The moment has come. I can no longer put off writing about Living in Love and Faith. If you have had the good fortune to have lived in splendid isolation from such things over the last few years, then Living in Love and Faith is the name given by the Church of England to the process it has instituted to address issues of human sexuality and, most particularly, to examine the case for same-sex marriage in church.
My reluctance is not borne of any trepidation around discussing the issues involved, or indeed any shame in the position Catholic Christians are being asked to adopt, but a wariness of the atmosphere in which we are looking to make a contribution to this debate.
It does not require many on-line searches to reveal that anything short of unreserved support for same-sex marriage in church is viewed in the Zeitgeist as straightforward homophobia. We are told that any reticence is an attack on those in same-sex relationships; it undermines the ministry of clergy in same-sex relationships; and, most tellingly of all, it further removes us from secular society.
There is a lot here to digest and we need to match the theological integrity which we seek with generosity and understanding on a pastoral level. It will not come as a surprise that our starting point has to be sacramental; sacraments are, after all, the lifeblood of the Church and matrimony is one of those sacraments. And it will be even less of a surprise to hear the view being proffered that the Church of England should not act unilaterally on this or any other matter of doctrine so central to the worship and witness of the Church.
The parallel with the sacrament of holy orders is an instructive one. There, too, unilateral action was ill-advised. Critically, that is not just because the universal church is not in agreement at this particular moment in time. Some would argue that it will catch up with the Church of England and other denominations in due course. However, the key point is that the great churches of the East and West – the key components of the universal church – perceive there to be fundamental theological problems in altering the nature of holy orders. There is no need to rehearse them in detail right now but they are familiar from the debates of the last half a century: the nature of the person of Christ, the continuation of apostolic ministry, and the scriptural basis for a sacrificial priesthood.
It is the same case with matrimony. The essence of marriage as being between a man and a woman has its origin in the biblical narrative of the Creation. Further, the Church’s understanding of marriage has developed in such a way that it recognises the differences between the two sexes, not so that they are held in competition with one another but that they complement one another. This is a notion that most of contemporary western society struggles to comprehend.
Even more counter-culturally, we assert that all relationships are not the same, without in any way seeking to belittle or downgrade any of those relationships. We need to go further and challenge the cult which has grown up around gender self-identity in our society as that points to where this debate will next rest.
In our small corner of Christendom, we would do well to note that not only is the universal church not seeking to embark on these sorts of innovations and reforms but moreover the theological reasons for it not doing do. Without informed theological debate, we enter the abyss of emotive statement pitted against emotive statement with no sensible way to arbitrate which view holds sway.
Our movement has a long history of both remaining faithful to the teaching underlying the administration of the Church’s sacraments and providing appropriate pastoral care to all those seeking it, mindful of individual circumstance and accommodating of it. This is something of which we should be proud and pledge to continue.
We have already witnessed the opening salvoes in the campaign for same-sex marriage in the Church of England. The backdrop is a trajectory of an increasingly fractured society for all of us and an increasingly self-absorbed existence for individuals within that society.
Our response needs be bold in proclaiming what the Church has received by way of revealed truth from God. And we need to do that with a deep love and with an unerring faith.