An article by Linda Woodhead who writes in a personal capacity.
“There will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.” (House of Bishops, 14th Feb 2014, Appendix, para 9)
“For the first time in the history of the Church of England has the law of the State been brought on one specific point into direct, open, overt contrast with and contradiction of the specific and defined law laid down in the authoritative regulations of the National Church.” (Archbishop Randall Davidson, on the passage of the deceased wife’s sister legislation, Hansard, 1907)
The fact that many in the Church of England contested the recension of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act (1835) until defeated in 1907 sounds ridiculous to us. And that’s the point. What to contemporary generations seems an unsupportable divergence between the law of the land and the Church’s teaching on marriage (the BCP’s Table of Kindred and Affinity in this case) seems a storm in a teacup for later generations for whom it is established social fact.
The same is true of the Church’s long and deep resistance to the remarriage of divorcees. Princess Margaret’s romance was sacrificed on this altar, and within living memory many clergy who sought remarriage were skewered on it, for it was only in 2002 that Church practice finally came into line with civil law. As Dr Robin Ward reminded me yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the (1820) trial of Queen Caroline explained to the House of Lords that although Our Lord allowed remarriage after divorce, the British Constitution wisely forbad it.
This is why Archbishop Lang viewed the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act, which liberalised divorce, as a serious divergence between English law and church teaching on marriage. He explained his decision not to vote for it by saying that he had come to the conclusion “that it was no longer possible to impose the full Christian standard by law on a largely non-Christian population, but that witness to that standard, and consequent disciplinary action towards its own members or persons who sought to be married by its rites, must be left to the church” (JG Lockhart, Cosmo Gordon Lang, p. 235).
So the fact that the House of Bishops’ statement above is in error matters a great deal. It matters because errors of fact should not occur in a statement of such gravity, and it matters because it reveals a wider mindset amongst the bishops and their advisors which is forgetful of the church’s own history and therefore proverbially condemned to repeat it. The bishops are in a false position because they believe that the scale of the challenge which gay marriage presents to the Church is much greater than it really is. The error speaks of an episcopate closed in on itself, trapped in the present, unwilling to accept advice from experts, and acting out of fear.
“The sky is falling in,” said Chicken Licken. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Davidson. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Lang. “The sky is falling in,” said Archbishop Welby. But this time, hardly anyone believed it.