Who Speaks for the Church of England?

By Jones, Nelson | New Statesman (1996), June 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Who Speaks for the Church of England?


Jones, Nelson, New Statesman (1996)


Few will be surprised, though many will be disappointed, that the Church of England has come out vehemently against the government's proposal to allow same-sex marriage.

The document released by the Church on 12 June claims that its opposition to the measure does not prejudge "continuing theological and ethical debate" within the institution over the status of same-sex relationships. However, in language very similar to that employed by the Catholic bishops earlier this year, the text stresses the importance of traditional marriage for the common good of society, argues that "complementarity" of the sexes (and the goal of procreation) undergirds it, and argues that the proposal marks a "fundamental redefinition" of marriage.

The first thing to note is that this official statement does not reflect the view of "the Church of England" because the Church of England, as such, does not have a view. The statement has not been voted on by General Synod or even offered to the Synod for comment. It implies a unity of opinion among Anglican Christians that does not exist.

Most British Christians actually support equal rights for gay people. The manner in which the statement was released, however, is striking. It was heavily trailed by a number of newspapers sympathetic to its general line, accompanied by comments by its authors. One described the proposals, anonymously, as "shallow" and "half-baked". On the record, the Bishop of Leicester warned of "a situation in which civil law and canon law are at odds".

An accompanying press release claimed that the Church of England "has supported the removal of previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships". This is simply not true. When civil partnerships were being introduced in 2004, six bishops voted against the proposal in the House of Lords, with only one (the then bishop of Oxford) voting in favour. Conservative voices in the Church made the same arguments then--and raised much the same apocalyptic fears--against civil partnerships as they are making now against equalising marriage.

Turbulent priests

The "official" statement and the accompanying media blitz, then, are as much a part of internal Church politics as they are an attempt to raise problems with the proposed legislation. But the document is worth considering on its own merits.

The most interesting sections are those that concern the legal implications of the change. …

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