburban Surrey found himself proposing a private members’ motion at the General Synod. He started his speech with the solemnity due the occasion by saying, “I did not really expect to be here today, but here I am!”
He continued, “This is a complicated motion but it is worded craftily in the hope that everyone can agree with it.” It could almost have been a take-off of the Chairman of the Business Committee, or of a liberal leaning bishop, but it was not. Rather it was an attempt to find some way of obviating the necessity of publishing banns of marriage during divine service. And indeed, considering the troubled times in which we live and the disastrous decline in church congregations during the current decade of evangelism, one would be hard pushed to think of a subject more deserving of Synod’s time and attention.
Well after the mover of the motion sat down, there were only three two-minute contributions before Christie, the Peterborough macaw, chipped in with his party piece and moved the closure. The mover hoped that Synod would support his motion, and since it was lunchtime, the Synod did.
Events have obviously moved on because a few weeks ago I read in The Daily Telegraph (so it must be true) that “Vicars could be allowed to marry couples in gardens or on the beach if the Church of England agrees to a radical overhaul of weddings. Senior clergy, worried by the decline of Christian marriages, want to sweep away centuries-old laws which effectively restrict couples to holding religious wedding ceremonies in their local parish churches.”
“Aha, Jonathan Petre stirring things up again,” I thought – and I was right. I’m always suspicious when people talk about ‘senior’ clergy and ‘senior’ bishops. Who are these people? Do they really exist? Or is it simply journalistic licence to lend some spurious weight to a case which is lacking credibility or popular support?
On this occasion the “senior” clergyman was identified as the mover of the motion on banns of marriage. He has now become a Canon of Guildford Cathedral (so he must have impressed Gladders along the way) and apparently is expected to chair a working party on reforms. He is quoted as saying, “For the best part of 1,000 years of Church history people didn’t marry in church. There is a lot of evidence that they got married under oak trees and such like. The Church gained a stranglehold over the institution in the Middle Ages.”
He went on to assert that there had been a sharp decline in Christian marriages over the past few years, but that unorthodox secular weddings were becoming more popular. He said couples should be allowed to marry in a register office and then be “joined in the eyes of God” almost anywhere they liked.
Though he would be relaxed about the location of Christian marriage, he wanted some restrictions that would preserve its dignity. Since some people have married while skydiving or scuba-diving, one couple have tied the knot in a supermarket and another in a Surrey shopping mall, one would hope so!
It surprises me that Jonathan Petre of all people should seriously believe that a sixty-something clergyman who has been stuck in his present parish for sixteen years could be described as senior in any sense other than being long-serving.
For some weighty theological reflection on the matter, Jonathan Petre turned to Christina Rees, who he described as a member of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church’s ruling body, and of the General Synod, which will consider the recommendations. She said: “If people want to get married on a beach, why not? What we should be communicating is that getting married in a Christian way is the best way.” That’s hardly original, though. Who was it who said, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”?
But finally Jonathan Petre concedes that not all Church leaders agree. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Michael Turnbull, is quoted as saying that weddings should take place in the context of the local community. Three cheers for a bishop who has the patience to talk to the press and succeeds in persuading them to print a sensible quote.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.