It would take a legal eagle t0 scope the formal implications of this event. How the diocese of London responds is up to the diocese of London. Church Law has its limits, and must be applied fairly and accountably. In the C of E law is not a prescriptive straitjacket, but a framework to secure mutual respect and understanding, a platform upon which to be creative, whilst caring for others. Dramatic unilateral gestures, however, inevitably strain mutual respect and understanding.
First, it was not a wedding or a marriage but the blessing of a civil partnership. Mr Wynne-Jones was well aware of this from his conversation with me today. If others construe it as a wedding, than they do so deliberately in order to ferment division.
Second, it was not and was intended to be a provocative act. It was not undertaken in defiance of the Bishop of London and there was no plea from him that I should not officiate at the service.
Third, we should remember that this service celebrated the love that the two persons involved have for each other. I officiated at it because Fr Peter Cowell has been my friend and colleague for many years. 300 people joined in the service; nearly 200 received communion, and there were dozens of other clergy present. It was not a rally or a demonstration. If other people want to turn [it?] into a loveless battlefield for the future of the Church of England, then it is they who will carry responsibility for the consequences.
But here’s a how d’you do. Almost every line of Martin’s Telegraph statement seems disingenuous. Why might people think this service was a wedding? Well, apart from what Basil Fawlty used to call the bleeding obvious, its words do far more than pray for blessing on a personal agreement. They “join together these men in a holy covenant of love and fidelity.” This binding is done by “pledging of troth, declaring the same by giving and receiving of a ring and by joining of hands.” I can quite imagine Joe Public with no interest in “fermenting” (=fomenting?) division, or even Mr Wynne-Jones, misunderstanding the position.
Then there’s the absolute statement that this was not a provocative act. It reminds me of an old lady I met years ago in Slough who said “darkies deteriate (sic) an area.” When challenged, she simply declared that her words were not racist. But can we make things what we want others to think them by declaring them so?
Inquiring minds will wonder what the difference is between “defying the bishop of London” and “writing to ask the bishop for guidance, being given it, disagreeing with it, and then deciding to go ahead anyway.” Shooting first and asking questions afterwards has a longer pedigree in the Church of England than many might think. I once wrote a thesis on Victorian Anglo-Catholic defiance of bishops, and there are interesting precursors. However, inquiring minds will also wonder how acting outside the guidelines squares with the promises of accountability all clergy, including bishops, make when licensed.
Martin’s third paragraph is potent romantic novelist stuff, but eerily autistic. The logic is reminiscent of the Judaean People’s Front who kidnapped Pilate’s wife then declared that responsibility for her welfare was entirely Pilate’s. Couldn’t it accept any responsibility for its actions? The labrador feels so right when it crashes into the lounge wagging its tail. Little does it know or care about the furniture.
There is a natural and growing desire by gay people to covenant friendships in Church. As yet there is absolutely no consensus within the world, or world church, or C of E, about what or how. Concocting a service to make it feel as though there is won’t change that fact. How far are such covenants a personal and private matter, or to what extent can the Church Catholic share (or even form) them? The presence of a priest with two people praying for blessing is one way of discerning this. Perhaps a full blown Hello Magazine job is, too. Or not.
I suspect this particular service, whilst securing Martin’s place in the limelight, will generate far more heat than light. The theological confusion inherent in taking off a 1662 Prayer Book wedding, lock stock and two smoking barrels, may actually make it harder to define the significance of covenanted friendships before and within the whole Christian community.
Post-Freudian anthropology, whilst most triumphant in the West, is incomprehensible to the vast majority of people in this world. Many post-Colonials note that it flowers in the least relational, most depressed, screwed up and confused societies. They just don’t buy it. More work needs to be done about this aspect of the concept before it can go global.
Good work has begun to develop a stronger theology of covenanted friendship to engage people across the board and command the respect of more than just partisans. Jeffrey John’s book (Permanent, Stable Faithful) and responses moved the mutual listening and learning process forwards. This particular event, for all its private joy and publicity, will erode trust and muddy the waters. Hitherto, Screw-you-Jimmy polarizing unilateralism has been the preserve of a small coterie of reactionary zealots the other side of the river. It always makes the people who indulge in it feel good. It can easily become an issue in itself, distract and annoy, and sap the capacity of the organisation to address the real question intelligently. I hope I’m wrong. We’ll see.
Because nothing can happen in the wacky world of hackdom without “rage” and “fury” I just want to record that I don’t honestly feel any of either about this. Over and above all the synthetic inflammatory hacky-crappies, I think I identify strongly with Doug Chaplin’s take.