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26 October 2012

A God-given opportunity

A God-given opportunity

Our general director Steve Clifford writes...

I still find it hard to believe I’m now the father of two adult and indeed married children. Over the last four years both my son and daughter have got married. They were great days of fun, joy and celebration reflecting their character and that of those they were marrying. I am pleased to report that both Ann and I have managed to survive the experience.

Our church doesn’t own a building, so those getting married usually have a registry office ceremony a few days earlier and then a full-on church wedding using all kinds of different venues. My son Jake was so lacking interest in the registry office bit that he managed to negotiate a discount rate for early on a Thursday morning. As far as he was concerned, it was a bit like picking up a birth or death certificate from the council – he wasn’t sure he needed any ‘civil ceremony’. I did point out to him that God was present on the Thursday morning even in Ealing Town Hall and that He did hear their promises even there.

What I realised was that what really mattered to my children happened a few days later. In the context of worship, prayer, the opening of scripture, surrounded by their family and friends they made their promises to each other and we as a church committed to walk with them in their marriage. Marriage isn’t just about two people making vows to each other, it’s a community event, we were never meant to make it work on our own.

Whatever comes of the re-definition of marriage debate and the government’s proposal to change the law to allow same-sex marriage - a proposal which we are working with others to campaign against, convinced it is not in the best interest of the society we live in - there is another significant debate which needs to happen which is highlighted by these proposals. How do we as a Church inter-relate with this thing called the ‘State’? This is a far-ranging and profoundly significant discussion, impacting on many areas of how we understand British society and participate in it. Over the centuries, in all kinds of areas of life, but notably in the areas of marriage, an agreement has been entered into with the Church delivering a service on behalf of the State; a marriage service.

This isn’t just true of the Anglican Communion but most mainstream denominations. The government has now proposed to move the goalposts by re-defining marriage. Not only would this diminish a key social institution, it would also undermine the partnership of Church and State which has emerged over centuries. This is particularly difficult for the Church of England which is under a legal obligation to offer a wedding to anyone who lives within their parish, regardless of their faith - an obligation which has provided some wonderful gospel opportunities. The excellent submission of the CofE to the marriage consultation highlights this dilemma and points to the untenable position that the established Church would be placed in by such changes.

So as we look to the future and should the government be successful in re-defining marriage, how will we as a Church respond? We might have to find our own words to describe what we mean by marriage - the government having hijacked the historic and biblical definition. Some churches might have to find new ways of celebrating a man and woman committing themselves to each other for life. Maybe the ‘open to all’ in a parish will no longer be available as the government’s moving of the goalposts will have profound implications.

The future will be more like what happens in many mainland European nations and indeed, as with my son’s and daughter’s weddings, we pick up our marriage certificate from the town hall, but then as a Church we celebrate our weddings in a way which reflects our faith without any government interference. In this context, although the historic social institution of marriage as a life-long union between a man and a woman would effectively be dead, there may be an opportunity for the Christian Church to breathe new life into its own God-given form of marriage. Perhaps with a sadness of heart, a God-given opportunity will emerge whereby we as the Church demonstrate with fresh faith and clarity what marriage as God intended it is really meant to be.

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