Marriage in the Church of England

All organisations have binding rules – that’s what makes them organisations.  In essence there is a contract either explicit or implicit: you break the rules, the universal expectation is that you leave – indeed you have, by breaking the rules, excluded yourself.  If the organisation is a country of which you are a born citizen, then sanctions are applied to you according to the rules broken.

Of course rules can be changed by agreement, which is why in a democracy we have parliaments or legislatures which are proxies for the views of the citizenry, and referendums where all the people are directly consulted.

Besides rules, there is the matter of trust and belief in the fundamental purposes of the organisation.  Proclaiming a belief opposed to something fundamental to an organisation, as some UK born Islamic militants have done with respect to the British state should be seen as excluding themselves from the privileges and protection of British citizenship.

Since its foundation in 1534 the Church of England has been a very important part of the English state (British from 1707).  The Anglican church provides the setting for many state occasions, not only in Britain, but elsewhere in the English-speaking world where, although it is not established as a state church, its Book of Common Prayer and its King James Bible provide the language of religious ceremony and ritual, one such being the solemnisation of marriage.

The rules and belief systems of the Church of England are embodied in its 39 Articles of Religion dating from 1571.  Article 35 sets out 21 admonitions for upholding the Church’s core beliefs and practices, one of which is support of the state of matrimony.

The Church of England Marriage Service

The marriage service itself, in some of the most resplendent words of the English language ever written and used way beyond the Church of England, enjoins the congregation to witness the joining together of “this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony, which is an honourable estate, instituted of God . . . signifying unto us the mystical union between Christ and his Church . . .”

The man and woman are asked in turn “Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded wife . . .?” and “Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded husband . . .?”

Throughout its 478-year history the Church of England has celebrated marriage as one of the most profoundly important of all its ceremonies.  Marriage is, in the eyes of the Church of England – and practically the whole of the rest of the world – a union of one man and one woman – a relationship set apart from all other relationships.  But it is not just any man or woman.  The Church lists 24 male-female relationships which are excluded from Matrimony.  It has no need to explicitly exclude homosexual partnerships any more than say business partnerships, because the very essence of matrimony is both obviously and fundamentally different from both.  Even non-believers can see this.

Homosexual Pressure in the Church

Now some clergy in the Church of England affect to believe otherwise.

In a long interview with Ruth Gledhill in the London Times on February 3rd 2012 the recently appointed diocesan (i.e. junior) Bishop of Salisbury, “Nick” Holtam, is quoted as saying that “marriage is defined by two people promising to love each other for life”.  Well, as we have seen, that is not what marriage in the Church of England is: it is not just two people, it is the union of one man and one woman outside the prohibited list.

Actually, one suspects Bishop Holtan knows perfectly well what Christian marriage is, but is choosing to proclaim a different thing altogether, which all should presumably be expected to celebrate.  In fact the Bishop denies the very essence of what his Church holds to be fundamental, namely that marriage as defined in its founding texts is a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.  In so doing, the Bishop and the hundred or so who think like him are devaluing the sense of rightness which millions of people have in the very concept of marriage, even among those who did not themselves have a church wedding.

If the Bishop and the homosexual pressure groups centred on certain London churches feel so strongly about their rights to a church wedding, why don’t they set up a new organisation – their own church perhaps?  The Methodist church was founded by those who could not accept the last 14 of the 39 articles of the Church of England, the Baptist church by those who could not accept infant baptism.  If someone cannot accept a fundamental rule or tenet of any organisation, they are not “excluded” as Ruth Gledhill maintains, they exclude themselves. 

Civil Partnerships 

The State has legislated for Civil Partnerships between same-sex couples to enjoy most of the remaining legal privileges of Civil Marriage.  The law requires the ceremonies for civil partnerships to be undertaken in venues licensed for the purpose and these include some buildings belonging to some churches.  The Church of England has not permitted either its buildings or its clergy to be employed for this purpose.  Some members of the Church of England however, who still feel very strongly that Civil Partnerships must not be confused with Marriage, also feel that their clergy and congregations could be given the choice of whether or not to allow civil partnership ceremonies in individual church buildings.  

Limits on Pressure for Change

The fact is though, homosexual pressure groups (though not all homosexuals) aim not to be accepted as different, but as normal – their homosexuality a minor variant, like left-handedness, even though this flies in the face of human nature and experience.  The Church of England, being perceived as soft on virtually every matter of belief, is at the centre of pressure to accept homosexuality as normal with homosexual marriages in church as the ultimate badge of acceptance of this view.  One hopes therefore that the governing body, the Synod, will say firmly to these groups that what they want is literally impossible, a contradiction in terms. Pressing for it is gravely damaging the organisation they are employed by or affect to be members of; their action is hugely troubling to its other members and that agitation, if persisted in, will lead to their exclusion from office and in extreme cases from membership itself.

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