With the Church of England debating sexuality at General Synod last week, the debate around the church and state relationship was once again reignited in arguably the starkest terms we have seen for a while.
Firstly, an Urgent Question was raised on same-sex marriage in the Church of England. For fellow Parliamentary nerds out there, this is only the second time in history that an urgent question to the Church Commissioners has been granted in the House of Commons.
During the debate, Conservative MP and Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley MP, said, 'We are coming to a stage, on that and on this, where the Church of England needs to wake up. I commend to it the establishment of a commission similar to the Chadwick commission, and for it to ask itself how to get out of this dilemma. Does it want to solve it, or will it leave it to us to do that for it?’
In other words, the oldest MP in the House of Commons urged the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, whether the Church of England would finally ‘wake up’ and grant same-sex marriage, or whether Parliament would have to intervene.
While changes in doctrine and practice are usually left to the Church of England, the last month or so has seen Parliament increasingly raise the attention put on this matter. For example, in recent weeks the Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt MP, wrote to her local Bishop, urging the Church to change its official stance on marriage and allow same-sex couples to marry in church.
Call this déjà vu, but the relationship between the Church and the political powers that be are thrown into the limelight once again. There is of course history to this - the Reformation, civil wars, interregnum and numerous other occasions show that debates around church and state are not new, but rather the topic dividing them is.
Understandably, this is a sensitive debate. There is pain on both sides, particularly for those who identify as LGBTQI+. Likewise, the Church has undeniably done terrible harm towards this particular community. It is understandable that Parliament has responded the way it has over the issue – particularly given their own liberalising on this matter back in 2013.
However, whilst the Bible is vehemently opposed to abuse and vilification of anyone, regardless of who they are, it remains clear in its view of marriage.
Marriage is a core theme of the gospel. From Genesis right through to Revelation, marriage has been a consistent image of unity and life-giving sacrifice, both between his image bearers and between Jesus and his bride, the Church. When Adam is asleep in the Garden of Eden, the Lord took one of Adam’s ribs and made Eve (Genesis 2:21-22). A wound is made in Adam’s side that he may give life to his wife, sacrificing a part of himself for her. He didn’t wake up and start moaning about his rib loss, but instead looked at his wife and sung over her. They had been made one, biblically and physically.
On the cross, Jesus is pierced at his side between his ribs (John 19:34). Jesus’s side is opened, and his blood is poured out for his bride, the Church. His side is pierced to bring new life to his redeemed people; that they may come and be wholly united to him as children of God and members of Christ’s bride. As members of this beautiful church body, we can have absolute certainty that he will come again. We can look forward to the day when he cleanses us completely, making us ‘bright and pure’, ready for the eternal marriage between Christ and his Church (Revelation 19:6-9).
And indeed, it is perhaps this clarity that has led the Bishops to re-affirm the historic position of the church, where marriage can only be between one man and one woman for life. Therefore, the established church believes that there are not enough grounds to change the doctrine of marriage. In fact, Justin Welby, came out in the strongest of terms to oppose Parliamentary pressure, saying he’d rather see the church disestablished than cave to pressure from MPs.
We as Christians are not meant to cave to the world, nor to bow to pressure no matter how intense or grave it is, but rather to keep worshipping God and holding true to His word. With this in mind, we can affirm the Church of England in its refusal to change its official teaching on marriage.
Yet, that is not the full story. Whilst the Bishops have rejected a bid to allow same-sex marriages in its churches, the Church of England, together with its General Synod, has provided blessings for those in sexual relationships that remain outside the covenant of marriage.
In seeing that our culture does not agree with this stance on marriage, those in positions of authority within the church have opted to provide prayers of blessing for same-sex relationships.
Some might say that this is a wise decision. They have recognised the importance of orthodoxy, whilst providing resources to aid and affirm those who disagree. What’s done is done, there is no point crying over spilt milk.
To those who hold this view, I’d plead with them that the biblical view of marriage is worth far more than spilt milk. Resources made by the likes of Living Out, the Evangelical Alliance and the Greater Love Declaration have made this abundantly clear, whilst showing true compassion and love towards those in the LGBTQI+ community.
For the Church of England to disregard something as beautiful, necessary, and central to the gospel message is to consider their laws and opinions above God’s. They have set their own values and beliefs about the world and how they conduct relationships above the word of God, breaking away from centuries of church history and denying what Christ has done on the cross.
This week's events will please no one, neither those who are progressive nor those who hold to the orthodox teachings of Christianity. What is sure is that the pressure both internal and external will only grow for Christians throughout the Church, and not just those in the Church of England, to conform.
Though the world, and now the Church of England, might tell us otherwise, Jesus presents a better story for relationships. Only in him and his message can we find true rest, joy, and freedom. Let us hold fast to that.