CofE’s wedding rules can be elastic when it wants them to be
Is the Church of England taking a consistent moral line over gay marriage? At one level it would be nice to think so. While I do not share the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, no one is truly comfortable with tales of parents feigning faith to obtain a church school place for their children.
And as the established church, people of little or no faith expect the CofE to deliver the ceremonial venues and figures of English public life as if the church were a bit like the National Trust – there just to keep bits of England looking and feeling the same.
Too often, I think, the CofE’s moderate position, as compared with some churches, is mistaken for a lack of conviction or theological coherence among practising Anglicans.
Viewed like this, there is nothing wrong with the CofE taking a view. But there are reasons why it sounds wrong. It does not chime with the way I have seen the church approach marriage.
I am thinking of the way the CofE has tended to handle weddings in general. The church contends that the proposed law would compel parish vicars to perform same-sex weddings, even if the vicar disagreed with same-sex marriage (based on the current right of all to be married in their local parish church),
Thinking about the 25-plus Anglican weddings I have attended as an adult, I can in fact think of only one that was held in the couple’s local parish church. Of course many were marrying (after years of cohabitation) at a church near the bride’s parents’ home, but still, one needs the connivance of a vicar, or the official permission of the CofE, to do that.
Even for a bride who has not lived at her parents’ home for a decade or more, the fact that the couple are often not practising Christians is another reason to seek a non-local venue. Or, also known, the ethos of their local parish church does not best match their faith, so the church to which they have ties – and where they choose to worship – is two miles, not two streets, away.
So the CofE’s connivance or permission in varying the ‘parish church’ scenario is routine. But this most elastic of ‘rules’ is now being held up as a show-stopper for a piece of equal rights legislation.
But the objection does not reflect practice. It is clearly common for couples marrying in a CofE church or chapel to seek out a venue that suits the serious commitment they are making for matters of faith, geography, emotional ties, aesthetics, practicality or theological sympathies – or a combination of some or all of these considerations. (On the evidence of my circle, the couple have mostly not disappointed the church’s expectation of their commitment – of the 25, I can currently list only one divorce.)
It comes down to this – I cannot honestly see why same-sex couples, planning a Christian marriage ceremony, will behave any differently.
Is it honestly the CofE’s official contention that a gay Christian seeks out and joins a congregation who will be viscerally antipathetic to their sexuality? Or that anyone, of whatever sexuality, wishes to have their promise, ‘all that I have I share with you, all that I am I give to you’, blessed by a vicar who they know to be opposed to their union?
For church and state – subtly wedded as they are in this country – surely it is possible to find a way to make the proposed legislation work?