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