If you have ever harboured an ambition to walk down the aisle with your beloved (same-sex) partner and have your union blessed by your local vicar, just like mum and dad did, you might as well abandon it now. The Archbishop of Canterbury announced last month that there won’t be any official church sanction for gay marriage, or even “blessing” of gay relationships. No bells will ring for Jack and Jim, no hymns will be sung to celebrate the love of Jill and Joan – not in the Anglican Church anyway.
The decision came after a lot of very important (well, they think they’re important) bishops of the Anglican Church gathered in Brazil, and after a great deal of blessed blethering came to the conclusion that “the question of public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions is still a cause for divisive controversy. There is no theological consensus… therefore we, as a body, cannot support the authorisation of such rites.”
And with that, the bishops hoped that the medieval sacristy door had been slammed shut on a controversy that was tearing their Church apart.
But it was only the start of the fireworks. Three days later, a Canadian bishop, Michael Ingham of New Westminster in Canada, metaphorically punched Rowan Williams in the gob by authorising the blessing of the relationship of two gay men, Michael Kalmuk and Kelly Mountford in St Margaret’s church in East Vancouver. The two men had been partners for 21 years and were “married” by the Rev. Margaret Marquardt who, according to a report in The Guardian, said: “all human relationships have the potential to be the agent of God’s purpose.” The two men walked up the aisle to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, although it was brickbats rather than confetti that the Church decided to throw.
The Church of England Newspaper headline said that the Canadian development had “made a mockery of the Primates” (but wouldn’t it have been wittier if they’d said, “made a monkey of the Primates?”)
Anyway, the “act of disobedience” left the Anglican bishops of the third world – where religion is still, unaccountably and regrettably, taken seriously – seething. There hadn’t been so much fury among the reactionaries since that memorable time one of them tried to “exorcise” the evil spirits from a bewildered-looking Richard Kirker.
They began “breaking communion” with the Canadian diocese, apparently the most severe sanction available to them. It means that if Bishop Ingham should ever find himself in Nigeria or Kuala Lumpur he needn’t bother popping round to the vicarage for tea and cake because he won’t be welcome.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the Primates are “at war over gay marriage.” Jonathan Petre, the paper’s religious correspondent, wrote: “A group of traditionalist archbishops warned that the worldwide Anglican Church had reached a ‘defining moment’ after a liberal bishop in Canada authorised its first ‘gay marriage’.”
The holy homophobes issued what they labelled “a call to action” (which usually mean they want someone punished – and punished good). They said: “Bishop Ingham’s action has brought the Anglican Communion to a defining moment in which a clear choice has to be made between remaining a Communion or disintegrating into a federation of Churches.” They called upon the Canadian Church “to discipline Ingham and to suspend him as a Bishop in the Church.” He was called a heretic and a blasphemer.
The Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Rev (it says here) Drexel Gomez said that those who defy church policy should be “openly rebuked.” But Rowan Williams doesn’t seem like an openly rebuking kind of guy. He’s the sort that would say: “I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind awfully not setting fire to my beard.” Such meekness and mildness might be theologically correct for an Archbishop, but he does risk being trampled underfoot by some of his bishops who wouldn’t know humility if it bit them on the bum.
As Mary Anne Sieghart wrote in The Times: “What is going on in the Church of England is medieval: like the Spanish Inquisition without the violence. Priests are being forced to affirm publicly views they do not hold privately. Dr Williams is being stretched on a modern-day rack, pulled in opposite directions by factions of the Church. The result is that he is leading a life as double as those of the many covertly gay priests in his care. What he believes privately is one thing; what he feels forced to declare publicly is another. It has long been a scandal in an institution that preaches integrity that gay priests have been coerced into dishonesty. It is even more of a scandal that the leader of the Church can no longer be true to himself.”
But why can’t he be true to himself? Is Williams’s reticence a sign of strength or weakness? We’ll have to wait and see.
Certainly some would like him to be more outspoken. When he heard of the Canadian “marriage” the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed “sadness and disquiet”, saying the Canadian Church had “gone significantly further than church teaching or pastoral concern could justify. I very much regret the inevitable tension and division that will result.”
That wasn’t hard enough for Archbishop Peter Jensen of Australia, who is seen as the leader of the ‘evangelical’ wing of Anglicanism. He was hopping up and down like Skippy, when he exasperatedly said of Dr Williams: “We’re looking for something stronger than he’s ‘saddened’”.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury was aware that he was in trouble over gay rights from day one. But it is partly his own fault that the he’s becoming ever more entangled. He gives out confusing mixed messages that try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
For instance, in a new biography, written with his authorisation and serialised in The Times, Dr Williams gives some insight into his personal attitude to gay relationships. “His private view remains that an adjustment of teaching on sexuality would not be different from the kind of flexibility now being shown to divorcees who wish to remarry, or the softening in the 16th century of the Church’s opposition to borrowing with interest, or the 19th and 20th century shifts of view on subjects like slavery and eternal hellfire.”
There is plenty of indication in the book that Williams has personal sympathy with gay people and their desire for acceptance and for the recognition of their relationships as legitimate and valuable. At the same time he has made it clear that he is going to do nothing to change the Church’s current anti-gay policy.
Yet when he was appointed as Archbishop, he wrote to all his primates assuring them that he intended to abide by the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution upholding “traditional biblical norms on the issue”.
The “traditionalists” have been on his back from the start because they perceive him to be “liberal” and the liberals have been similarly harassing him for apparently chucking in his lot with the reactionaries.
He may, of course, be playing a clever waiting game. As Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for The Times pointed out, doctrine can and does change, however “eternal” the biblical literalists like to think the word of God to be.
“One by one, some of the Bible’s most exacting prohibitions and injunctions have been over-ruled in the name of secular progress,” she wrote. “Most church leaders would support such developments of doctrine. Few would suggest today that a woman who seeks to protect her husband in a fight by seizing his adversary’s genitals should be punished by having her hand cut off (Deut xxv,12). Or that a stubborn, rebellious boy who drinks and eats to excess and refuses to obey his parents should be stoned to death (Deut xxi, 21). However, it is the Bible’s prohibitions on men lying with other men, chiefly in Leviticus and the writings of St Paul, that are cited by evangelicals as the main authority for their opposition to homosexual relationships and ordinations.”
We’ve heard the arguments about what the Bible passages actually mean a hundred times before. The truth is, most of us couldn’t give a toss.
For the majority of gay people the real issue is not whether our relationships are in order in the sight of God, but whether we will get the same treatment as married hets when it comes to pensions, taxes, inheritance, next-of-kin rights, property matters and so on.
Just like in California, where last month the State Assembly approved a Bill giving gay couples the same rights that state law confers on married couples. The new law says “registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”
But it doesn’t all happen on the other side of the Atlantic. Quite soon the Government in this country is going to issue its proposals for gay partnerships rights. They have been a long time coming, and it will be even longer before they are enacted (if they ever are). We don’t know yet what they are going to offer, but we should be clear that we aren’t going to accept second best.
We won’t be able to consecrate our nuptials in church (unless we live in Canada), but we should be able to go down the local Town Hall and sign the marriage register in exactly the same way as straights do, and get exactly the same benefits that straights do. That wouldn’t be difficult, it wouldn’t be complicated, all the structures are already in place. There’s no need to invent new ones so that gay partnerships are different to everyone else’s. It may be holy wedlock in Church, but at the register office it’s just plain old matrimony, and the Anglican Communion can go and boil its collective head, mitres and all.
After all, if we want a religious ceremony we can have one – albeit not in a church. But what’s wrong with a marquee or a function room at the pub – or in the front room if it comes to that. There is usually a gay friendly priest somewhere who will wave his magic wand over us and tell us that Jesus loves us, even if the Council of Bishops doesn’t. Or we can make up our own ceremony leaving God out of it altogether -after all, if he doesn’t want us at his house, why should he get an invite to our happy day? A lovely little ceremony can be concocted using your favourite poetry and music, and there can be pledges with rings and the whole shebang. Everybody say aaah.
But we need the Government to give us the rights that go with our emotional commitment. And that’s why, when the consultation starts, we all need to be involved.
Watch this space.