The statement on marriage and sexuality made by the Bishops of The Society has only added to the confusion, writes Stephen Keeble

On 24 December, in response to the Pilling Report, Forward in Faith, North America, issued a clear commitment to traditional catholic and biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. In an email of 21 March to the Bishop of Pontefract, Chairman of the Society’s Council of Bishops, I expressed the hope that the Council would soon be able to do the same. My concern was that:

the continued silence of the leadership of the Society/Forward in Faith…inevitably leads to members and onlookers drawing their own, perhaps mistaken, conclusions about the ability of the Society’s bishops to present a united front in an important area of Christian doctrine and ethics. Whatever the case, it is imperative that parishes and individual members of the Society/ Forward in Faith know the truth of the situation so that, in looking to the future, they might have a clearer sense of the viability of the Society’s aspiration to support a continuing orthodox catholic presence in the Church of England.

CofE Canon

A statement from the Society’s Council of Bishops followed on 26 March. The bishops claim, without further elaboration, to uphold the doctrine of marriage as set out in the liturgy and canons of the Church of England.

Canon B 30 affirms marriage to be:

in its nature a union permanent and life-long, for better for worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

As attested by the canon: The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnisation of Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer.

This teaches that matrimony was ordained, among other things, for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

Catholic Catechism

The catholic tradition, which continues to be upheld by the Roman and Orthodox churches, regards active homosexuality not only as fornication, but also as inherently unnatural — at variance with the divine purpose in creation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lords Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Contradicting itself

The understanding of the Society’s Council of Bishops concerning the sacramental character of marriage has now, to some extent, been clarified. But its view on the consequential issue of sexual relations outside of marriage, including what the House of Bishops’ Statement of Pastoral Guidance calls ‘faithful’ and ‘covenanted’ same-sex relationships, remains a matter of conjecture.

The House of Bishops’ Statement of Pastoral Guidance mentions, but expresses no commitment to, the historic catholic position of the Church of England as found in Canon B 30 and the Form of the Solemnisation of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer. The Society’s bishops, however, claim to uphold both the Christian doctrine of marriage as set out in the liturgy and canons of the Church of England, and also to endorse the statement issued by the College of Bishops in response to the Pilling Report and the House of Bishops’ Statement of Pastoral Guidance. In upholding and affirming so much — the Church of England’s historic teaching together with statements from the House and College of Bishops which undermine that teaching — the Council contradicts itself.

Serious questions

The Society’s bishops’ statement begins with a declaration of their pastoral and teaching office as stewards of the mysteries of God, yet in declining to affirm the Church’s teaching on this important matter they have added to the confusion and uncertainty within the ranks of the Society’s supporters and exposed it to serious questioning concerning its claims to catholicity. One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that the Council of Bishops’ contrivance to say as little as possible is the key to understanding its position.

The purpose of the Society, according to its website, is ‘to promote and maintain catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England’. Forward in Faith, on its homepage, is said to be ‘committed to the catholic faith as the Church of England received it’ and to ‘long for the visible unity of Christ’s Church, and especially for communion between the Church of England and the rest of the Western Church’. The translation of these declarations into anything approaching practical reality would entail doctrinal clarity and coherence, and a focused dedication to the ecumenical goal.

What now the future of the Society/Forward in Faith? Facilitated convergence with Affirming Catholicism?