I’ve been sent a copy of a letter that Bishop Alan Wilson has written in response to the growing crisis over his leadership in the Oxford Diocese. As I write this piece, I’m hearing of a number of parishes that even before the current crisis have refused to present candidates for confirmation by Wilson, insisting that another bishop preside.
The letter from Wilson, sighted on 21 June 2015, is dated 25 June 2015. It’s well worth reading through, after which I’ll address the key argument made.
Now there’s a lot that could be responded to here, but let me focus in on what I think is the heart of Wilson’s argument while briefly stopping by another matter. First this snippet:
I am baffled by any suggestion that I am somehow living outside the way of life laid down in Canon B30. I have been happily married for over 30 years and am entirely compliant.
If you’re having flashes of deja vu then you’d not be wrong. This is exactly the same shifting of the goalposts that occurred over Jeffrey Johns (an issue over which Wilson still plays the same
canard card). No-one has suggested that Wilson’s own life is not lived according to B30 (just as no-one made that charge about Johns). The complaint (as with Johns) is that Wilson persistently teaches against the long-held doctrine of the church as expressed in Canon B30. This has been pointed out many many times to Wilson, yet he still flies this flag. Make of that what you will.
Now to the key paragraphs,
I do not, in fact, advocate any change to canon B30. For the Employment Tribunal the essence of the alleged discrimination was that it had been applied differently to Canon Pemberton as a married gay man to the way it would have been applied to him as a divorcee. I was arguing that the canon should be applied equally and consistently to gay and straight people. Canons are usually the last thing to change as the Church’s thinking has evolved. We have managed with divorcees since 1978 by interpreting C30 as historically descriptive rather than prescriptive.
The doctrinal aspect of marriage turns for me on the statement of the Doctrine Commission, that “Marriage is an institution of the natural order which is taken into and sanctified by the Christian Church.” It follows from this foundational concept that the Church’s starting point for any definition of marriage is the natural order. Christians, including Evangelicals, hold a wide range of different opinions about same-sex marriage because some of them see being gay as against nature, and others as a variant within the order of nature.
In order to assess Wilson’s argument, one needs to look at the full text of Canon B30.
B 30 Of Holy Matrimony
1. The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.
3. It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.
Note:The House of Bishops issued advice to clergy in respect of further marriage in church after divorce in November 2002. This advice is reproduced here).
Wilson’s argument does not refer directly to the text of this canon nor to the 2013 Church of England Faith and Order Commission report on “Men and Women in Marriage” (GS Misc 1046) [pdf] but to the 1938 Doctrine Commission Report “Doctrine in the Church of England”[pdf]! In particular he has in mind this section (II.C.5 – on page 200 of the original document):
Marriage stands in a special position because, both as a rite and as a state of life, it is not something peculiarly Christian, but rather is an institution of the natural order which is taken into and sanctified by the Christian Church.
Put simply, Wilson’s argument is that we now recognise homosexual relationships as “of the natural order”. Wilson is thus arguing that the 1938 report does not ever explicitly state that marriage is between a man and a woman, only assuming that it does as the contemporary understanding of natural order. Our understanding has changed today and so our rite may also change.
What Wilson doesn’t quote from the 1938 report, however, is the very next sentence (my emphasis).
The teaching of the New Testament, which clearly has its basis in the teaching of our Lord Himself, implies that Marriage is in its own principle a lifelong and intimate union, and that anything short of this falls short of the purpose of God.
This is key to isolating the very obvious setting aside by Wilson of anything that does not suit his argument. Has he represented the 1938 report fairly? Of course not! While the report does not explicitly speak of heterosexuality, it does not need to. It is assumed, but not on the basis that Wilson suggests. Heterosexuality, along with all aspects of marriage, is not simply “of the natural (and, according to Wilson, contemporaneously understood) order” but “clearly has its basis in the teaching of our Lord Himself”. At the time that was so obviously referring to heterosexual union that it did not need to be stated.
However, in contemporary debates it does need to be stated – which is exactly what the 2013 Church of England Faith and Order Commission report on “Men and Women in Marriage” (GS Misc 1046) [pdf] does!
3. What follows is intended to enlarge on that summary, drawing on what has been said by the Church of England historically and more recently, and especially on how the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God, who ‘created humankind in his image… male and female he created them’. It is on male and female that God gives his blessing, which is to be seen not only in procreation but in human culture, too (Genesis 1.27-8).
5. The Church of England’s Common Worship Marriage Service declares, ‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation’. The teaching of Jesus on marriage began with creation: ‘he who created them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”’ (Matthew 19.4-5 (ESV)).
Now consider what is being argued here. When the very recent report addresses what the 1938 report referred to as “natural order” it gives the classical and millenia-understood argument from the Scriptures, and not least from Jesus’ lips, that God created humanity as male and female and that marriage is an expression of this. Wilson, who repeatedly reminds us in Sunday’s interviews that he spent 8 years writing a phd on related matters and was called to testify as an expert, nowhere acknowledges this simple and clearly-understood link. What is more, in the face of a public debate over “nature” that has been raging for well over a decade now in our wider society, he does not acknowledge that the Church, which he represents and in which he ought to be a figure of unity, has reaffirmed that “of nature” in the question of marriage means something akin to, “God made us male and female, just like Jesus said” which is, of course, exactly what Canon B30 affirms.
Put another way, Wilson claims “I do not, in fact, advocate any change to Canon B30” but it is Canon B30 which directly states that his understanding of “of nature” is entirely incorrect. It never was “what the people around thought was natural”. Not in 2013. Not in 1938 (since the 1938 Report refers to “the teaching of our Lord Himself“) and not, in fact at any time since we have existed as “The Church of England” (note Canon B30’s reference to “2. The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in The Book of Common Prayer.”) Do I really need to dig out my 1549 BCP to prove this? At some point piling on the evidence just gets embarassing.
For an 8-year-phd-writing expert on this topic, Wilson’s letter is remarkably light on even acknowledging this fundamental counter-argument to his position, let alone addressing it.
Here is the reason that so many of his clergy are now so frustrated with him that they are refusing to allow him to carry out episcopal ministry in their parishes (despite, I hear, his attempt to insist that many of them should do so) and now openly calling for his resignation (an unprecedented situation).
This letter is simply more evidence of Wilson’s open defiance and repudiation of the Church of England’s (let alone the wider Christian church’s) position on marriage and it’s leadership (both earthly and spiritual) more generally. As Vaughan Roberts put it so clearly in yesterday’s interview:
In any line of work if you as a leader of that organisation find yourself in a fundamental disagreement with that organisation and then you publicly speak against it, the only sensible option is to resign.
With Wilson’s letter, all we really have is an example of him once again publicly speaking against the Church of England on a matter which the church catholic has never wavered. There is only one sensible response, and more and more Oxford clergy are asking for it.