The Valentine's Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots. The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were "appalled" by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight -- but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.
The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges -- and could well be sacked.
So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said "no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions" or "no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions." The first day reports were evenly divided between the "no/yes" and "no/no" schools.
The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes. The lede in its story entitled "Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar" stated:
Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.
The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. ...
Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.
The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled "Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings -- but bans gay priests from marrying" stated:
Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.
Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:
Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.
Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?
Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby's at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters' suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.
Here are the pertinent paragraphs:
19. As noted above, same sex weddings in church will not be possible. As with civil partnership, some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship.
20. The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances. The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.
21. The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.
Paragraph 19 restates there will be no same-sex church weddings, but notes that some same-sex couples might seek to have their unions prayed for, or over, by the clergy. The bishops are not giving their permission to do so, but are stating what they acknowledge to be the "facts on the ground" in some parishes.
Paragraph 20 notes the current practice is to permit "informal" prayers offered at the discretion of the priest that are appropriate to the circumstances, while paragraph 21 states no blessings of same-sex unions will be permitted.
However, clergy are permitted to offer prayers. What exactly is a prayer in this situation? A blessing? No. A mark of approbation or thanksgiving by the church? Not according to the document. The bishops have left this crucial bit undefined, save in the negative -- saying what it is not.
The emphasis missing from the Telegraph and Independent stories is that in the context of these private informal prayers, the priest is to reiterate to the same-sex couple the church's teaching on sexuality and ask they "their reasons for departing from it."
The assumption made by the Telegraph and Independent is that a prayer for a same-sex couple must be, by its very nature, a prayer of affirmation. That is not stated in the document, and the reference to existing teachings would make affirmation of a gay union difficult at the very least -- if the priest were to honor the bishops' guidance.
There is ambiguity here -- I can't let the bishops off that lightly -- as a clergyman who will be asked to give informal private prayers by a gay couple will most likely to be known to them and would offer prayers of affirmation. He is not forbidden to do that, but must also tag on the party line as their union is not one the church believes is in line with God's plan for mankind, is contrary to Scripture and to right reason.
Is this then a failure of the press to Get Religion? To one degree yes -- Reuters and other newspaper picked up the no/no line that the Telegraph and Independent missed. But at the same time the bishops were not as clear as they could have been.
The bigger journalism issue is not the insiders' Anglican game -- but the difficulty in communicating to the wider world the symbols and code language of religious institutions. These sorts of miscue and missteps happen all the time in reporting on the Vatican -- and the farther a faith moves from the comfort and knowledge zone of reporters the more apt we are to see the gaps. The answer, of course, is to use specialist reporters to write on these topics. Which I'm afraid is not likely to happen in the near future.