There is no doubt that tremendous energy is building up in our church as we head towards General Synod. I hear, on one side, of folk bursting a boiler for decisive change in our church. On another side I hear of folk for whom just about any change will precipitate departure.
While I have already below contributed my six steps for a way forward, on one matter, being a conservative and living with bishops exercising the option of permitting blessings of same sex partnerships, I want to offer a little more thinking. It might help some to stay. But I use the word 'think' in the title to the post to reserve the option of continuing to think through the situation.
In what follows I acknowledge that some of my words below are heavily influenced by the thinking of others commenting here and speakers and writers within our church whom I have encountered in events such as our Hermeneutical Hui.
In the six steps posted below I suggest we steer well clear of changing our doctrine on marriage in favour of incorporation of gay marriage. My first reason for doing so is that to make such change puts a pastoral obligation on all clergy which would lead to division in our church since not all clergy presently are prepared to take on that obligation but a second important reason lies alongside that: to change our doctrine in that way would be to require many clergy and laity sworn into office to declare allegiance to a doctrine they do not wholly subscribe to.
To permit bishops to exercise discretion in respect of their priests blessing same sex partnerships would be a different step. No change of doctrine would be required and no pastoral obligation would lie with clergy to perform such blessings because this would not be embedded in our formularies.
Nevertheless such a step would be a step too far (as I understand it) in the eyes of some clergy. One reason would be that even to publicly admit such a possibility as a formal aspect of church ministry would be to change our teaching on homosexuality. Another reason would be that it would be seen as a step along a 'slippery slope.'
Why, nevertheless, do I think that I could live with this option being agreed to by our General Synod?
(1) It is consistent with other matters in our church in which 'two opposing' views sit side by side (while not being enshrined in our formularies). Thus, for example, we have pacifists who oppose military service and we have Anglicans serving in the military, including ordained chaplains. On a related note we can observe that some among us seem willing to take part in blessing military equipment that might be used to kill people and others among us are opposed to that participation (even if we are otherwise in favour of military service).
There are different views on abortion/euthanasia in our church: in some cases, perhaps, such differences are part and parcel of a set of 'conservative' or 'liberal' views on a range of matters; in other cases, the differences will represent different experiences of the raw realities of life in which simple solutions to complex problems do not seem possible. I mention the latter as a reminder that it is relatively easy to dismiss 'the other side' when we operate in binary terms and a bit harder to do so when we recognise that pastoral and theological integrity are being held in great tension in the face of human complexity. On all these matters, incidentally, it is possible to continue to debate together what the Bible and our tradition mean.
(2) It offers a way forward for members of our church who in good conscience before God see good coming from blessing the relationship of two people who wished to live a faithful, committed, stable partnership and who question with great integrity why our church permits priests to remarry divorced persons beyond the narrow exceptions envisaged by our Lord but will not permit the blessing of relationships between two people of the same gender who desire to publicly express their faithful, lifelong commitment to each other.
(3) It involves no compromise in my own beliefs about marriage and human sexuality. Nor does it require me to stop debating issues (see 1 above).
The next reason is worth consideration but perhaps it is a separate thought, unnumbered because on its own relative to the above three reasons:
(x) In a society in which increasingly (it would appear) there is widespread tolerance for same sex partnerships and, since recently, for gay marriage according to the law of the land, this option would enable us to say, "we are a church with mixed views". That, I suggest, is better than the two alternatives of either saying, "our church is utterly opposed to what many favour" or "our church is completely in favour of what society tolerates." Both the former and the latter - I suggest - make hearing the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ harder than it needs to be. Why should the 'average' secular citizen in our land pay heed to a church which (no matter how much we deny it) looks like it is either 'anti-gay' or 'no different to the surrounding culture'?
What about the 'slippery slope' or 'Yes, Peter, blessings now but nek minit change to doctrine of marriage?'
Two thoughts: first, it is only a 'slippery' slope if it is a slope with a downward gradient. Some might say that this GS is the liberals last hoorah. The increasing decline in congregational numbers means the larger churches (mostly conservative) come to the fore, including through synod representation. That is, what looks like a downhill slope now is likely to become an uphill gradient that will not permit further change. Secondly, go back to my post below re six steps. The first is a moratorium on change to our doctrine of marriage for a period of twenty-five years. At that point everything should be very clear for our church. All will accede to a change peacefully. Or not.