Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 30 March 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
James 5.12. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.
The Church of England doesn’t say yes or no. She says, Well, Yes and No. And so it is with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 which reached full term this week with the photographs you could not miss of men marrying men, and women marrying women, in England and Wales. It’s worth pausing to consider what this means. To do that we have to sort our thoughts very carefully. Sometimes those who are very traditional in matters of doctrine and liturgy all of a sudden become ultra liberal when their own lives are part of the equation. Likewise those who have no religious allegiance at all reach for the Bible when their prejudices need to be reinforced. So let’s stay calm and look at what’s happened.
Three complications make calm discernment difficult for us. Firstly there is the unique position of the Church of England as the default place for a wedding. In common law parishioners, whether they are members of the Church of England or not, have certain legal rights, including the right to marry in the parish church and to have the marriage solemnized by the minister of the parish. Around a quarter of marriages solemnized in England are solemnized by the clergy of the Church of England. So we should be interested in this, because the Act excludes Church of England clergy from its provisions. We find ourselves out of the picture. Secondly in the popular mind gay marriages, as they’re called, are already here with civil partnership ceremonies, and that’s another complication. Thirdly, and this is new, I think, in our generation, there is great emphasis today on the ceremony itself as being the great achievement, rather than it being a humble beginning to a new and demanding life. So the grand ceremony – and these days the lowliest churl and his maiden can expect to be wed in courtly splendour in a castle – the ceremony is confused with the institution of marriage, which is something different as we’ll see.
Can Christian tradition help us through this muddle? In the 12th century a saintly man called Aelred, who was Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, wrote a little book called On Spiritual Friendship. It was really Aelred’s observations on the special friendships he saw developing in the monastery, including his own special friendships. He knew that friendships could not be just intellectual. “Feelings”, he observed, “are not ours to command.” And then he brought in God. “Here we are”, he said, “You and I, and I hope a third, Christ is in our midst..” “He that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him.” Tenderness, closeness, compassion; integrity, honesty, and loyalty – these are not the prerogatives of marriage alone, but apply to every relationship, every human exchange, lasting or fleeting. In other words, in any Christian friendship, the highest standards apply, because God is there too. Here, then, in the Christian faith already, is the equality, the equal rights, for which today’s reformers clamour. We can know equal demands, equal honour, equal glory, in relationships of love, which, as we know from our experiences, are the one kind of relationship which can change us, both in our spiritual lives and our personal journey through life.
But that isn’t Christian marriage. What is Christian marriage? We know what it is, it’s a sacrament, and it is defined in the Canons of the Church of England, which are part of the law of England. “The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union, permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side.” The biological complementarity of male and female, with the possibility of procreation in most but not all cases, is the whole point of it. I know there are single parent families, I know there are orphans, I know that there’s gay fostering, but the one right which few people bother to uphold is the right of a child to a mother and a father, in a stable relationship. Anyway, you know all this, and you’ve formed a view, but you might have thought, as I did until this week, that that’s all right really – some can have a same sex marriage ceremony at a wedding venue, while back in the village church we can carry on admitting a man and a woman to the honourable estate of Holy Matrimony. No, it’s never going to be the same again. Despite what the Government pretends, there are not two types of marriage, civil and religious. In law there is the one institution of marriage, and different ceremonies through which that institution is reached. Change the institution for one, you change it for all. The traditional understanding of marriage will no longer be recognised in law. And if the experience of other countries such as Spain are anything to go by, marriage rates across the population will plummet.
What will happen now? It’s a wonderful photo opportunity for turbulent priests. As the Bishop of Buckingham says ominously in encouragement, “the creative space is wide open.” They’ll marry any couple, they’ll marry each other, the bishops (or some of them) will be embarrassed, the photographs will be lovely, and the congregation will say, we always knew. It’s vital to keep a sense of humour in the Church of England. Come to think of it, it’s quite difficult to lose a sense of humour in the Church of England. I like the story of the priest who took on a parish in this diocese, and on his first day out and about, an elderly lady said to him, Father, have you got a friend? And he said, er, well, yes I’ve got lots of friends. She said, no no, father, have you got – a friend? He said, um, actually, no, I don’t have – a friend. She said, well if that’s the case, Father, I don’t know who’s going to run the Christmas fair this year.
The sinister part of the Marriage Act story is nothing to do with who lives with whom. What we’ve seen is interference by the State, through an ephemeral Government, here today and gone tomorrow, without much consultation, meddling in an institution which pre-dates Church and State, and which is the foundation of our society. Marriage is to be gender free. This is state enforcement; this is what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism”. In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished. I wonder what’s next. The dear old Church of England is so easily fractured by this constant pressure by the powerful liberal elite of Westminster and Brighton & Hove. It is as if John Keble had never delivered his Assize Sermon of 1833, in which he separated Church from State. It is as if the Oxford Movement, which has so inspired this church, had never happened, and so, as the shades of past worshippers rise up around us, I have to ask John Keble’s question again. Is the Church of England a representative in England of the whole Church, Catholic and Apostolic, or is she just a dressing up box for ambitious public servants?
Lead Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom. All we can do is turn away from this clamour for rights and status, to the rights we already have as children of God, rights to relationships of divine quality which reflect back God’s love for us, whether in marriage or not. God is friendship, says Aelred. As Rowan Williams reminded us at the Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch this week, what we need is each other and God. Our task is to discern which of our relationships are under God, and which need to be reformed, remade, renewed. There are always decisions we can make there. In a private life, as in the public sphere, some things are right and some are wrong. And let our yes be yes, and our no be no.