So, my diocese’s Shared Conversations are imminent; check-in info for the venue has been issued, dietary preferences requested, information on the facilitators issued. I need to re-read the supporting documents. But something I don’t understand at all is why it should be OK to have not just a range of views, but a range of practices, within the Church of England on some issues – women priests, women bishops, remarriage of divorced people – but not on the ones the Shared Conversations are about: the roles of gay people in the church, and same-sex marriage.
When the legislation making it possible for women to be priests was enacted, parishes were allowed to pass Resolutions A and/or B and proclaim themselves no-go areas for women priests; women can’t be appointed as their vicars, or can’t preside at the Eucharist or give the absolution if they’re visiting the church. The situation has changed more recently, although those resolutions currently remain in force unless a local church decides to rescind them.
For those parishes where people’s convictions make it impossible for them to accept the ministry of women, they can ask to have confirmation services led by special bishops, those of Ebbsfleet, Beverley or Richborough, while parishes of a conservative evangelical disposition can call on another special bishop, the suffragan bishop of Maidstone. I think that all these bishops’ sees have been revived from lost dioceses of the past, and they accommodate those with various views who can’t go along with what’s now the official position of the C of E, namely that women can be priests and bishops. We can be cynical about this – why can you pick a bishop to match some of your views and not others? – or we can be positive – at least we all stay in the C of E, although the ‘special bishops’ have something of a record for resigning and joining the Roman Catholic Church instead, after that church established the Ordinariate (it’s complicated).
You’ll see where I’m going with this. Why can’t we have a situation in which some parishes offer same-sex marriages, and others don’t? We wouldn’t even need special bishops, as they aren’t involved in marriage. It would be more closely akin to the current position on the remarriage of divorced people in church; since this became possible in 2002, some vicars will, some won’t, and there’s a handy form to fill in to start the process of discussing with the vicar whether this is going to be possible or not. It’s not a matter of the vicar’s whims – although some just won’t do this for anyone, and that’s their conscience, which is respected – but of why the divorce happened, and what the couple think marriage is about. For example, the issues to be addressed include “Does the divorced person appear to be relatively free of self-deception and self-justification about the past?” and “Did the divorced person take the first marriage seriously and has he/she learnt from mistakes?” I can’t argue with the sanity of all that.
But there is another way of looking at all this. Would a C of E in which some parishes were no-go areas for women priests, others would not carry out any marriages of divorced people, and others turned away all same-sex couples, be simply too much of a mess to claim to be one church? I suppose it all depends on what you think a church is. Is it about belief, or practice? And which beliefs are essential, which are not? There’s that wonderful story about the church service in which the priest invites everyone to stand and join in the Creed, but to sit down for the bits they don’t believe in. Sometimes everyone stands up, but usually there’s someone sitting down. Does that matter? Is it about what we believe, or what we do? At the Last Supper, Jesus invited the disciples to ‘Do this’: not to offer him a detailed description of the doctrine of atonement. Yet again, the Shared Conversations are timely; as well as being a way of exposing how everything goes back to how we understand the Bible, they challenge us to face issues of diversity, consistency – and change.