Colin Podmore considers the threats to the sacraments
In the first part of this article I considered the threats in various parts of the Anglican Communion to baptism, holy communion, confirmation, ordination and anointing. In this second part I shall look at the two sacraments that seem most imminently threatened in the Church of England: matrimony and reconciliation.
Anyone reading the Prayer Book service of holy matrimony could not for a moment imagine that it could be used to marry two people of the same sex. In the Preface we read that it is
‘an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee.’
Whatever else you may say about a relationship between two people of the same sex—and I would want to stress that there are a lot of good things to say about such relationships—you simply cannot maintain that same-sex marriage was instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency. It does not signify the mystical union between Christ and his Church as that is portrayed in scripture, because the key point of that imagery is that Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride: the oppositeness or complementarity of the sexes is fundamental to the imagery. And finally, even the most inventive of those who have sought to rewrite Christian history in order to ‘find’ spurious precedents for modern innovations have yet to propose that records of Our Lord’s attendance at a gay wedding have been wickedly suppressed by later heteronormative tradition. If you turn marriage into an institution that can be entered into by couples of the same sex, it becomes something completely different from what the Prayer Book and the Christian tradition say it is. Just as it is no disrespect to an apple to say that it is not an orange, it is no disrespect to a gay couple to say that their relationship is not and cannot be Christian marriage.
Many of those who are most vociferous in their opposition to same-sex marriage seem to me to be unduly pre-occupied by the sexual activity that it may involve. If they were as vociferous in condemning heterosexual departures from Christian sexual morality, I might be more willing to listen to them. But at the moment too much of the opposition sounds to me to be driven by fear or loathing of homosexuality, combined with an excessive and prurient interest in the details of sexual practice, and a lack of respect for privacy and Christian conscience. With regard to sexual morality, Forward in Faith will never teach what the Church Catholic does not teach, but sexual morality is not our focus. I am a great fan of Pope Benedict, but I am also a great fan of Pope Francis. His pastoral heart, his recognition of the messiness of peoples’ lives, and his reluctance to condemn are combined with absolute faithfulness to the doctrine of the Church. That seems to me to offer a model for us to follow. Forward in Faith is implacably opposed to same-sex marriage for the simple reason that it overturns the nature of marriage and makes a change to the doctrine of the sacraments that we have no right to make. But we must at the same time stand apart from those who are hostile to gay people and to committed relationships between people of the same sex. We are on a tightrope. We must not fall off that tightrope into homophobia on the one side, but equally we must not fall off it into abandonment of Christian doctrine on the other side. We must stay on the tightrope.
Guess which church in the Anglican Communion has enacted provision for same-sex marriage? Yes, you’ve guessed it: The Episcopal Church (USA). And our friends north of the border in Scotland have followed them, adding schism to the problems of a church that is already vanishing into thin air before our eyes. In England, my sense is that at the moment there are neither the will in the House of Bishops nor the majorities in the other Houses that would be needed for a change in the doctrine of marriage. Whether and how long that situation will persist is impossible to predict.
And so to the seventh sacrament, reconciliation, or confession and absolution—the last to be treated in this article, but by no means the least. For Luther it was a third sacrament alongside baptism and the eucharist, and its importance in Lutheranism—at least in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—is attested by the elaborate and ornate baroque confessional boxes that are to be found to this day in Lutheran churches across Central Europe. Confession can be addressed relatively briefly here, because in 2018 there was a lot of coverage in New Directions of the threat to the seal of the confessional.
For those who have not been following this story, it is a matter of doctrine in the Church Catholic and in the Church of England, enshrined in canon law and reaffirmed without dissent by the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1959, that a priest may not under any circumstances reveal to anyone what has been said to him in sacramental confession. Some safeguarding professionals and victims of sexual abuse argue that this principle, the seal of the confessional, should be qualified or abolished, and that priests should be required to report to the police any matter mentioned in confession that may indicate that someone has been abused or may be at risk.
A few moments’ thought will show that this would drive a coach and horses through the whole nature and practice of sacramental confession. There is no evidence that the seal of the confessional has actually resulted in harm coming to any person. All the evidence is that confession of a crime is vanishingly rare. But if the seal were abolished, confession of crimes would cease completely: those concerned would no longer be placing themselves under the influence of a priest who might persuade them to go the police themselves. What apparently does happen is that those who have been abused reveal this in confession, because they know that it is a ‘safe space’ and what is said will go no further. Abolishing the seal would remove that confidence and abolish that ‘safe space’ for victims of abuse. It is a very bad idea.
But, as so often, there is a prior question. Even if it were a good idea to abolish the seal (which it isn’t), we simply don’t have the right to do so. As with the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, or same-sex marriage in church, it would make a change to a doctrine that belongs not to us but to the whole Church—a change that the Church of England, being merely part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, has no right to make. As with the ordination of women, the issue of episcopal ordination, and same-sex marriage (if it ever arises), Forward in Faith will defend the sacrament of confession.
At the moment what will happen is not clear. All the indications are that not many members of the House of Bishops think that trying to abolish the seal would be a good thing to do. That it would provoke another battle, not just with traditional catholics but also with those who claim a catholic identity but differ from us on issues of gender, is clear. A change in the Church of England’s stance would also be counterproductive ecumenically, leaving the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales isolated. Yet the clamour of loud voices in wider society, and the possibility of pressure from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, may lead the some in the Church to abandon Christian doctrine in order to curry favour with the secular world.
As has been pointed out, the Christian Church has been there before. St Polycarp was martyred in 155 AD because he refused to place even a pinch of incense in a brazier burning before a statue of Caesar. For a priest to breach the seal of the confessional would be no less a betrayal of Christ and his Church. As Canon Robin Ward said to the Forward in Faith National Assembly in November 2018, ‘We will not obey an unjust law. We will not taste the flesh of the sacrifice.’
So then, Forward in Faith is not a single-issue organization. Circumstances have forced us to focus on the issue of gender in relation to the sacraments in the case of holy orders, and one day we may be forced back to issues of gender in relation to holy matrimony—or indeed that of so-called ‘gender transition.’ At present the most pressing issue in defending the sacraments concerns confession, with the possibility of proposals about Methodist ministers still lurking in the background. But, as this article has demonstrated, all of the sacraments are under threat in different ways, and we need to be vigilant and diligent in defending them all.
In addressing each of these individual threats, it is important that we do not lose sight of bigger threats that lurk behind them. Many of them are driven by three fundamental—and linked—errors in relation to Christian mission.
The first error is the belief that the way to bring people into the Church is to take away anything that might be perceived as a hurdle or barrier to them coming in, and instead respond to the great cry in society at large for ‘inclusion.’ In the name of inclusion, apparently, we mustn’t use the names for the persons of the Trinity that Christ taught us to use. We mustn’t tell people that they must be baptized, let alone confirmed, in order to receive communion. We mustn’t tell women that they can’t be fathers in God or men that they can’t be wives. We mustn’t tell Methodist ministers that they have to be ordained by a bishop in order to be a priest in our church. We mustn’t tell safeguarding professionals that it is not they who determine the doctrines of the Church Catholic. And so on.
The second error is embodied in the name of the organization Affirming Catholicism. It is an ironic name, of course, because the one thing that organization has never done is affirm Catholicism. Their error is in thinking that, because God was incarnate in Christ, he has thereby sanctified the world so that everything in it is good: Christ became human, so humanity is good. Therefore, apparently, people need to be affirmed as they are, and told they are alright. Those who think this way have forgotten the doctrine of the Fall—the truth that humanity has not followed God’s plan, and instead has lost the plot. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,’ St John says. If we are all alright as we are, then Christ dying on the cross for our salvation was pointless, a wasted effort. But we know that is not the case. St John the Baptist’s message was not, ‘You’re alright as you are. I affirm you. Good luck to you.’ Rather, it was: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’
Alongside misplaced inclusion and affirmation, the third error is to think that in order to attract people to the Church you have to reshape the Church so that it becomes a reflection of the beliefs, prejudices and fantasies of secular society. Women have to be bishops because they can be prime ministers. Two men can marry each other in church because they would like to. If a man decides he would like to be a woman, he is a woman, and the Church should offer him a liturgical service in which his decision to be a woman can be ‘affirmed’ so that he (or is it now she, or they?) will feel fully ‘included.’ And why should children be expected to go through some sort of instruction to be prepared for receiving communion? For children as for adults, the rule must be: ‘Whatever they want they must have. They must be affirmed.’
There are several problems with these approaches. The first and fundamental problem is that if you reshape the doctrine of the Church to resemble the current prejudices, whims and fashions of secular society, it ceases to be Christian doctrine, and the Church ceases, in any recognizable sense, to be the Church. St Paul told the Romans: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ There is also the problem that, as Dean Inge remarked: ‘Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.’
But even on its own terms, the strategy of following secular opinion and fashions in the hope of growing the Church is problematic, because it just doesn’t work. All the evidence is that churches that make demands of people, that offer them timeless truths that require effort in order to be understood (and perhaps in this life can never be fully understood), churches that stand out from the ambient culture—such churches grow. By contrast, churches that make no demands, have nothing distinctive to offer, and merely pander to people’s prejudices seem not to grow or to hold any great attraction. In them there is nothing to learn or discover, no sense of journey, nothing to move people on from where they are, in fact no obvious reason for attending them at all.
These final remarks are important, not just as an analysis of why so many things that are contrary to Christian doctrine are proposed, but also as a reminder of our calling in The Society. Forward in Faith is indeed an organization committed to defending the doctrine of the sacraments and we will do so vigorously whenever that is needed. But to be defensive and to fight battles can never be the sum total of our aim. All of that is secondary to our main task of supporting The Society and the bishops who lead it in conforming ourselves ever more closely to the mind of Christ, deepening our faith, and bringing others to join us in worshipping God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Dr Podmore is to retire as Director of Forward in Faith in February. This article is based on an address that he gave to the Guildford and Manchester branches of Forward in Faith in February and September 2019.