In blessing same-sex couples, the church’s compassion has triumphed over blind faith
After years of argument, the General Synod’s vote last week was Christianity at its best
Catherine Pepinster Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of the Tablet
Comment & Analysis
When I was a sixth former at my Catholic convent school, the nuns would sometimes organise retreat days for us to spend some time in prayer and also think about life’s big issues. Sometimes, there would be folksy metaphorical tales such as one about an Englishman driving in the middle of the night in Ireland who stops at a red traffic light, even though there is no other traffic. He sits there, rigidly obeying the red light and only drives off when it turns green. Soon afterwards, an Irish woman arrives at the lights but as the road is deserted and no one else is about, she accelerates away. The point they wanted to impart was that rules are not there to be blindly obeyed, but are there as guidance and a mature person interprets them. Context is all. Many non-believers will probably be surprised by my nuns’ flexible approach. Aren’t Christians supposed to follow a moral code seen as timeless and ever constant? The answer is “yes”. But also “no”. The timelessness and constancy of Judaeo-Christian thought is the foundation of our legal system, with its prohibitions against killing and thieving. But our changing mores are evident when we think about John Stuart Mill’s argument that the most important issue about wielding power over individuals, including using the law to do so, is the prevention of harm. What we think of as harmful has changed, evident in the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967 and the abhorrence of slavery since it was outlawed in the early 19th century. It isn’t just the law that has changed; Christian beliefs have too, or at least the beliefs of some believers. Last week, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to allow a trial of special services for blessing same-sex couples. It came after years of argument. As the bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, put it with a certain understatement: “The Church of England is not of one mind on questions of sexuality and marriage.” On one side are traditionalists who insist that the Bible’s edicts stand the test of time, including the Old Testament’s denunciation of homosexuality as wrong. On the other are those who argue that Jesus rewrote the script, teaching compassion and being welcoming. Some of the comments made during the debate from people directly affected by the antipathy towards gay people from others in the church were heart-rending. The Rev Chantal Noppen, from Durham, talked about “the shame I’d absorbed about me but Jesus showed me how to be ourselves… God has made us a vibrantly diverse people, and continues to do so. Love casts out fear, and our faith should be strong enough to cope with some shaking.” When the Wolfenden report was published in 1957, which led to the eventual legalisation of homosexuality, and the then archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, spoke in the House of Lords in support of the report’s recommendations, he said that “there is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law must not intrude”. But the church, like the law, does intrude, when it comes to public recognition of relationships. And for Christians, it matters that they receive both the endorsement of their church and God’s blessing on their relationship. The need for both was clear when gay people spoke in the Synod debate last week. For Catholics, too, gay issues have been painful for a very long time. There have been harsh utterances from the Vatican in the past, so harsh that the late cardinal Basil Hume wrote his own guidance 25 years ago for English Catholics. “In whatever context it arises,” he wrote, “and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or a different sex, is to be treasured and respected.” Last month, Pope Francis picked up where Hume left off, saying that, while marriage could only be between a man and a woman, effectively endorsing it as essentially being about procreation, requests for same-sex blessings were a means of people reaching out to God, and that the church “cannot be judges who only deny, reject and exclude”. One Catholic activist, Francis DeBernardo, who runs the New Ways Ministry to reach out to LGBTQ+ Catholics, said the church was recognising that “the love of these couples mirrors the love of God”. And that is the whole point. Christians believe humanity has been made in the image of God. But all too often, individuals seem to want to make him in their own image. Yet Christianity is at its best when its followers shape God not in their own likeness but in someone else’s, when they see God in the stranger, the outsider. It’s easier to cling on to certain theological interpretations and insist they must never change. It’s much harder to take them as signposts but respond in our own context. Obedience is a simple requirement. Empathy, requiring imagination, is far tougher. But a religion that has lasted more than 2,000 years can surely cope with a little more compassion, to adapt and survive.