Equal Marriage, The Church and the Rainbow Nation

A wonderful breath of fresh air sweeps across the channel to the isles of Albion this New Year’s day 2016, with news of the marriage of Canon Revd Mpho Tutu and Professor Marceline Van Furth in a small civil ceremony in Oegstgeest in the Netherlands on Thursday . A quiet ceremony, but one whose timing, and whose participants, could result in profound consequences for the rest of the Anglican communion.

Celebrating their marriage in the final days of 2015.

Celebrating their marriage in the final days of 2015 Professor Marceline Van Furth and Canon Mpho Tutu.

Thankfully Canon Tutu,  the daughter of Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu holds the position of Executive Director of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, which ensures a certain level of at least financial immunity from any ‘ricochets’ or ‘backlash’ on this public /private marriage within those within the Anglican communion who disapprove of marriage for lesbian and gay people. Professor van Furth is a professor in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the  and enjoys a similar ‘virtual benefaction’ from Archbishop Desmond, holding the Desmond Tutu Chair in Medicine at theVrije University in Amsterdam.

The Reformed tradition is strong in Oegstgeest, home for missionary training since 1917 for a cluster of ten churches of the Reformed tradition. This centre is known for its openness to working with other cultures to express what for the Reformed Churches is the heart of the Christian gospel – to seek to express the words of Christ to ‘transform the communities’ it touches. The phrase ecclesia reformata semper Reformanda (the church that is reformed and continually being reformed) expresses well the best intentions of this approach to being a community of Christians in the world: open to new insights and refusing to impose outmoded views which are vested purely in a particular cultural attitude, separable from the dictates of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As one of the pioneers of the Reformed tradition Calvin himself noted when considering the nature and form of worship,

‘ because he (Jesus) taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to Salvation, and for the up building of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church shall require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and establish new ones as required.’

Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

Re-aligning the Church to its current context

Somewhere in the practice and praxis of the mother ship of the Anglican church, its late Victorian attitude to same sex attraction and marriage, needs to be re-aligned to modernity brokered by neuroscience, the recalibration of legal structures around the ‘rights of the individual’ and consenting adults and our emerging understanding of the plasticity alongside the viscosity of human emotional and erotic attachment. There has been a fundamental de facto reconstruction of the ‘goods’ of marriage from the surrendering of property and female bodies under patriarchal household control, to something which expresses a more equal commitment to ‘an other’ of the goods of affection, conjugality, financial assets and bodily labour over the course of a union which is undertaken with the intention of fidelity across a lifetime. Whether that union is heterosexual or between partners of the same sex, is now increasingly accepted across the world, as irrelevant.

The King’s marriage question and a non-celibate Archbishop

Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn

Strangely, the Anglican church, itself a manifestation of a breakaway tradition from the Roman Catholic church over a dispute around what constitutes a legitimate marriage has found itself behind the cultural curve on this challenge. In 1533 Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII.   Pope Clement’s excommunication, followed Henry’s vesting into the hands of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury full authority on matrimonial issues, tithing and oblations. The Church of England in its turn had surrendered any prior legislative independence and sanctuary in canon law from that which yielded to Rome, to the authority of the monarch in May 1532. As a final coup de grace, Thomas Cranmer who had himself set aside the priestly oath of celibacy by marrying Margaret Hetzel earlier in 1532, when in Nuremberg, was appointed as a new, compliant Archbishop of Canterbury, prepared to issue Henry’s annulment, effectively divorcing Catherine of Aragon and releasing Henry to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533.

Such is the legacy of the formation of the Church of England.   Built from the embers of the Catholic church’s refusal to accept the de facto collapse of an essentially levirate marriage to Henry’s brother’s former wife, negotiated via a radical priest who had newly jettisoned his vows of priestly celibacy, married and been raised to the heights of Archbishop of Canterbury, this is the somewhat messy, pragmatic foundation of the Established Church in England, which now foreswears forward movement on marriage equality.

An Anachronistic Church ‘silencing’ same-sex relations

Recently the Church of England’s episcopacy has courted unwanted publicity in its efforts to uphold its increasingly anachronistic pastoral guidance on refusing same-sex marriage for ordained clergy and insisting on what could be considered ‘abusive constraint’, of same- sex celibacy within civil partnerships,  permitted though not promoted amongst its ordained cohort. Behind the scenes in its ranks of licensed clergy, preachers, lay readers and ordinands, there is a morass of perceived pressure to conform, to hide, to bury, to collude, and to remain in the shadows with same sex partners condemned to local acceptance by congregations ‘in the know’ but to a lack of clear reception by the wider church hierarchy. The full cost of the current recent history of hypocrisy, lies, silencing, duplicity, shaming, expulsion, and constrained exploitation of women and men’s emotional lives within the Church of England’s work-force both stipendiary and non-stipendiary, which many suspect lurks in the corridors of ecclesial power broking, parochial appointments and the withdrawals of licenses and non-renewal of permissions to officiate, is yet to emerge. But it will. And sooner than many in current power expect.

Anglican Pride and emergent Social Networks

Across the Anglican Communion people are starting to feel their own local power and voice. A new strand of spiritual congruence and confidence, rather than a ubiquitous anxiety about gay / lesbian identity within the church, is slowly but assuredly emerging.  Social Media conversations taking place across church members, nationally, internationally and interdenominationally are assisting in the formation of openness amongst gay and lesbian church members and ordained clergy to say it how it is.  Congregational members, lay preachers, ordained people, theologians, and former attendees of churches no longer able to stand the hypocricy and exclusion they have endured are starting to speak out and to name their situations.  For those with a modicum of economic security, with parental or sibling support, or a network of supportive friends or congregational members there is the emergence of an appropriate ‘gay pride’ in announcing their feelings, their beloved and their sexual alignment, and to protest their following of Christ alongside a different vision than cultural heteronormativity underpinned by heteronormative marriage.

Of course, there is also a good deal of pain, suffering, psychological, economic and social disturbance which has been accrued along the way.  Families have frequently suffered the consequences of the tardiness with which social change has not been in step with the spiritual resources to make sense of rupture and realignment, or at the other end of the scale with first generation increase in confidence in ‘coming out’ amongst generation ‘y’. All of this ‘mess’ of life,  grief,  felt betrayal,  loss of hope,  real time ostracism, mental health collapse, loss of income and jobs, promotions and houses, will have to be dealt with. There is also,  a great deal of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty in the corridors of former undisputed power, which also needs attention and resources to address.  But for now, for Mpho and for Marceline, unalloyed joy is being expressed across the networks where gay, lesbian and inclusive Anglicans gather.

Of Primates and Bishops and Women

It were better if the Bishops in England signal to themselves and the  Primates from the South coming to meet in Lambeth in a fortnight’s time, that the challenge, similar to the global warming summit recently mediated in Paris, was seized earlier than later, and that same-sex marriage, be immediately received into the practice of the churches, where the wider cultural and legislative context is accepting of such a change. The elaboration of such a decision across other churches where the cultural and legislative context is currently more challenging, needs of course careful handling – but the direction of travel should be clear. The import of Canon Mpho Tutu and her spouse’s marriage this last week, is that simply protesting a disruption in the global South should the global North move on this issue and fully embrace same-sex marriage in its full import, as an ongoing device to stop all movement in Anglicans distributed church polity, is now no longer tenable.

With a gathering of 37 invited Primates to Lambeth to consult with one another at the invitation of Archbishop Justin Welby in just a couple of weeks time (11th -16th January 2016) – this public / private wedding of a South African canon with her Dutch partner offers the Church of England, a way forward for a second reformation.  There is the opportunity offered here for an open and wide ranging reception of the merits of same sex marriage, in a thoroughly modern appreciation of the gains of the last century, in understanding gay and lesbian sensibilities, psychosomatic realities and the socio-economic and well-being impacts of exclusion.

Perhaps an invitation to Canon Mpho to present her thinking, along with a number of theologians who have been working on this matter, excluded female and male priests who no longer hold their licenses due to their same sex relationships, and a range of voices from psychologists who have been supporting gay and lesbian people, struggling with the impacts of the ostracism and shaming which has been applied to them by churches, would be a strong forward step and signal of intended change. For too long the Established Church has been dragging its bejewelled cope, hiding the challenges in the folds of its garment, covering the reality of effective discrimination and exclusion under various mitres, and hoping that the matter will simply process into some side vestry and have a heavy oak door on the ‘awkward noises off’ closed.

New Pioneering Voices from the Global South

The news received today from Oegstgeest – is that the vestry door has been firmly pressed open, and Africa’s rainbow nation is shining a light on this challenge through the scion of Tutu, with a call for a fundamental rethink of the old order. 2016 beckons, and the Primates meeting at Lambeth will hear echoes not only the ringing endorsement of same sex marriage from the castle precincts of Dublin Castle and Westminster Palace, but the sound of new pioneering voices from Africa and Europe, from the ranks of the Reformed and Episcopalian churches in whose tradition Anglicanism is firmly set.

Meanwhile from this author  at least and for the hundreds of thousands who will be giving thanks nnow and in the future for this particular brave union  Ndzi ku navelela mikateko – Good luck to the new couple and Ndzi khense ngopfu (Thankyou).