Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To rebuke a blessing - is that the question?

To bless someone or something means to give thanks to God for them or for it, to declare this person or that object or place to be special in some way. Anyone who blesses speaks well, wishes what is good for the other. The priest is authorised by church at ordination to declare God's blessing and pardon as a representative of others. Because the church is divided, no priest can represent each and every fragment of broken community, although in practice, to most believers, whether active in a church or estranged from it, any and every priest represents the whole Church of God, and they will seek a blessing, a pardon, a word of encouragement from them without discrimination or distinction. In this, the laity lead better than the leaders.

A priest authorised to bless by virtue of ordination still needs permission to exercise public ministry, and obtains this by holding a license from a Bishop. For this privilege a special oath of obedience to the Bishop, is made vowing to use in public worship only such orders of service as are legally authorised by the diocese. This undertaking is generally adhered to, though never strictly. There are few priests if any who do everything according to the book and its rules. Pastoral training encourages a degree of flexibility and adaptation to particular needs as an expression of Christian love and care.

Anglican Churches are now being exhorted by their leadership to refrain from authorising public services of blessing for use in gay civil partnerships, because some regard this as contentious and divisive. But to some of the faithful this 'restraint' is scandalous, particularly as priests are encouraged to engage in a positive and pastoral way with gay couples, and pray with them. By this is implied 'pray privately', also it means 'don't use the words authorised for public use exclusively for marriages'. If you use the marriage service on such occasions, one group is scandalised. If you refuse a public service in church, another group is scandalised. If you play around with the authorised texts, and adapt them for prayer 'in private', meaning 'in a service not advertised open to the public', those who strive to maintain good order and control the situation are scandalised.

People pray as individuals and in groups large and small in churches without feeling the need to use use publicly authorised forms of words. Some communities of the Reformation tried and failed to stop the faithful from doing this. There may be a lesson here. Organisations hold advertised public services in Parish Churches and Cathedrals whose content would not pass muster if scrutinised, and whose ceremonies and sentiments may embarrass officiating clergy. But for reasons of pastoral discretion (aka avoiding rows), little or nothing is said openly. Bishops could well rebuke many acts of public worship undertaken by licensed clergy for being unauthorised or a mockery, if not a violation of oaths taken. But they do not. In fact, the church's worship and pastoral outreach adapts to changing times by creatively going well beyond what is publicly authorised for use, for better and for worse.

How often are clergy asked to conduct services involving the renewal of marriage vows during a public on the occasion of a wedding anniversary. Is this authorised in church law? If you adapt the format of words to suit, is this authorised? Are officiating ministers rebuked for this? And if a gay couple want to pledge their lives to each other before God in prayer before their friends in the presence of a priest in a Parish Church, what difference would it make to put up a sign saying 'private ceremony' if members of the wider community also turn up and add their blessings to those of the priest, or if the PCC invites their event into their church to start with, either regardless of, or innocent about the offence/embarrassment this may cause to others? How is this more worthy of rebuke than some of the weird and wonderful funerals clergy preside over, dictated by 'pastoral need'? Or blessing nuclear submarines, or Tornadoes with cluster bombs? Or military or masonic services? Why single out gay Christians? Especially now.

The sooner the Church treats gay people and their pastoral needs the same as others, and blesses changes civil society has seen fit to make, in order to secure their position as social equals, the better it will be for bewildered observers as well as for the faithful faced with such equivocation. The scandalised and dissenters will be with us always. They can always be respectfully disagreed with. Inconsistency betrays us and betrays the inclusive Gospel of Jesus.

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