Special Report

This Could Be Its Finest Hour

The Church of England defends traditional marriage reverently, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.

By 8.17.12

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The U.S. based Episcopal Church's recognition of same sex unions last month mostly excited a big yawn. More interesting is the resistance of its mother body, the Church of England, to Prime Minister David Cameron's attempt to install same sex marriage in Britain. The latter's opposition is more significant because it remains its nation's established church and still wields political and constitutional powers.

Episcopalians have often behaved as the established church in America. It once was the church of America's elites. But now below 2 million members and spiraling, the Episcopal Church no longer excites more than knowing smiles. Its affirmation of transgender clergy last month, at its General Convention, fulfilled stereotypes about modern, liberal Episcopalians.

The Church of England similarly often has a penchant for striving to be trendier than thou. But even as it presides over an increasingly secular Britain, it cherishes its role as senior church in the global, 80 million member Anglican Communion. And its few pockets of spiritual vitality in Britain often tend to be evangelical, often immigrant. Its second senior most prelate, the Archbishop of York, is himself a Ugandan and potentially the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

It's also true than in a secularizing country, the Church of England (unlike U.S. Episcopalians, who mostly just resent more numerous evangelicals) appreciates the threat to religious liberty under a regime of imposed same sex marriage. How would the established church disallow what the civil law requires? The church may have to disestablish, especially if it desires any continued leadership over global Anglicans.

British media quoted church officials dismissing government plans as "'half-baked,' ‘very shallow,' ‘superficial' and ‘completely irrational.'" Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu only slightly more diplomatically lamented that government proposals "have not been thought through and are not legally sound." The church's official response rejected the government's push with vigorous, point-by-point rebuttals.

One organizer of that response was Bishop of Leicester Tim Steve, who declared on his own: "Marriage is not the property of the Church any more than it is the property of the Government. It is about a mutually faithful physical relationship between a man and a woman." He warned, despite government claims of protection for churches, "If you do what the Government say they are going to do, you can no longer define marriage in that way. It becomes hollowed out, and about a relationship between two people, to be defined on a case-by-case basis." Imposed same sex marriage would precipitate the "gradual unravelling of the Church of England which is a very high cost for the stability of society."

In its official response, the church criticized the government's idea, which would "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history." Marriage benefits society by "promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation." The church noted its past support for benefits for same-sex couples, and warned that redefining marriage for "ideological reasons" would be "divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships."

Compared to Episcopalians, the Church of England sounded like Southern Baptists, declaring marriage was instituted by Christ Himself for all people as a lifelong union of man and woman. It even quoted the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, hardly an arbiter of modern fashion. And it cited ancient words so recognizable to all English speakers: "The Church of Christ understands marriage to be, in the will of God, the union of a man and a woman, for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till parted by death."

"Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old social institution in the way proposed," the church noted, soundly more truly conservative than the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. "It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole."

The church, which is legally bound to conduct marriages to all British citizens and currently conducts one quarter of all Britain's marriages, wondered how its beliefs long could survive, even with ostensible protections for religious freedom. It also asked why the government would continue to allow civil partnerships for same sex couples after legalizing same sex marriage. And it asked how the new law would define adultery and consummation.

Rowan Williams steps down at the end of this year as Archbishop of Canterbury, no doubt partly due to his frustrations over schisms and divisions among Anglicans precipitated by the Episcopal Church over sex issues. He came to office with liberal views, but his liberal critics now chide him for supposedly "hardening" the church's resistance to liberalizing on sex. The church's defense of traditional marriage may have lasting constitutional implications for Britain. It may also turn out to be its finest hour.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.