Nicholas Turner explains one initiative that takes us beyond women bishops

For years, at FiF assemblies and in the pages of New Directions, we have expressed the desire to get off the battlefield and onto the mission field. Now, despite the best efforts of Watch to delay it, women can be made bishops, the battle has been fought, and we have left the battlefield: we discover a great deal of work to be done, and it is we who must do it. A challenge, but an exciting one.


In late January, Bishop Tony Robinson invited his Society clergy in the new mega-diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales to gather for a residential in Leeds. It was principally a chance to meet and pray together; and to consider our future in this new conglomerate. Moving beyond the important but technical details of our common life, we began to think about what new issues confront us.

It was Bishop Glyn who informally suggested a Theology Group to guide the particular subjects, and as we were going to Evening Prayer picked out its members: Fr Thomas Seville, of the Mirfield Community, and member of General Synod; Fr Ian McCormack, vicar of Grimethorpe, in the historic Wakefield diocese; Fr Andreas Wenzel, assistant curate of Horbury, in the historic Wakefield diocese; Fr Nicholas Turner, rector of Broughton, Marton Sc. Thornton, in the historic Bradford diocese.

So after supper, we sat down and got on with it. There is a lot to be said for such simple arrangements: if there’s work to be done, do it. Bishop Tony Robinson’s Theology Group, to give us our semi-formal title, will — and this was supported by the rest of the company at our session the next morning — tackle two pressing issues. Fr Seville CR will take the lead on producing a clear defence of the Seal of the Confessional, of which more on another occasion.

I have been charged with producing a response to the Marriage Act 2013. And, with the first anniversary of its implementation coming on the 29th of this month, to begin by outlining the issue that faces us. Some time, almost certainly within the next four years, we (which probably means the Council of Bishops and The Society more generally) must decide what to do when faced with an ordinand living in a civil marriage contracted after 24.03.14.

The nature of the problem

The new and fundamental fact, on which all marriage discussion must now be founded, is that since the enactment of the Marriage Act 2013, there are in England two distinct forms of marriage. There is Equal Civil Marriage, managed by state registrars, and there is Holy Matrimony, according to the Canons of the Church of England. This is made clear, right at the beginning of the Act, in Clause 1.3. What happens in other denominations is complicated: we need to come to that later.

Just before the Act came into force, on St Valentine’s Day last year the House of Bishops issued a document entitled Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage. Ah bless! There are, as the Act makes clear, two forms of marriage current in England, and `same sex marriage’ isn’t one of them. This was the whole purpose of the legislation — though not, it is true, of much of the propaganda.

We may guess, from what they wrote, that the Bishops were confusing the issues raised by the Marriage Act with those raised by the Pilling Report. Unfortunately, it seems there are no plans to update this pastoral guidance so as to deal with the actual rather than the (mis)perceived issues. Which is a pity, as the full implications of the Act are still emerging. The Bishops may be excused from not knowing at the time, for nor did anyone else; but wishing will not make the issue go away.

Until last year, civil and church marriages were in essence the same thing, two sides of the same coin. This is no longer the case. An Equal Civil Marriage lacks both the form and the substance of marriage as understood by the Church of England. It is, quite intentionally, not the same thing (Clause 1.3).

What happens next

How did this misunderstanding arise? There are several possible answers. The Government and its supporters wished, for political reasons, to present their legislation as gay marriage rather than as a redefinition of civil marriage. Because it was all done in such haste, the government did not fully understand the implications when they first proposed the idea. The Bishops, meanwhile, were immersed in wider issues of human sexuality, and what we generally call the gay issue. Perhaps they did not read the Act, but only the tendentious media commentary; perhaps some of them wanted to keep the focus on the gay issue; perhaps they were given the wrong theological analysis.

All this may have crept up on us, but we now face the simple fact that opposite-sex couples can enter two forms of marriage, and only one of them is recognized by the Canons of the Church of England. The implications need to be worked out and understood in detail, and this is the work we are engaged upon. At its simplest, we demand of our priests that they be properlybaptised, properly confirmed, and properly ordained. How could we then say that such a man living with a wife and children does not need to be properly married? There is work to be done. We invite others to join us.