The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll
I have been reading postings from respected theologians in the Church of England arguing that the addition of “clause (g)” to the General Synod Resolution last week was a victory of sorts for those who hold a biblical view of marriage and sexuality.
The clause at issue was the only amendment supported and thus allowed by the bishops (who vetoed every other amendment) to the original Resolution. It reads: “that this Synod…”
g) endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.
Ian Paul argues that the issue facing the Church of England is ultimately theological and that “there is no institutional unity apart from theological coherence.” He writes:
How can all this be squared with the consistent teaching of Scripture? This cannot be lightly set aside, since Canon A5 delineates our doctrine as being ‘rooted in the Scriptures’, and Article XX of the XXXIX Articles states ‘that it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.’
Nevertheless, with the passage of clause (g), he thinks the revisionists won at most a “Pyrrhic victory,” as it will force them to explain themselves clearly. Martin Davie goes even further in claiming that “the passage of clause (g) to the Synod motion was a great victory” for traditionalist Anglicans.
I would that Ian Paul and Martin Davie were right, but the lesson I take from the Episcopal Church USA two decades ago is that the addition of clause (g) will not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Let me explain.
In 1997, I submitted, as part of the discernment process in the Episcopal Church (called “Continuing the Dialogue”), a book-length defense of the traditional doctrine of marriage titled Two Sexes, One Flesh: Why the Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Marriage (a summary is available online in Theology Matters 6:3 May/June 2000). This book was circulated to all bishops and delegates prior to the 1997 General Convention, as the Church was proposing development of same-sex rites. I received exactly zero theological response at the time, although one bishop took me aside, Nicodemus-like, and said he agreed with me (he later went on to vote with the majority). While the Episcopal Church did not officially approve same-sex rites until 2006, there was clearly no interest in debating further the theology underlying the matter. From their point of view, the “dialogue” was over, and implementation was the only issue going forward.
This is this point concerning clause (g) that I think Martin Davie misconstrues. Let me again illustrate from North America. At the next General Convention in 2000, the issue of same-sex blessings was again on the agenda. The progressive majority brought an 8-point Resolution (D039) to the floor which described “disagreement” as the norm within the Episcopal Church. Based on this disagreement, Resolution D039 concluded with this clause 8:
8. Resolved, that desiring to support relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage which mediate the grace of God, the 73rd General Convention directs the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to prepare for consideration by the 74th General Convention rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services by means of which the Church may express that support.
At the time, I analyzed what happened next on the Convention floor:
Only a titanic effort by conservatives, along with the wish of the Presiding Bishop to avoid division of the church and confrontation with the international Communion, narrowly defeated Resolve 8 of Resolution D039, which would have authorized the development of same-sex rites. Conservatives paid a price for this victory. If they had fought the whole Resolution, they would have lost, and a new norm would have been established. In order to save the “technical virginity” of the Church, conservatives were forced to soft-pedal the significance of Resolves 1-7 for fear that Resolve 8 would be voted back in. (Another unfortunate result of their strategy was that the final majorities in both Houses in favor of Resolves 1-7 were far more lopsided than they would have been had they been taken on the entire Resolution.)
So clause 8 was dropped, but this compromise by conservatives was indeed a pyrrhic victory. The next General Convention in 2003 approved use of local option same-sex rites and, more controversially, granted permission for the consecration of the openly partnered gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. In 2006, the Convention authorized development of official same-sex rites, which were approved in 2012 (“I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing”). When the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage in 2015, the Episcopal Church immediately converted the same-sex blessings into same-sex marriage rites. It is now impossible for an Episcopal bishop to deny same-sex marriage to a member of his diocese, as Bishop William Love discovered to his regret (he is now a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America).
I have recently argued that the Church of England is following the same trajectory as the Episcopal Church USA and other revisionist provinces. If our North American experience provides any precedent for the Church of England, there will be no further theological dialogue or parsing of the language of the Prayer Book.
The British know something about Pyrrhic victories (cue Neville Chamberlain). If clause (g) offers any hope, it is in buying time for the conservatives to negotiate a settlement with the powers that be in church and state. The cost of such a realignment will be great, as it was in North America and the wider Anglican Communion, but at the end of the day, with the apostles “we must obey God rather than men.”
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Trinity School for Ministry and former Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University.