The Church of England recently released a statement condemning the British government's intention to move forward in legalizing gay marriage. Although the government has been clear that religious institutions will never be forced to marry couples of any gender if it is against their conscience, the Church expressed its fear that European courts might use equality rulings to force them to accept any couple seeking marriage -- and this might lead to the Church being forced to change its relationship with the nation for which it has been the established church since the time of Henry the Eighth.
I spent Sunday morning talking to BBC radio stations around the U.K. about this issue and why I didn't see it as a crisis. The Church of England announcement comes, of course, shortly after President Obama announced his support for gay marriage in the States, and the situations in the U.K. and U.S. -- while not identical -- are similar enough that they suggested some responses.
Yes, gay marriage is a cultural tidal wave washing over religious conservatives in both the States and Britain.
No, it is not an insoluble problem, nor is it one that should require ministers or congregations being to make unwelcome concessions that violate their beliefs.
Knowing clergy on both sides of this issue both in the States and in the U.K., I am sympathetic to the fears of the conservatives, even as I side with the liberals. As an old body-surfer, I can attest that it is a scary thing to have a huge wave bearing down on you and to feel as if you are about to be tossed and turned at its pleasure without being able to do much in response to it. This wave is large, and it is growing. Currently in the States, polls indicate half or more adults favor gay marriage. Figures are similar in the U.K., with 68 percent of Scots supporting gay marriage in a recent poll, and another indicating that 60 percent of people in the U.K. calling themselves religious, and 80 percent of those under 50, supported the right to marry. (This latter suggests an important demographic point: opposition to gay marriage is largely in older generations, with younger being generally sympathetic. With the passing of the years, this issue will pass away.)
The "End of the Church" rhetoric being employed currently by the Church of England is familiar to us in the States because it is the Culture War rhetoric employed by those on the right for a number of years. It goes something like this: If "X" is permitted, then we will no longer be the same people we were before. In extreme cases, we are told this: If "X" becomes the law of the land, it will mean the end of "Y" (with "Y" being solved variously for "Church," "nation," "traditional marriage," or what have you).
In the States, the fight over gay rights and homosexual clergy has split many denominations for years, although we now seem to be moving past these issues, and will one day look back on them -- and these battles -- as ridiculous. My friend Phyllis Tickle observes in her fine book "The Great Emergence" that -- along with slavery/civil rights and the rights of women and their role in the Church -- the issue of LGBT Christians in the Church and in society represents the last great gasp of the appeal to Scripture as the sole authority for believers.
The Church has actually begun to reach some conclusions that seem both faithful to the tensions Christians may feel about this issue, and faithful to the desire to be pastoral to all God's children. In Sweden, where there is an established church, gay couples may be married either at the town hall, or in the Church of Sweden if the pastor is willing. In Scotland, it has been suggested that churches would not be forced to carry out gay marriages, but would be at liberty to do so if they wanted.
In the American Episcopal Church, bishops have been reaching individual decisions about how to react to this summer's expected approval by the national church of same-sex blessings. (Since gay marriage is not widely legal in the United States, liturgical blessings have been the sticking point.) Andy Doyle, the Bishop of Texas, has decided to permit several larger churches such as my own parish, St. David's, Austin, to decide if they wish to offer same-sex blessings, while smaller or more conservative churches are not being asked to overturn their ethos at this time.
I fully expect St. David's to decide to offer same-sex blessings, and think this model of voluntary participation being set up in the Staes and elsewhere is the answer to the fear of the Church of England. I know the tensions they feel -- if they are too liberal, conservatives will peel off from the CoE or perhaps even become Roman Catholic under the special program Pope Benedict has set up to lure Anglicans and Episcopalians back to the Roman Church. As the Mother Church to the Anglican Communion, the Church of England also has to reckon with the vast majority of Anglicans who now live and worship in homophobic African churches.
But I fully expect the Church of England to find a satisfaction short of disestablishment, and I certainly don't think that this is, as some have said, the biggest crisis for the Church in 500 years.
If so, it's not merely troubling; it's tragic.
The Church should be about its work of serving and saving people -- not obsessing about whose weddings they intend to celebrate.