Letter to Irish House of Bishops
In the past week every presbyter in the Church of Ireland has received a letter from their bishop entitled “Some Frequently Asked Questions and Responses Concerning Same Sex Marriage”. It is a letter agreed in the House of Bishops and each bishop has put their own name to it in their diocese signifying their personal agreement to its contents.
We are concerned because what the letter contains is a dangerous departure from confessing Anglicanism. It is dangerous because of its appearance of orthodoxy while undermining the principles of our reformed protestant denomination. What follows is an unpacking of our understanding of the letter. We include a copy of the letter itself below with numbered paragraphs.
The letter from our bishops proposes to encourage mutual respect and attentiveness, but it communicates something quite different. It demonstrates two disturbing characteristics of our House of Bishops: (A) they make the Church of Ireland its own primary authority and source of unity and (B) they assume that our church’s teaching on the issue of human sexuality is liable, even certain, to change.
The Church as its Own Authority.
Our bishops make the Church of Ireland’s canons, rites, ceremonies and liturgies the primary and ultimate authority for our doctrinal and moral teaching. If this is true, the only barrier to a Church of Ireland minister conducting same-sex marriages is the canons and liturgy of the Church of Ireland. Their letter defends this approach by suggesting this matter is of ‘expressly legal function’ (¶3). The letter itself cannot sustain this tactic as it later calls us to ‘offer service and leadership in the things of God.’ (¶15)
Our bishops propose the following arguments against the practice of same sex marriage in the Church of Ireland: the status of the current canons (¶6), the absence of liturgical resources (¶6 & 8), and restraint for the sake of other’s consciences (¶14-15). The primary authority of Anglican tradition is notably absent – the letter neglects Scripture or any appeal to its’ authority.
Our bishops’ neglect of Scripture departs from the Church of Ireland’s stated principles in the preamble & declaration to our constitution and our historic reformed protestant doctrine contained in the BCP, articles, ordinal and homilies. The benefit of these Anglican documents is in their agreement with Scripture. Apart from their agreement with Scripture they have no Christian authority and cease to be identifiably Anglican.
The impediment to our support of, conducting of, or entry into so-called “same-sex marriage” is not our canons, liturgical resources, or others’ consciences (cf ¶14), as our bishops propose. Our impediment is the clear and present word of God in Scripture from which our doctrine is derived. If Holy Scripture is not our bishops’ ultimate authority, then they have departed from the reformed Christian faith of which Anglicanism is a wonderful expression.
Rather than a call to canonical conformity and liturgical observance, we long for a call from our House of Bishops to proper Christian restraint that is obedience to our Lord’s word. To act without such restraint in this matter is not merely inviting division (¶15), it is open rebellion against Christ and a withdrawal from Christian life and doctrine, a wilful sinfulness that Scripture and our scriptural Anglican traditions meet with rebuke and discipline.
The letter calls us to unity (¶15 & 17). The unity to which Anglicanism draws us is unity in Christ by his cross expressed in obedience to our Lord’s commands. We show ourselves ‘charitable’, by lovingly calling others to the same loving obedience. Any other unity is a false and non-Christian unity that is strange to Anglican doctrine and practice. One colleague has noted:
“God is mentioned twice. Jesus in never mentioned. The Church of Ireland and/or ‘bishops’ are mentioned about 15 times! Basically, its call to denominational unity trumps obedience to God’s truth.”
By neglecting the Scriptures and replacing their authority by canons and liturgy, the root of our reformed Anglican Church is abandoned by its bishops.
Assumption of Certain and Imminent Change
The letter assumes that change in our church’s teaching on homosexuality is a certainty, being simply a matter of time. It achieves this by a subtle but constant use of otherwise redundant words and phrases that diminish the authority of Christian teaching on human sexuality. We may have been encouraged if the bishops had instructed us to "adhere to the Canons of the Church of Ireland" and "the Church of Ireland practices". Instead they say, "while the Canons of the Church of Ireland stand as they are" and "what the Church of Ireland currently practices" (¶6 & 16 – italics added). The use of ‘while’ and “currently” modify what was certain and set, making the church’ s teaching on this matter uncertain and changeable. That the modifiers are all ‘temporal markers’ amplifies the impression that change to the church’s teaching is a foregone and imminent conclusion.
Thus, we receive this letter as an agreed episcopal departure from Holy Scripture as the primary authority that is the basis of our beloved and confessional Anglican tradition. We are instructed to be committed, or at least resigned, to an inevitable parting from orthodox Christian teaching.
We are confident that those bishops who are Christian brothers in the House of Bishops fought to retain certain orthodox sentiments and that this letter is much better than it could have been. What we have received may contain hard-won compromises. It is nonetheless, still a letter that steps away from Christian doctrine and lays out a carpet for further departures.
We call on our brothers in the House of Bishops to please restate their own position if it indeed differs from that expressed in their letter. Follow the lead of Cranmer who repented of his signature. We are aware that the pressure of collegiality is strong and that there are very many in our denomination who would be angered by such bravery. Please remember that the faith we have received and the support we offer as fellow followers of the Lord is far stronger than the power of those who depart from Holy Scripture.
We beg you to lead us in correctly handling of the word of truth, to call Christian people to godly restraint – to put godly truth over the principle of collegiality or unbiblical unity. This will be costly in this age but we are working for the riches of the Kingdom that is yet to come.
¶ Dear Colleagues,
SOME FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS AND RESPONSES CONCERNING SAME SEX MARRIAGE
l am writing to you in the light of the Marriage Equality Referendum in the Republic of Ireland and the subsequent legislation. It is recognised that in the Church of Ireland there are differing opinions and responses to the outcome of the referendum itself. Together with my episcopal colleagues, I seek to encourage a spirit of mutual respect and attentiveness to one another as we move forward together in a context of new civic realities and possibilities in the Republic of Ireland. There will be many new situations of pastoral sensitivity arising.
Hitherto the Church and the State in both jurisdictions have substantially overlapped in their definition of marriage. This is no longer the case in the Republic of Ireland.
We also need to understand that under current legislation, involvement of a member of the clergy of the Church of Ireland as a solemniser (Republic of Ireland) or an officiant (Northern Ireland) in a wedding is an expressly legal function.
The following are some questions that have already been raised:
Q. Will a member of the clergy who is on the Register of Solemnisers (Republic of Ireland) now be able to conduct a same-sex marriage?
R. This will not be possible while the Canons of the Church of Ireland stand as they are. The powers of conducting a marriage as delegated to an ordained minister in the Church of Ireland require that the marriage be conducted according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of Ireland, and therefore the doctrine as reflected in those rites and ceremonies. The Church of Ireland does not have a liturgy of same-sex marriage.
Q. Are clergy permitted to conduct a blessing of a same-sex marriage?
R. There is no provision in the Book of Common Prayer or other authorized liturgies of the church for the blessing of a same sex marriage. In addition the service known as A Form of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage (pages 431 ff) presupposes the civil marriage of a man and a woman as husband and wife and cannot be used in this context.
Q. If two people who enter a same-sex civil marriage ask a member of the clergy to say prayers with them, how am I to reply and what am I to do?
R. It is not possible to proscribe the saying of prayers in personal and pastoral situations, nor would one wish to do so. In fact, in situations of rejoicing and crisis, such prayers often are at the heart of ministry. Any such prayers should remain consonant with the spirit and teaching of the Church of lreland.
Q. If I am asked to attend a same-sex marriage, should I go?
R. The decision lies with the individual who will bring to this decision criteria of friendship and conscience, following personal prayer and reflection.
Q. What is the situation if I, as a member of the clergy serving in the Church of Ireland decide to enter a same-sex marriage?
R. All are free to exercise their democratic entitlements once they are enshrined in legislation. However, members of the clergy, are further bound by the Ordinal and by the authority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. It ls essential that any member of the clergy seeking to explore entering into a same sex marriage should think carefully about the response of others, not only in the immediate locality. This is an extension of the reflection, often requiring restraint in a range of matters, expected of clergy who are both public and private people at the same time.
The bishops of the Church of Ireland, acting corporately and individually, are well aware that, in the eyes of many, for an ordained member of the clergy to enter publicly into a civil marriage would be regarded as divisive. The backdrop to this is that such a situation is contrary to what the Church of Ireland currently practices within its own framework of regulation. The situation is that State provision in the Republic of Ireland now differs significantly from that in the Church of Ireland. It is for this reason that we encourage a restraint for the sake of unity that is respectful of the principles of others in the mixed flock to whom clergy offer service and leadership in the things of God.
REQUEST OF ALL CLERGY
The spirit of these Responses to FAQs is one of maintaining the relationship of trust which exists under God between clergy and people and clergy and bishop. In other specific areas and in further questions, individual clergy are encouraged to contact me. Pastoral responsibility is paramount in this area. Whilst recognising that there is impatience and frustration on both sides of this debate, we urge one another to forbearance and to charity. The bishops ask prayerfully and charitably that at this time of change and of a new civic reality all clergy aim to maintain the unity of the Church of Ireland, and show patience with one another.
I hope that you find this material useful.
05th March 2016