Monday, 16 June 2008

Looks like a Duck...

Interesting to wake up to the dulcet tones of my former colleague, Dr Martin Dudley, on the R4 Sunday programme, discussing a recent gay blessing ceremony in his church in London. He’s told the Telegraph:

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.

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.

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.


Doug said...

"an innocent member of the public such as Mr Wynne-Jones, with no interest in “fermenting” (fomenting?) division" Indeed. Where would we be without the Gledhills, Wynee-Jones, Petres? I'm only grateful that we have such responsible religious journalism that is never interested in fomenting division just to help sell a newspaper.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Fair cop, Doug. Is ironic. I could have done with one of those ironic emoticons, I wot. 8-)

Doug said...

I got the irony, honest. I just thought it deserved a further riff played on it

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind my referencing this for a post of my own.

I think you've got a reasonably well-balanced view of what folk will think - and how they may react...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, both and most welcome.I got so horrified overnight at what I seemed to be saying I moved it round in the morning!!!

Anonymous said...

Screwing the lid on a boiling pot without turning off the heat underneath is bound to lead to an explosion. Many godly communicants of the Church of England are gay (although most gay people run a mile from the church nowadays because of its focus on being hostile to gay relationships). Their love for each other isn't going to go away and, as Christians, they are going to want to bring it before God and the Church. It isn't really an answer to say, as we have for a few years now, we deeply respect and sympathise with you but we would rather you didn't frighten the evangelicals by shouting your love too loud.

Sometimes you have to take a stand and break the rules. Of course, you must then take the consequences. Ask Rosa Parks.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to double post! But your argument is essentially that the action is "untimely", and I wonder if you would be interested, in the present context, to re-read the Reverend Martin Luther King's celebrated "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" which addresses arguments quite similar to yours?

It can be read, e.g., at

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for the MLK reference, which I am sure is a powerful argument for civil disobedience in various circumstances, some would say including this. I am open to persuasion, but not convinced myself that this is where we are. On a world scale, one person's liberty is another person's neocolonialism. People with consciences are as convinced on both sides of the argument about taking gender out of marriage. But perhaps this was the case about segregation in the US. There is also a vigorous debate about the desirability or not of marriage in itself for anyone, including gay people. Supposing it to be desirable, significant movement will come in the middle not at the extremes of the range, as gay people enact ways of relating to each other that stack up in context and win respect. It may turn out that the acme of these is Cranmer's 1552 concept of heterosexual marriage, or it may be there are other possibilities here. I am not sure what lies behind this service is has been thought through. These people are now, says this service, theologically bound to each other. How? What are the implications of that for them, or the public, or the church?

I commended Jeffrey John's work because it brought about an intelligent engagement that actually changed some people's minds and hearts. I believe that's the way to go. Yet zealots on both sides are actually closing down communication channels.

To illustrate we in our diocese sponsored roadshows on sexuality in 2000/2001 in which gay members of LGCM and the True Freedom trust led thoughts and reflections together in day worshops from their various points of view for hundreds of our clergy about the basic assumptions we make about gender and sexuality. A large number of people returned to re-examine their assumptions. Then came various titanic shennanigans of 2003/4/5 and this sort of process has become seemingly impossible. So everyone goes back to armed camps and big gestures instead, and an immense amount of false binary consciousness follows. That does little for anybody, gay or straight.

I suppose I am wanting to turn the heat down on the pot and shine a bit of light inside... a desperately counterintuitive thing to do, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

In fairness, I think that the church's current fudge of a position is unsustainable because of its inherent contradiction. By my understanding you're allowed to get civilly partnered but you're not allowed to have any kind of Anglican service to mark the occassion. It seems to give the message "You're allowed to do this but your love is such an unG@dly thing that we can't mention it inside the sanctury." That position can't work because you have to believe that your relationship is a beautiful holy thing. If you don't feel that it's holy you shouldn't be entering into it.

That said, there is a difference between 'I need to engage in Christian rituals which will confirm the holy nature of the commitment I have entered into as fully integrated into my Christian life' and 'I want the big white church wedding I've been dreaming of since I was a child'. I've had to address these sorts of issues whilst planning my own interfaith wedding. There are ways they could have blessed their partnership which would have been less inflamatory.

Finally, they are clergy. I would have been more simpathetic if the grooms were lay people because it could be argued that sometimes it's better to bend the rules a bit if you fear that people will be alienated from the church if you don't. However, a big part of being a clergy person is about putting up with things which are unfair and crazy and bigotted because you have to think of the greater good. I have gay ordinand friends who stay in accordance with the Windsor Report even though they think that it's a pile of rubbish because they appreciate the importance of clergy discipline. There seems to be lack of clergy discipline these days, from ordinands refusing to take communion with their liberal bishop to gay weddings.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks, L&S. I would welcome greater honesty and clarity about al this stuff. The reason the Church is fudging is because deeply good and committed people see things radically differently so, er, that's where we are. That fact is part of our life, and I don't see it getting better without our acknowledging it and seeing where we can go. I think part of the rough and tumble of living under grace is to fall out over things that matter. I just wish we could do it honestly and graciously more often. I do feel strongly for clergy on all sides who do the decent thing as they see it, even through gritted teeth. It may not seem much, but it is an acknowledgment, however minimalist, of the value of the others. I can see a strong emotional congruence between the wild men (and it is mostly men) at both ends of the spectrum. Where’s faith in being utterly, gobsmackingly, absolutely right all the time — so right you can just treat the others as though they didn't exist?

Anonymous said...

I managed to get into a row with none other than Father John Neuhaus, noted and respected neoconservative and editor of First Things over an article he wrote criticizing the propriety of the wedding of Charles and Camilla. Well, I pointed out, they did the Decalogue kneeling in penitenance at the beginning of the ceremony - and yes, that, too, used the form of blessing of a civil wedding, so what did your papacy want of us, Father John ? Sometimes, you cannot avoid gratuitous Anglican-bashing, even if you do the right thing in the right way.

I read the ceremony, and it really registered what this was all about when the two men exchanged vows to worship each other with their bodies. Hardly a covenant of simple friendship, or anything platonic at all.

I do think Jeffrey John has said some interesting things in the past, such as his view that if the church tolerates a practice for long enough, it becomes a tradition, but the real question is whether this is all just a smokescreen, or there is some form of communal relationship (other than just plain old living under the same roof) between two persons of the same gender that does not flaunt scriptural norms, which after all, are the same as traditional norms.

Lack of honesty and clarity is probably the least of our problems.
The Church should not have to apologize for being true to itself and obedient to Jesus.

Bill Riggs
Fredericksburg, VA

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Bill. I think you've put your finger on a key issue for me — the unclarity at the heart of all this. I do not feel any confidence that the people who devised this particular service had a clue what they were actually doing or on more than a sentimental level. Reading James Boswell’s (not uncontested) stuff back in the early 90's I thought it raised a question that was worth following up about covenanted friendship. We have, after all, religious vows as a basis for covenanted community. I'm absolutely OK with that. What disturbs me is spoofing weddings and letting the devil take the hindmost. I just don't believe in that as a constructive way forwards.

Steve Hayes said...

Yes, I think unclarity is one of the important issues, What is marriage, and what is a "civil union"?

As I've noted in a recent blog posting on The theology of Christian marriage something similar happened to Christology, which didn't need explicit definitions until Arius came along and questioned what most people assumed. Once the question has been asked, a clearer and more explicit answer is needed.

Anonymous said...

The service was clearly a wedding and should be acknowledged as such by Mr. Dudley.

I wouldn't call the service a spoof, however. Spoof implies a desire to parody. The two clergymen involved love each other and simply wanted to make their vows in a sacramental context, in an institution to which each has given years of their life. I think your use of the word 'spoof' reflects an unnecessary contempt.

I'm also irritated by your repeated use of the term 'covenanted friendship.' I find it a patronising and false construction for gay relationships.

The term may help you make sense of gay relationships but, as a gay man, I believe it's not how we generally think of our relationships.

When my partner and I registered as domestic partners in NYC, we, indeed, created an explicit covenant.

Here is our covenant: 1. We will ground our relationship in a shared love of Jesus, 2. We will only have sex with one another, because sex is the outward and visible sign of our love 3. We will speak the truth to each other even when it is difficult or might be hurtful, 4. We will remain together for life and move toward the other when circumstances or feelings make us want to back away.

That's our covenant and it works for us. It's not friendship. I love him with a passion and devotion that demands the use of our bodies for proper and thankful expression and celebration of the gift we've been given by God in one another.

I don't understand how it helps you to understand the experience and lives of Christian gay people by casting our relationships as 'covenanted friendships.' It de-sexualizes our lives and minimizes the sacramentality of our relationships. A sacramentality which the church can neither give nor take away since, like all sacraments, they are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces.

That's why this debate is exhausting for gay people. We have to waste so much time and energy convincing you of the blessing we've already received in our marriages, when representatives of the institution think they have the power to give or withhold consent to what God has and will continue to join together.


Bishop Alan Wilson said...


May thanks for your comment. I suspect the whole discussion in the UK is far less developed, and has happened far more sporadically, than where you live.

I'm not trying to give or withold anything, in a way. The glory of sacramental theology is that a sacrament just is, according to God not us. There is, however a need to use language and concepts which are universalizable if this is to have more than local signifcance.

The reason I used the concept of covenanted friendship is that from a historical point of view the kinds of rites James Boswell dug up and brought to our attention in the 1980's are, IMHO, a powerful starting point, from which could be grown something organic from the tradition and capable of being understood and accepted by far more people.

We all have to explain ourselves to each other if we want to be understood; but I can see why you find your particular experience wearing to the point of offensive.

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