Now is the time for change

Michael Sadgrove
The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, Dean Emeritus of Durham

On 27 July 2017 Michael Sadgrove, who before he retired in 2015 was the Dean of Durham, wrote a blog post to commemorate the 50th anniversary (to the day) of the 1967 Act of Parliament that decriminalized homosexual activity between consenting male adults in private. You can read the full post here.

What follows is the section of Michael’s post in which he explains why it is now vital and urgent for the Church of England to embrace equal marriage in church:

We people of faith must, absolutely must, purge ourselves of words and actions – yes, and thoughts too – that discriminate against gay people, and assert or imply that religion is against them. And I mean the policies and practices of our faith institutions, not simply our behaviours as individual men and women.

When it comes to legislation, the glaring statutory anomaly is the Church of England’s continued inability to permit same-sex marriages to be solemnised and blessed in church. The website of our national church says, somewhat disingenuously, that the C of E is not allowed by law to conduct equal marriages. But this exemption was specifically asked for by the Church! Parliament agreed to it, no doubt to help expedite the passage of the equal marriage measure through its houses. But politicians are increasingly unhappy about this exceptionalism, as we’ve heard in some public utterances on the subject in the past few weeks. And it’s clear from the two most recent meetings of the General Synod [in 2017] that the mood of the governing body of the Church is not very happy with the status quo either.

I’ve argued in a series of blogs for the Church’s full acceptance of same-sex marriage. And make no mistake. However tolerant and generous the Church’s discourse about gay people, it’s actions not words that count. Of this, equal marriage is now the acid test of equality. To accept it, not grudgingly but willingly and joyously, would make all the difference. Not to do so perpetuates the message that this is an institution that continues officially to practise discrimination. That can’t be interpreted away (though some try very hard). This untenable position we are now in as the national church in England is a tragedy for its standing and reputation in the nation, especially among the young. To them especially, its stance feels archaic and cruel and wrong.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has charted the way towards celebrating equal marriages in church. Here in Northumberland we live just south of the Scottish border, a few tiny minutes of latitude. But they make all the difference! In the English Middle March, I’m more than ever aware of our two churches’ varying polity on this point. Actually, I’m not pessimistic about the Church of England’s change of heart in the longer term. I’m as sure as I can be that in a decade or so, maybe less, the English Church will have followed where Scotland has led. Our church has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and it will assuredly act on these God-given instincts. It always has in the past, even if, as with slavery, contraception, the remarriage of divorced people and the ordination of women, the wheels have ground slowly. And equal marriage is, after all, only the law of the land! It’s a good law. We should be heartily glad to catch up with it and embrace it.

But given the pace of change we have seen in our society in the last two decades, I believe we have to demonstrate far more of a sense of urgency. The Bishops intend to bring back to the General Synod a teaching document on sex and sexuality in due course. It’s right that time is taken to do our theology and ethics rigorously and reflectively. But it’s hard to imagine what stones remain unturned when it comes to same-sex relationships and Christianity. We have examined the scriptures exhaustively, we have reflected carefully on the tradition and on our human experience. We have done our best to understand the science. But we can agonise too much, I think. We can be too afraid to be decisive and take the long view. We can put off acting courageously, doing the right thing, by engaging in the displacement activity of endless process. “How long, O Lord?” On this auspicious day, I’d love to think that the Church of England could cross this Rubicon and proudly (adverb intended) celebrate the wonderful part gay people play not only in our church but in our society.

Today, 27th July, happens to be my forty-third wedding anniversary. I’ve every reason to be profoundly thankful for the gift of marriage that has so enriched every aspect of my life. (I hope my wife would say the same, but it’s for her to speak for herself.)  So my plea for equal marriage in the Church comes out of my own experience as a married man. Marriage is good for us. It should be open to everybody. So on this day of celebration, I urge us all in the Church of England to say yes to equal marriage. Please. With gladness and hope in our hearts. And soon.

This extract is reproduced by kind permission of the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove. Copyright © Michael Sadgrove 2017