The English Heresy

A long time ago and in a land far away, by which I mean Fife, I was a theological student. It was a good time in my life. By and large I was in the company of clever people, learning clever things from clever people. Theological education can be exciting and that was an exciting time for me.

In the course of that time, I remember a little game that some of us used to play occasionally. It wasn’t Cards Against Humanity or even the Christian version, A Game for Good Christians that theological students are fond of in current times. No, it was called the Heresy Game and you could play it just about anywhere, including in the pub, so long as no-body had imbibed too much. (As an aside, the standard test for whether or not someone was drunk in my day was whether or not they could spell Schleiermacher with their eyes closed).

The rules of the Heresy Game are simple. One person thinks up a new heresy and describes it. The others then have to prove that it isn’t a new heresy at all by showing that the basic idea has already been declared a heresy by the church. Was it silly? Yes. Was it pretentious? Yes, deeply pretentious. Was it a good way of learning Fourth Century Christologies about which one was going to be examined? Well, actually, yes it was.

I have been thinking about this little game this week whilst reading some interesting commentary on where current thinking lies in the Church of England about how to move forward on the marriage of same-sex couples.

The first thing to note perhaps is that there does now seem to be a conversation about how this might be done which is getting more attention than conversations about whether this should be done at all. However, I am not 100% convinced that all that is being proposed is good and holy.

Now, why does this matter to me? After all, I don’t belong to the Church of England myself and would vote in favour of any proposals to heighten Hadrian’s ecclesiastical wall.

Well, the trouble is, and this is trouble that we’ve met many times over the years, things that happen in one part of the Anglican Communion affect those who worship the Lord in other parts of the Anglican vineyard. What we’ve never really established is what the things are that we should care about and what the things are that we should leave to the decisions of other Provinces.

Notwithstanding my many assertions over the years that changes that some churches brought in over the marriage of same-sex couples were best decided by the various Anglican provinces alone, somewhere in the back of my mind is the idea that the way that change happens can be just as important as the changes themselves. Indeed, in some cases, one might care less about what is changing and more about the way that change is being brought about.

Which brings us to current thinking about the way in which same-sex marriage might come about in churches of the Church of England.

Last week I read the most interesting thing about this that I’ve read in some time. It is a reflection from the Rev Canon Simon Butler on the outcomes of private talks held between those who want the marriages of same-sex couples to be a possibility and those who don’t. It is interesting, thoughtful and intelligent.

The common assumption seems to be that the marriage of same-sex couples in the Church of England is coming, albeit with a conscience clause for those opposed, and that many of those who are opposed to it would be able to stomach being in a church which does it.

So far so good.

The trouble is, it is claimed that the conscience clause isn’t enough.

Now, I’ve got a bit of history with the idea of a conscience clause in relation to same-sex marriages. The idea emerged within the local Regional Council that I belong to in Glasgow and was subsequently taken up by the diocese and then by the Scottish Episcopal Church and forms the basis on how we moved forward on this question. It was the Glasgow North-East Regional Council’s finest hour.

However, the idea of a conscience clause in Scotland was not simply to legitimise those who didn’t want to perform the marriage of same-sex couples. The idea of the conscience clause arose from the idea that the consciences of everyone in the church should be protected in relation to the marriage of same-sex couples. It was easy to agree that the consciences of those who disagreed with such marriages should be protected only so far as it was also agreed that the consciences of those who did want to conduct such marriages were also protected.

Pro-gay people have consciences too. This understanding that everyone’s consciences needed to be protected unlocked the impasse we had been in and allowed us to move forward in a way that kept almost all the church together.

What is being suggested at the moment in England is a conscience clause that would protect only the objectors and the assertion is being made that this wouldn’t be enough to satisfy objectors either. To any conscience clause would be added some form of structural change in the church that would mean that in some way those who objected to the marriage of same-sex couples would receive only the ministrations of bishops who also objected to the marriage of same-sex couples. It would set up an anti-gay structure within the Church of England that would be somehow protected forever.

Now, is this ringing any kind of bell?

Yes, of course, it is how the C of E has enabled the ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate of candidates who happen to be women. There are claimed to be two integrities in the Church of England and both are supposed to flourish forever.

Quite how the ministry of ordained women is supposed to be regarded as flourishing when the institution has set up structures to advance the cause of those who don’t believe that they are really ordained is, to say the least, problematic.

One the one hand, this solution allowed women to be ordained as both priests and as bishops and some people clearly think that was a price worth paying. However, from outside the system it does look very much as though they rode a coach and horses through catholic order as though it simply didn’t matter.

I rather think that those of us who are Episcoplians/Anglicans outside the C of E should have cared more about this at the time.

However, the Church of England voted for this mess and to a certain extent it is getting what it deserves.

But the prodigal daughter of that particular settlement could well be something similar for the (presumed majority) pro-gay folk in that church.

The question I have, is how far the C of E intends to go with this model?

Just how many “integrities” can you have?

It was often said that the marriage of same-sex couples would be a slippery slope and that no sooner were we marrying men to men and women to women, we would find ourselves authorising polygamous marriages, throuples and marriages of people with their pets.

Now this didn’t happen but I find myself wondering whether the real slippery slope in all this is that the C of E will continue to set up further church-within-a-church structures where people can have so-called sacramental confidence that they are only ever going to be dealing with bishops who share their own theological peccadillos.

I’ve been ordained for a long time now and have had the ministry of a number of bishops. I’m pretty sure that they would all be horrified at the idea that they could only be my bishop if they shared my views. (This works both ways, but putting it that way perhaps focusses the mind).

Now, my question for all of us who are playing the Heresy Game today – for remember, I co-opted you into a quick round of that game at the start of this post, is this… Has the Church of England managed to invent a new heresy – specifically, that bishops will be provided to cater for particular theological positions?

Tell me, C of E friends, what’s next? Will we be having bishops for those who in all conscience don’t believe in racial equality too?

Oh, I know that’s an offensive question. (And I also know those whose lived experience is that there’s more than enough church leaders who have racist views already).

I know many will think that it is completely unacceptable to compare those who are unable to accept the ordination of women or the marriages of same-sex couples, or the consequent bishops living openly in such marriages, to those who are racist.

The trouble for the Church of England is that the general population aligns those various issues and can’t really see the difference.

Deep in my heart, neither can I.

The conscience question cuts both ways. Those who are in favour of the marriage of same-sex couples shouldn’t be expected to live and work in a church which structurally discriminates against those in same-sex relationships. Women in ministry shouldn’t be expected to live and work in a church which structurally discriminates against women. And calling that experience thriving or flourishing is just plain cruel.

Somewhere along the way, the C of E is devising “solutions” to these questions which compromise the morality and common-good expectations of the general population.

That’s a matter for folk in England though why any church should think such solutions are good, bewilders me.

But they compromise good catholic order too, and that’s something that all Anglicans should care about.

The trouble with heresies is that people tend not to keep them to themselves.


  1. Mother Sorèl, SMMS says

    Here in the Antipodean provinces of the Anglican Communion, a unique ecclesiastical structure has evolved, mainly because the Church was, and remains, the consequence of a commonwealth of independent “States” which were the legacy of English Colonists. With two exceptions, each of these states became a separate Province of the Anglican Church. Unlike in most other parts of the Communion, the canons, ordinances and regulations of the General Synod are NOT binding on any one diocese until they are passed by the Synod of the Diocese.

    Five independent provinces, consisting of twenty-three independent dioceses, and one ecclesiastical mess. An example being that the Archbishop of Sydney (Metropolitan of the Province New South Wales, and GAFCON aligned) does not recognise the Archbishop of Perth (Metropolitan of the Province of Western Australia, and a liberal catholic) on the basis that the latter is female.

    The differences between each Australian Diocese are so extreme that playing the Heresy Game here would be unwise, as it often ends with pistols at ten paces. The line in the sand between proponents is centred firmly around the issues of diversity, sexuality and gender.

    More generally, as you have noted, Father, has been the compromising of good catholic and anglican order. Yes, the trouble with heresies is that people tend not to keep them to themselves. Our ‘solution’ is starting to look more and more like we may choose not to even pretend, anymore, that we are one in communion.

  2. Vaalerie Aston says

    Dear Kelvin,
    as so often, I find your comments reasonable and timely.
    The CofE is so wrapped up in its anxieties about sex, gender equality etc., that it no longer seems to see the gaping hole in pastoral ministry/service that is so desperately needed in these terrible times. Clearly many parishes do sterling work to try to provide support both material and spiritual to local people suffering from hunger, cold, and isolation and loneliness, but the centre (or the Top, however you wish to see it) seems only interested in arguing about SSM etc.

    A few sermons don’t cut it. The CE should lay out a plan to explain how it is is going to use its influence and great wealth to secure an amelioration of the dire hunger and squalor. currently suffered by so many.

  3. Christine McIntosh says

    No wonder the “non-Christian “ majority as per the census has no time for the church (and therefore religion) If I had to live in England I suspect I’d be unchurched altogether.

  4. Philip Groves says

    Absolutely right. As a teenager I worshipped in a church that is at the heart of the conservative evangelical movement. They always wanted to have the C of E badge and privileges but to be independent from bishops. This is another route to the third ‘province’ they aspire to. it is completely un-Anglican. I do have a smidge of hope with the St Hugh conversations, but the structure is still weighed against change. I suspect the ‘integrity’ thing will be the price demanded for allowing change. What a mess.

  5. Rod Gillis says

    The dialectical relationship between the integrity of an individual and the integrity of the community meets at a point we call ‘conscience’. Some of us wrestle with it every time we recite one of the creeds in the liturgy. I know I do. However, official conscience clauses, which are designed to benefit the institution politically in the first instance, have consequences. Those consequences often become apparent at the level of behaviour. The Canadian General Synod of 1986 ‘grand-fathered’ out the conscience clause that was part of the original deal that moved the ordination of women to the priesthood forward in the seventies. ( I was a delegate at that synod, I voted to remove the clause). The Canadian Church removed it because some folks were appealing to the clause as a rationale and license for their shabby public behaviour toward female persons who had been ordained priests. Clauses that only protect the conscience of objectors usually make things worse, not better, for minorities and vulnerable groups. Such mechanisms also have a kind of ‘letting off the hook’ effect. Conscience clauses can arrest a person’s willingness and ability to test their conscience against the wisdom of the community to which they belong. Conscience clauses may have some benefit as a temporary cooling off device. However, as you point out, they only characterize justice and integrity to the extent that the consciences of all are protected. .

  6. Jonathan Philip Ensor says

    I saw that Rod Gillis (see above) has trouble with his conscience in reciting the creed.

    I have spent some long periods in Mental Hospital and have had regular visits from family and an ex member of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hillington but also from a fellow pharmacist.

    The pharmacist has been particularly regular in his visits.

    My friend the pharmacist also supported me when I was working in Hospital.

    My friend is a Jew. I am not at ease reciting the creed.

  7. Is the demand for Bishops one agrees with not simply a variation on a Donatist theme?

  8. Martine Oborne says

    Like you, Kelvin, I find myself wondering where more church-within-a-church structures will end. Certainly, before going down this route again, we need to listen carefully to women (and others) who are not experiencing mutual flourishing. The 2014 provisions for those who do not fully accept women’s ministry have led to tribalism, silencing of women’s voices and such a lack of transparency that this might almost be described as deception of ordinary churchgoers. Let’s not do this again.

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