John Turnbull enjoys the opportunity to get on with real work

One of the first things that came to my mind after I heard the result of the General Synod vote was, to my surprise, a statement in an article on marriage, by Janet Backman, in April’s issue of NEW DIRECTIONS. ‘We must regain control of our own debate.’ It suddenly encapsulated my hopes for our new life in The Society. The great issue that has troubled these past two decades has, at last, been pushed on to the back burner. It won’t go away, of course, and there is plenty to be done on how to cope with this innovation, but surely now we can put our minds to other things.

We can regain control of our own debate. I do not mean for the rest of the world, or even perhaps the rest of the Church of England, but at least within our own constituency, we can get back to a bit of serious theology, and begin to make our own judgements and our own decisions, based on the theology we have been taught, rather than whatever issues are forced on us this year or next. And no more so than in the subject she was writing about, namely marriage. We can get our act together in our own parishes, and not worry too much what other parishes and other bishops are doing and saying. We can affirm the tradition we have received and administer the sacrament to those who come to our churches.

Getting down to work

In fact, we could do still better than that. I think we have been given one of the best possible issues with which to begin our new life in The Society. Here is a subject to which we have already responded, back in 2002 when The Marriage Statement was accepted and issued. This is something we are already good at.

So let’s get down to work. The new Marriage Act has introduced a new form and definition of marriage, what it calls Equal Civil Marriage, where the gender of the two people is irrelevant. But it has also emphasized that marriage as understood and practised in the Church of England remains entirely unchanged. What are we (and I think I mean ‘we’ and not just ‘our bishops’ or even ‘our clergy’) going to do about it, as the traditional guardians of this God-given institution?

What we believe

Where do we stand? Following the statement from the Catholic Bishops, we know that we fully accept the tradition we have received, namely the Christian understanding of marriage, and specifically as expressed in Canon B 30; that we fully accept the authority of Holy Scripture. We are not hand-wringing liberals: we know what we believe.

Ms Backman is absolutely right to stress that there are two forms of marriage, that of the state and that of the Church, and this is now enshrined in law. I am not sure I agree with her that we should separate ourselves from the state entirely, and have our clergy cease to act as registrars for the state. It seems to me to be a right open to young couples in our society, and one that is not up to us to remove from them.

Opening the door

If there are now two forms of ‘marriage’ but only one of them is Holy Matrimony, how can we refuse it to a couple who seek it and who fulfil the criteria? Suppose they entered a civil contract, and later with the birth of their first child came to faith, and now want the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Surely, our parish church should be able to accommodate them! There they are sitting in the pews, members of our congregation, listening to prayers and sermons proclaiming the value of Christian marriage. How can we not encourage them to receive the sacrament?

It must not be up to them to force the door open, but for us (yes, all of us) to open the door and make them welcome, and share with them the great gift of God. In other words, it is not for individual incumbents and their PCCs to work out some form of ‘second’ marriage, as though it were a grudging concession, but for all of us (under the leadership of the bishops of course) to work out the what, when and how.

Questions to resolve

Such a service would need a formal introduction, to acknowledge the validity of the civil contract, because we would not want the Church to suggest that that civil contract was the same as living in sin. It may not be marriage as we understand it, but it’s not nothing either. And I assume we would encourage it to be in the context of the Mass. And I am sure there are plenty of other questions to resolve. Nothing complicated, but it is something we have to do together.

So let’s get started. Here is something positive to get our teeth into, something we have to offer, and share with others. And, above all, something that has nothing to do with women bishops; although if you think about it, many of the same principles apply. Let’s regain control of our own debate. Let’s take the sacrament to those who want it. ND