Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Antidisestablishmentarianism

I always wanted to find a good reason to use that word, and this morning's headlines produced the goods. Antidisestablishmentarianism, that remarkably long word was originally used to describe the movement opposed to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in England, Wales and Ireland. That is the removal of the links between state and church. Currently, only the Church of England remains established within the UK; the Anglican Churches in the rest of Britain (and Ireland) are not. As such, the rest of this post addresses an English problem, although there will be related issues elsewhere.

Today gave an excuse to use the word, due to the Church of England's response to the Government consultation on same-sex couple marriage being the lead story It raised the question of the role of the Church of England in marriage. The fear is that there could be legal action which could force the CofE to marry same-sex couples. Currently the CofE registers marriages, and can call banns for couples, saving them the need to apply for a licence to marry. As such I am a registrar for couples eligible to get married in my Church. Not everyone has a legal right to get married in my church - they must satisfy requirements relating to where they live, their connection with my parish or their membership of my church through the Church Electoral Roll. In a limited number of cases, special licences can also be used. It is feared in today's response, that there is a real chance that a human rights ruling could insist that if you do weddings at all, you must do them for all. Not being a lawyer, I can only observe that we currently have a discretionary mechanism for considering marriage after divorce where the former partner is still living, so a similar set-up for same-sex partnerships might be a viable, legal way forward.

More concerning is the way the whole issue is unfolding in the media. The overwhelming message from the CofE, officially, seems to be one based on fear. The first is a fear that marriage will be undermined, with arguments that procreation and consummation are central. Given we marry people beyond chil-bearing age, or with fertility problems, and due to illness or disability sexual relations can be impaired or impossible, do we say they are somehow second-class marriages? We have to be very careful about the logic employed. Surely the most important and lasting factor in the kind of marriage the church wants to hold as ideal is the quality of the relationship of the partners. It seems to me that one could put a very strong case that such quality of relationship is not confined to heterosexual couples. The official position of the CofE is some way from accepting that.

The second fear is loss of establishment (at least in the area of marriage). I blogged a few weeks ago in a post that one way forward might be for the CofE to opt out of the legal marriage stuff altogether. Then everyone gets married in a Registry Office and religious ceremonies are out of the legal sphere.

What's been interesting is the level of fear expressed in official reactions that this might actually be imposed on us, given the position of the church on gay marriage. I have never been a great fan of establishment. The Church's confidence and security in its mission and identity has to be that Jesus Christ is its foundation, not a set of legal links to the state. Establishment is an accident of history that gives the CofE a unique set of opportunities, which if removed do nothing to diminish its identity as part of God's church. Obviously it would have consequences - contact with couples and their friends and families and, of course, some financial ones too. However, I can't help thinking that if churches all around the world somehow manage, then it doesn't need a lot of faith to believe that the good old CofE could continue to proclaim the gospel, whatever the state decides about marriage.

The greater threat to our ongoing life and growth might be that we are perceived to be living in fear, rather than seeking ways to bring positive and challenging good news to our society.
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