A Response to the Church of England’s Document and Discourse on Sexuality, Marriage and Gender.
New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants:
This year, in England and Wales at least, the ‘Gay Marriage‘ controversy has been hitting the headlines again, especially in recent weeks, with the Church in Wales performing its first service of blessing for a same-sex couple at St. Asaph’s Cathedral, the bishop himself presiding. When the government proposal to make secular same-sex marriage legal was being discussed in the UK Parliament in 2013, I received many unsolicited social media posts on the issue, many hurling abuse at the Christian churches, most of which showed a lack of understanding of the Christian view of marriage and the way in which it is framed within the law in the United Kingdom, as a result of centuries of conflict and compromise between church and state. I became deeply concerned by the strength of the language used by both advocates and opponents of this proposal. I’ve been drawn into using some of this myself, I have to admit, and repent of some of the comments I made back then and more recently. Back then, I promised some of those I engaged with that I would publish ‘a blog’ on these matters, and after taking part in The Church of England’s study programme, Living in Love and Faith this autumn, together with my Anglican church group in Budapest, I have decided to revisit and update what I wrote then as a more formal submission to the current discussions on these issues. The range of digital resources, including a four-hundred-and-fifty-page book, films, podcasts and an online library, are available at:
These issues are not as simple as we may at first think in Britain, mainly because of its complicated history of the entanglements of church and state. For American episcopal friends, there is a clear separation between church and state, and I have often found it difficult to explain to them why the Church of England cannot simply act as it wishes, not just because the Archbishop of Canterbury is ‘Head’ of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The law as it now stands in England precludes the Church of England from conducting same-sex marriage services so that a further Act of Parliament would be needed if the Church decided that it wanted to permit these. There would, no doubt, have to be widespread exemptions for priests whose consciences would not allow them to comply with such a change, creating further complexities and inequalities. Perhaps the time has come to disentangle the Christian marriage service from the secular registration of marriages and civil partnerships, but I know this would be bitterly opposed in England, at least, and, in the meantime, there are many homosexual Christians who do not seem to feel sufficiently welcomed in the churches through the affirmation of their relationships, either formally or informally. As someone who has grappled with these issues of sexuality and the Christian faith over more than forty years now, has been challenged by the differences in marriage laws in the UK and Hungary in arranging our own ceremonies as a heterosexual couple, and has, as a wedding ‘Master of Ceremonies’, had to carefully choreograph the intertwining of the diverse religious and humanist traditions which are part of the lives of many friends, I am concerned that the needs of Gay Christian couples, and those of other faiths, are being drowned out by the chorus of church-bashing which appears to be part of a rising tide of aggressive atheism. Less than a year ago, after becoming party leader, one of Britain’s politicians felt it necessary to apologise to party members for visiting a Covid-19 testing centre at an independent church that had simply decided against permitting same-sex marriage services, as is its right under the law.
Until the change in the law, my own ‘national church’, the Religious Society of Friends, had long been ‘permitted’ to marry heterosexual couples, without any formal litany, at its meeting houses, under UK law. It had also come to a new view of sexuality in 1963, publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex four years before male homosexual relations were decriminalised in law in England and Wales. I found this little booklet extremely helpful as an evangelical Baptist and university student in 1975-6 when I became increasingly confused about issues of sexuality. I began to attend meetings for worship, though I didn’t become a member of the Society until 1989, when I was working for Quakers in the West Midlands, before moving to Hungary. Meanwhile, I continued to worship as an Anglican in Wales and the North of England, where I taught in a Church of England High School. In 2009, following an internal ‘discernments’ culminating in a minute at London Yearly Meeting, the Society published We are but Witnesses which put forward a case for a departure from the traditional view of Christian marriage and argued for a change in the law to permit same-sex marriages to be ‘solemnised’ in places of worship throughout Britain. I found myself unable to support this for three reasons:
1. Marriage is a religious matter, not a legal one, and whilst governments, which come and go, may wish to support it, we do not seek privilege from it as Christians, but regard it as a solemn duty. The gospel calls us to support equality in society and for that reason, many of us have supported the move towards equity in legal matters which the introduction of ‘civil partnerships’ has enabled. These have now been made available to heterosexual couples, and, if there are remaining inequalities between marriages and civil partnerships, these are surely matters requiring the attention of the state, not the churches. Whilst the Church has social responsibilities as part of its witness, its role is to hold to the eternal truths of Christ’s kingdom on earth, which is separate from secular society.
2. The Bible, and, more particularly the New Testament and, even more particularly, the words of Jesus Christ, our founder, are quite clear both in defining marriage and in stating that homosexual men are excluded from the obligation to marry (Matthew 19: 11-12). Nothing is said about lesbian relationships, not because they did not exist in the ancient world, but because they were not seen as preventing women from marrying men. We need to look no further than Jesus’ words for guidance since they fulfil the teachings of the Torah, and the apostles were writing at a time when they believed that the ‘third dispensation’, the second coming of Christ, would pre-date many of their deaths. Therefore, marriage was only seen as a way of controlling sexual relations on a temporary basis. I have not found any outright condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual relations in the New Testament, merely condemnation of promiscuity. Some may have differing interpretations, and there are certainly well-known ‘prohibitions’ in the Old Testament, though these date from a period when the Jews were struggling to survive as a distinct ‘people’ and homosexuality was viewed as undermining marriage and procreation.
3. Marriage, as a public declaration of a heterosexual relationship where two people become one family, is fundamentally different from the formalisation of a ‘partnership’, and I would characterise this as a two into one union as contrasted with a one plus one relationship. As Christians, we celebrate diversity in human relations; we don’t insist on everyone doing things the same way. Being equal is not being the same. If we didn’t believe this, we would still have one undivided, catholic church. Rather than insisting on everyone being ‘married’, we should be finding ways of ensuring that commitments and ‘covenants’ between all loving couples can be affirmed and recognised in a variety of acts of public worship. This is what I have tried to show below.
Towards Equity in Litanies hallowing Unions and Partnerships in Church:
In addition to the scriptures, a survey of the marriage litanies of the main Christian denominations reveals what I believe to be two fundamental, universal truths:
1. That Christian marriage, as an institution, cannot be extended to same-sex unions, if the Church is to remain true to the teachings and actions of Christ in defining the nature of that ‘institution’ throughout the centuries.
2. That the current ‘equity’ (‘equality’ is not a precise enough term) given to same-sex relations through the change in the law allowing ‘civil partnerships’ does not prevent local congregations and church governments from listening to what same-sex Christian couples would themselves like and making very simple adjustments to existing sentences in the litanies in order to include blessings and covenants for these brothers and sisters in Christ.
As a ‘model’, churches in England could follow the litany devised for this purpose within the Church in Wales. In making these simple changes, no judgement of same-sex relationships, in general, is required and the special nature of Christian marriage need not be compromised, neither would the liberty of conscience of the ministers who would be asked to conduct such services. They, and their congregations, would simply be witnesses to the covenant made between two people, and would therefore be able to bless it as a gathered church community. In practical terms, the Blessing of a Civil Partnership would take place only after a civil ceremony has already taken place in the Registry Office, or another place authorised by the Registrar. The Minister would not perform this ceremony until s/he has seen the Certificate of Registration of the Civil Partnership.
In Christian terms then, ‘The hallowing of the union between two persons is …
‘… so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour …
‘… to honour the companionship, help, and comfort which partners ought to have for each other …
‘… for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where its bonds are held in honour.’
The third of these terms would also include the role of marriage in procreation and family life, without the need to be prescriptive about the exact nature of these. The Orders and Prayers for Church Worship make it clear that while we base everything we believe as Christians on the immutable Word of God, the nature of the sacraments and liturgy of worship have evolved over the centuries and are part of a continuing ‘conversation’ between God and men, which is two-way. We don’t need to wait for God to speak first, we can have something to say to Him, based on the changing needs of human society in the twenty-first century. But neither do the churches themselves need to ‘keep up with’ the changing values and mores of secular society. We have been called to continue a dialogue with God and a discourse with each other on these issues, and especially with Gay Christians.
Further observations on issues of Gender, Celibacy, Parenting and Faithfulness:
Much of the book, Living in Love and Faith, is concerned with definitions of ‘Gender identity’ as well as ‘sexuality’. Whilst recent political and societal discussions have been concerned with the former as well as the latter, there is no obviously stated reason as to why the Church should be primarily concerned with both questions, certainly not at the same time. Whilst the recognition of the existence of a diverse spectrum of sexuality is something which Christians can more easily recognise as evident in both society and the Church, the concept of ‘Gender’ as something non-binary is comparatively recent in societal, and especially scientific discourse. Most recently, the eminent geneticist, Lord Robert Winston, has stated publicly that, whatever our individual preferences and identities, genetic ‘sex’ is fundamentally binary, affecting every cell in the body. We may choose to change our ‘identity’, but that choice cannot alter our sex at birth. That said, there are, of course, a small number of people who are born ‘intersexual’, and there are those who grow up feeling that they were born into the ‘wrong sex’. However, the text of Living in Love and Faith itself warns against the counselling of children to seek to change their original biological sex:
“The administration of puberty suppressants and sex hormones to children who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria is proving to be very controversial. The National Health Service has recently announced an independent review ‘to make evidence-based recommendations about the future use of these drugs’. ”
The Evangelical Alliance produced a report, Transsexuality, in 2000, and the House of Bishops drew on this and other materials in Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003, although the bishops did not come to conclusions on ‘trans’ questions. It suggested two questions of importance in ongoing reflection. Firstly, whether obedience to Christ for trans Christians meant ‘learning to accept and live with their given biological identity because this is the identity which God has given them’ or ‘seeking a new post-operative identity on the grounds that it is this which will enable them to more fully express the person God intends them to be’. Yet, how do they, or we, know that God intends them to become a different sex from the one they were ‘given’ at birth? This also raises the wider question of ‘conversion therapy’, already illegal in terms of ‘physical treatments’. Psychological approaches can also cross a line into abuse, and current considerations for changes to the law in the UK would also outlaw Church-based courses with the intention of ‘converting’ participants from stated sexual and gender identities. Such legal protections may be needed, especially to protect vulnerable young people. But is it justifiable to ‘ban’ any form of ‘counselling’ within a religious context, even when requested by the individual concerned, given that it may exclude the possibility of any form of church-based ‘conversation’ initiated by that individual? I think not.
One pattern of discipline that many Christians have pursued is celibacy. That is, Christians have found themselves called to various forms of discipleship – and some of those forms have required sexual abstinence, even within marriage. They have valued celibacy because it enables intensive dedication to prayer and to the work of Christ’s kingdom. This, in my view, is a matter of deliberate choice and is not to be confused with ‘singleness’, which may be the result of circumstances. It is not just an obligation to be placed, as at present, upon the priesthood in the Catholic Church, an association that may be both outdated and unhelpful to the wider church and society.
As Christians, we should not simply be concerned with how sexual matters are dealt with in the Church, however. In relation to societal concerns, we must also be willing to witness to the potential moral issues of widening the availability of IVF treatment to gay and lesbian couples on tax-funded health services, on the expansion of surrogacy, with all the complications entailed, and especially on gene-editing and potential development in genetic engineering. As the parent of a child born with a genetic disability, this latter issue concerns me greatly given that, in a globalised economy, many countries lack the basic controls on these developments which currently exist in the UK.
Above all, surely what matters most to Christians in their relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is faithfulness, just as it does in their relationships with God. It is, after all, one of the gifts of the Spirit. I was recently heartened to hear that when a website migrated across the Atlantic encouraging married individuals to cheat on their partners there was an outcry and many church members joined a counter-site called ‘Faithfulness Matters’ which drove the affair-arranging site offline in the UK in a matter of weeks. The Bard of Stratford captured the importance of simple faithfulness in Sonnet CLII:
In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing;
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn, …
But why of two oaths’ breach do I accuse thee
When I break twenty? I am perjur’d most;
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost:
For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy …
All of us are warned against committing adultery and commanded in the gospels and the letters to remain faithful to our partners.
Andrew James Chandler, PhD. (Wales), M.Ed. (Exon), December 2021.