Some Thoughts on the arguments of the Bishop of Buckingham

As reported in the Guardian yesterday, the Bishop of Buckingham put forward three points in support of Jeremy Pemberton’s employment tribunal case against Bishop Richard Inwood.

All three points are remarkably weak, but they need challenging in case they gain further credence.

First, he says that Canon B 30 gives a ‘lousy definition’ of marriage because it cannot tell you who is and is not married. It is perfectly true that the Canon does not tell you who the state may think is married. What it does tell you very clearly, however, on the basis of the teaching of Christ in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12) and what is said in the Book of Common Prayer, is what the Church of England understands marriage to be and on this basis it is clear that Jeremy Pemberton is not married regardless of what the state may say. The state may say that black is white but that does not make it so.

Secondly, he argues that the first part of the Canon, drawn from the Convocation resolutions of 1938 was not originally making ‘a doctrinal point.’ Actually, yes it was. If you look at the resolutions you will find that they are seeking to defend a biblical doctrine of marriage over against a laxer view of marriage taken by the state. They are saying this is what we as Christians believe marriage to be and part of that, as given in Christ’s teaching in the gospels, is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. It is true that the focus in 1938 was on the lifelong nature of marriage rather than on it being between a man and a woman because this was the issue at the time. However, if you had asked those who drew up the Convocation resolutions and those who drew up the subsequent Canon whether they believed theologically that marriage had to be between a man and a woman they would undoubtedly have said ‘yes’ as did all generations of Christians before them. It is only since the 1960s that this has ever been questioned.

Thirdly, in response to the question of whether clergy should accept the teachings of the Church he refers to the example of a divorced member of the clergy having ‘difficulty teaching about marriage’ and goes on to say ‘That’s just one example of how clergy might be limited in the doctrines they are expected to teach.’

This last quotation is ambiguous.

The most straightforward reading is that the Church of England limits what the clergy may be expected to teach in the light of their personal circumstances. In this case the statement is simply untrue. The Church of England recognises no such limitation. What the clergy are expected to teach is laid down in the Declaration of Assent in Canon C15 and in the ordinals in the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship and no exceptions are granted.

On the other hand it might mean that the clergy are limited in their own lives in respect of their living out the doctrines which they are expected to preach. This is, of course, true of all clergy. All clergy fall short in their living out of the Christian life and like all Christians they are expected to deal with this through repentance and amendment of life. However, where clergy are living in a way that is in major, public and long term contravention of the teaching of the Church then they are rightly liable to disciplinary action. As Article XXVI of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it:

‘…it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.’

The reason why such discipline would apply to those who have entered into same-sex ‘marriages’ but not necessarily to those clergy who are divorced, is that the Church of England as a corporate body has come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that, although marriage is intended by God to be for life in a fallen world marriages do fail and is therefore possible in some circumstances for divorce to take place and for marriages to be dissolved (for this see the House of Bishops’ 1999 teaching document Marriage). Being divorced, though always deeply regrettable, is therefore not as such against the Church’s teaching, whereas entering into a relationship with someone of the same-sex and claiming that that relationship is marriage certainly is.

M B Davie 17.6.15

11 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the arguments of the Bishop of Buckingham

  1. Dr Davie, your article on Bishop Alan Wilson’s responses in the recent Hearing appears on a public website and so may be viewed by LGBT people who come across it. With this in mind, I would like to make the following (general) points:

    The Church of England welcomes all of England’s people in all of England’s parishes – whether they are in faith or not, in church membership or not, single or civil partnered or married, straight or gay. Each parish church has a ‘care of souls’ for all the people in its parish.

    The law in England has been amended to allow same-sex couples to marry. This is not in dispute. So, unfortunately, when someone insists that ‘marriage is between one man and one woman’, this can makes them appear either:
    1. self-deluded (“I’m in complete denial that marriage has been extended to same-sex couples – I don’t believe it”)
    2. wilfully offensive (“You gay people think that you’re married, but I’m telling you, you’re nothing of the sort!”)
    Neither self-delusion nor being wilfully offensive is a creditable Christian trait.

    Instead, the appropriate Christian response is to extend the same respect to same-sex married couples that you would extend to opposite-sex married couples. Or at least, in an adaptation of the Golden Rule, to extend the same respect to the marriage of a same-sex couple that you hope they would extend to your own marriage (it’s really that simple).

    In its public statements, the Church of England has been able to have its cake and eat it. The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same-sex Marriage reiterates church teaching as ‘marriage is between one man and one woman’ but then goes on to encourage churches to welcome same-sex married couples into their congregations (thereby acknowledging their existence in society). How far same-sex married couples will commit to a church where they hear repeatedly from the pulpit that ‘marriage is between one man and one woman’ when they personally know this to be short of the truth, will be worth noting.

    LGBT people in society may have been following Canon Jeremy Pemberton’s case and may understand it to be evidence of the Church of England’s desire to punish clergy for entering same-sex marriages. They may believe that the Church of England wishes to punish lay people for entering same-sex marriages. Of course, we know that this is not the case and it behoves local Church of England ‘inclusive’ churches to shout louder in the market place – to reassure same-sex married couples that they will be welcomed and that there is no punishment (abusive behaviour) waiting for them.

    I appreciate that some of us are struggling with the rapid pace of legal and societal change. However, to insist on using quotation marks when speaking about same-sex married couples now appears outdated and derogatory. You may not be concerned that you appear outdated and derogatory, Dr Davie, but it should profoundly concern the Church of England to be portrayed as outdated and derogatory when it is the national church for all of England’s people in all of England’s parishes.

    Thank you for the opportunity to leave comments.
    Jane Newsham

  2. “on this basis it is clear that Jeremy Pemberton is not married regardless of what the state may say”

    I’m afraid that Bishop Richard Inwood doesn’t agree with you. He said the opposite in his witness evidence in the Employment Tribunal last week.

    • If Jeremy Pemberton is not in fact married, what exactly is his offence? Mistakenly to believe that he is? Why would that merit disciplinary action?

      Or if his offence is to believe that marriage between two people of the same sex is possible and valid, it is an offence committed by very many other people, lay and ordained, gay and straight, who are not being penalised for it.

  3. ‘ The state may say that black is white but that does not make it so.’ The same comment could equally be made about the Church of England.

  4. “Neither self-delusion nor being wilfully offensive is a creditable Christian trait.” – and yet is the single most evident character trait of our history. Where is the love Dr.Davies?

  5. I’m not sure why my comment wasn’t approved. It was not a personal opinion but a clarification of what Bishop Alan actually said, because I was fortunate to have been at the hearing when he was being questioned. I’ll try again in case it just got lost somehow.

    Alan’s point had been that for a definition to be useful it has to describe precisely what it defines so that it’s possible to work out from that definition what falls within it and what doesn’t.
    “A man and a woman for life” is a lousy definition because it excludes remarried divorced couples which the church does consider to be married. The “definition” does therefore not define the church’s teaching on marriage at all.

    Of course we can disagree with what Alan said, but I thought it might be helpful for the conversation to be aware that he was not referring to same sex marriage, nor to a difference between how the state defines marriage and how the church defines it.

  6. You say: “In a fallen world, marriages do fail…being divorced is therefore not as such against the Church’s teaching.” Now that is what I would call a slippery slope. In fact I would call it a non sequitur. Either the Church is against sin or it isn’t.

    Unless of course, the Church is allowed to leave such judgement to God and rely instead on his mercy and grace, welcoming all to His Table. Which is what I thought had happened in the case of divorce.

    I endorse everything that Jane Newsham has said.

  7. Statement from the Archbishop of York

    Monday 22nd June 2015

    The Archbishop of York has today issued this statement:

    “Clergy of the Diocese are entitled to express varying views on the question of human sexuality. That is the nature of the Church of England.”

  8. “However, if you had asked those who drew up the Convocation resolutions and those who drew up the subsequent Canon whether they believed theologically that marriage had to be between a man and a woman they would undoubtedly have said ‘yes’ as did all generations of Christians before them. It is only since the 1960s that this has ever been questioned.”

    “All generations of Christians before them” could not have said “yes” if the question wasn’t asked until the 1960s. This is the point. The church is facing a set of questions about gender, sexuality and marriage that it did not have to deal with before. In much the same way, the church had to deal with questions about slavery which were never asked in a purely paternalistic and patriarchal society. It is no argument to refer to the church’s supposed traditional response to the question if the question wasn’t asked.


  9. It is a fallacy to believe that marriage has never changed. The definition of marriage has significantly changed of the millennia. The last big change came in the 1990s when (thanks be to God!) we finally acknowledged that rape even within marriage was a crime and thus we fully embraced the fact that the spouses weren’t just a sexual commodity, but equal partners. This is yet another significant departure from centuries of tradition.

    I would therefore argue that those, who want to make us believe that their rather subjective definition of marriage is the norm, has always been the norm, and should remain the norm, are the real revisionists, rewriting history and undermining our Christian tradition.

    • This itself represents the muddled (or evil, if you will) thinking of the 20th century. Once upon a time, sex was sanctified by marriage. Modern humankind believes it to be sanctioned by consent. Yet if you and I agree to be immoral together it is still immoral; our consent does not sanctify it.

      (In truth, sex is still sanctified by marriage, yet our foolish and evil minds refuse the clear teaching of Scripture and wish to remake good and evil in our own image)

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