Thought for the Day - Bishop Tom Butler - 07/02/3013

Good morning. It’s obvious from the fallout from the debate in the Commons on Tuesday proposing gay marriage that the issue is an extremely divisive subject for the Conservative party. Gay issues have been equally problematic for the Church of England for several decades and there’s still no settled meeting of minds.
Official statements have made it clear that the Church can’t support the bill in its present form and that there are real questions about reshaping a fundamental social institution such as marriage. Church of England clergy preside at around a quarter of all the marriages in England, and being marriage registrars themselves with a duty to conduct the marriage of any qualified parishioner, there were obvious potential complications for clergy holding traditional views on marriage if gay marriage becomes the law of the land. Perhaps to avoid these unintended consequences the present bill prohibits Church of England premises from being used for such purposes, but the church didn’t ask for such a provision and indeed sought no more safeguards for itself than those provided for other Churches and faiths. Like them, if gay marriage becomes legal, the Church would prefer to respond in its own way and in its own time.

For example a couple of decades ago the re-marriage of divorced people in church was fiercely resisted by many clergy and frowned upon by the bishops yet such marriages today are commonplace.

The Church of England tends to respond to social change and reform itself incrementally and it must have the freedom to do so on this subject of gay marriage. One interesting ingredient in the official church’s response to the bill is the warm words it has to say about the need and value of committed lifelong relationships of gay couples recognized by civil partnerships. We tend to have short memories but I remember just how anxious ten years ago the bishops were when civil partnerships were first proposed and clergy were and are firmly told not to give a blessing in church to such partnerships. Now that the Church is recognizing that they are a blessing perhaps a natural next step is for the bishops to allow clergy who wish to do so to give a blessing in church before God on the happy couple.

I remember reading a piece by that great newspaper columnist of a previous age Bernard Levin. Not been of their tradition he had watched a General Synod debate on homosexuality. He wrote, “I saw these good people struggling with an issue that worried and confused them and not coming to any clear conclusions. But on reflection,” he went on, “to be worried and confused about this and not to come to a clear conclusion is probably the humane thing to do.” Perhaps he would have written the same if he ‘d witnessed Tuesday’s Commons debate. Certainly there’s a lot more talking and arguing still to be done.

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