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Another Reformation anyone?

If the Church of England really wanted to attack the government, there are plenty of issues it could seize on: child poverty, homelessness, unemployment, inequality, bankers’ bonuses, spending cuts etc etc. Opposing gay marriage neatly reveals the CoE’s priorities.

What concerns the CoE’s hierarchy more than anything else is its privileged position within the state as the established church. It gets to do royal weddings, has seats in the House of Lords for bishops and its own canon laws are recognised and incorporated by the state.

This exclusive position owes everything to political opportunism and expediency and nothing to divine intervention. In 1533, when England was under the Church of Rome, divorce was forbidden. Henry VIII persuaded Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to ignore the Vatican, dissolve his previous marriage and allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. This set in train the English Reformation, the break with Rome and the creation of the CoE.

With congregations continuing to decline and the CoE deeply split over a number of issues like women bishops, seizing on gay marriage proposals is partly a deflection from its own internal problems. But its vitriolic attack on the government’s consultation paper is nonetheless deeply reactionary and positively feudal in tone.

“In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman,” the formal response says.

Even in biblical terms, this is wrong. Solomon, the King of Israel, had 700 wives and 300 concubines, for example. The reference to “lifelong union” is almost catholic in sentiment and flies in the face of modern society, where divorce is commonplace and a large number of single households with children live with no fear of retribution.

The real concern is about remaining the established church. It fears that the duty of Anglican clergy to perform marriages for any parishioner who wanted one might disappear, undermining the CoE’s role as the state church. The hierarchy fears a clash between church law and parliamentary law could prompt a break-up of the 500-year-old relationship.

This is scaremongering nonsense. As Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay rights, said:

I have not come across such a master class in melodramatic scaremongering - that somehow this is the biggest upheaval since the sacking of the monasteries - since as a journalist myself a decade ago I was summoned to a government briefing to be told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

He finds it “odd” that the CoE “should be obsessing about a few thousand gay couples once again when there are currently three million children in Britain living in single-parent households" and there are major issues like global poverty and the HIV pandemic.

There is nothing odd about it, unfortunately.

The CoE, like all state institutions, is fighting its corner, defending its privileges and special place in the sun by citing god-given “rights”. Police do the same, and so do army generals. All change is presented as the end of civilisation as we know it. Steps towards equality are often ignored in practice, with the police being a case in point when it comes to institutional racism and sexism.
Religion should be a personal matter in any case and the state should play no part in matters of faith. Disestablishmentarianism is an extremely long word but a useful, progressive concept which can be part of the drive to democratise society from top to bottom.

Another Reformation anyone?

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
12 June 2012

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