Almost a quarter of a century on from the ‘fairytale’ royal wedding there is to be another wedding. The Prince of Wales is to marry the woman whom he is purported to have loved all along, kept as a mistress during the ill fated covenant with the mother of his children and installed as his publicly acknowledged lover since the divorce. It is a decision that has predictably divided the nation and the Church.
Almost no-one was satisfied with the status quo – the man who would be king and head of the Church openly living in sin. All but the pathological republicans wanted a resolution of this constitutional, domestic and moral conundrum. That the politicians should rejoice is understandable. There are enough problems to be faced without a constitutional crisis. That the Queen and Prince Philip, now that the implacable opposition has been laid to rest with the Queen Mother, should, however reluctantly, welcome the promised final settlement of their unhappy eldest son will strike a chord in most parents’ hearts. That the Church of England should step forward in eagerness to bless this union is far less obvious for, in so doing, it will send a very clear message to the nation and one which it may come to regret.
We have argued often in these pages that the C of E’s marriage policy is, in theory, both the strictest and yet least satisfactory of the mainstream churches. That is because in practice it is, and has been for many years, in utter chaos. The criteria for annulment are so limited as to be pastorally irrelevant and even those who would qualify are rarely informed of their rights. For the rest, after divorce and seeking to remarry, there is a veritable supermarket. There are clergy who will marry anybody to anybody. There are clergy who, presumably possessing the talents of a psychiatrist, a social worker and a private detective, take it upon themselves to select those considered suitable for a second ‘go’. And there are clergy who simply refuse to go down either route out of loyalty to the plain words of Scripture, exercising mercy to the sacramentally estranged after a period of penitence and a serious return to the life of faith.
Only the traditionalist Sacred Synod has produced a consistent code of practice for its priests but in the wider church sadly no general agreement has yet been reached. Probably the only area of agreement across the board is that no second or subsequent marriage (after divorce of a partner still living) should receive the Church’s blessing where that relationship has been a scandal and/or a cause of the failure of the original marriage. To do anything else is to bless adultery and pretend, before God, that vice becomes virtue by a mixture of persistence and impenitence.
There can be few proposed marriages which have been so publicly documented as breaching these fundamental guidelines. By agreeing to bless this union the Church of England may claim to be honouring its duty to the monarchy but it will inevitably pay a heavy price in public respect and, more importantly, in parish life. On what grounds will the humble parish priest now refuse to bless the union of the most ardent adulterer and his mistress without the accusation of rank hypocrisy? ‘If it’s good enough for the head of the Church’, the cry will go up, ‘it’s good enough for me’. Historical critics of the Church of England have long claimed that it was invented to bless the infidelities of one monarch. It would be a considerable pity if it were to hasten its own demise by confirming this erastian caricature by a repeat performance.
odernisation (the signature tune of New Labour) is a concept which is relatively easy to understand in terms of electrical circuits, railway rolling stock or sanitary porcelain. But how does it apply to a Church?
The answer seems to lie in the abolition of the parson’s freehold, its substitution with what is called ‘common tenure’, and the vesting of the property of the benefice in the Diocesan Board of Finance. These changes are held to be ‘modern because’ they roughly accord with managerial practice in the secular world. But are they desirable or appropriate for the Church of England? We doubt it.
It may well be, as Professor McClean told the Synod, that clergy will lose nothing, and that some (unbeneficed clergy in particular) may gain from the proposed arrangements. But there can be no doubt that, symbolically, they constitute something of a disaster.
Members of Synod, aware of attempts in the United States to outlaw dissentient clergy and parishes and to seize their property under the iniquitous Dennis Canon, were very wary. Rightly so. To improve the lot of the unbeneficed does not require the abandonment of freehold. Clergy of all doctrinal colours and none, faced with heresy trials on the one hand and competence procedures on the other, will be justly suspicious of this naked attempt to bolster the power of that largely unelected and unaccountable body ‘the diocese’.
It is, of course, slightly comic that the law still acknowledges God as the ‘employer’ of the clergy of the Church of England. But better such a legal absurdity than the introduction into essentially pastoral relationships all the paraphernalia of modern employment practice.
Do bishops really want a situation in which their clergy are aggressively unionised, and relations with them are moderated by ‘human resources officers’? In a time of doctrinal flux, does the Church really want the possibility of group actions for constructive dismissal every time it changes its mind? And after the disastrous property deals over vicarages in the last thirty years, does anyone suppose that anything at all is to be gained by putting our churches into the same hands?
On all these issues; better think again.
ast month saw the consecrations of Fr David Moyer and Fr David Chislett as bishops in the Church of God. Both were, at the same time, appointed by Bishop Ross Davies as assistant bishops in the Diocese of the Murray, Province of Adelaide, Australia. Bishop Moyer is also to serve as bishop to the armed forces in the Anglican Church of America. To both bishops we extend assurance of our prayers in the tasks which lie ahead (see Letters from America and Australia on pages 25 and 26).
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