Thumbs Sideways: The Church of England responds to TEC

Part III of Stephen Noll’s series on gay marriage rites and the Episcopal Church

This is Part C of a series of the proposed same-sex marriage rite of the Episcopal Church. See Part A and Part B on the “trial use” liturgies and its doctrine of “open reception” of these innovations. In Part D, I shall examine the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) is hoping for a welcome response to its new doctrine and practice of same-sex marriage from the people that matter: the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The reply from England is, however, neither thumbs-up nor thumbs-down but rather thumbs-sideways.


What about the other millions of non-Western Anglicans? The TEC Task Force on Marriage felt obliged to poll the various Provinces of the Anglican Communion, knowing that the overall response would be negative. After all, 576 bishops had voted for Lambeth Resolution I.10, and both coalitions of Global South Anglicans had reaffirmed Lambeth I.10 as recently as October 2016 (here and here).

And so it was. The few non-Western Provinces who responded gave TEC a thumbs-down. Comments ranged from the polite (Sudan) – “The Episcopal Church of Sudan does not approve of same-sex marriage because it does not believe that it is the will of God” – to the blunt (Tanzania) – “From now on be informed that we are not having any church partnership. Please do not write me back on this matter.”


None of these replies really matters to TEC. The big prize is England. Its reply came in the form of an eight-page letter from Mr. William Nye, secretary of the Archbishops’ Council (included in collection above). Given his role, I am going to treat Mr. Nye’s words as expressing the stance of the Church of England; and the message from the Church of England, so I contend, is an unequivocal thumbs-sideways.

1.     What does the Church of England Say about Marriage

Let’s begin with what the letter does not say:

  • It makes no mention of God’s creation of man and woman in His image and of His will that a “man should leave father and mother and be joined to his wife.”
  • It makes no mention of Jesus Christ and His affirmation of this teaching.
  • In fact, it makes no mention of the Bible at all.

It concedes that “Holy Scripture is held (emphasis added) to rule that sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to God’s will,” but then hastens to add that “that is not the universal view in the Church of England.” In other words, Scripture is subject to multiple interpretations: some say this, some say that.

Mr. Nye proceeds to explain the delicate relationship of the Church of England and the Government, and in so doing he proposes a paradigm by which the Church wants to see itself at this time: opposed to same-sex marriage but open to same-sex partnerships. This paradigm has resulted in “two understandings of marriage operating side-by-side.” As for marriage, I owe it to Mr. Nye to make the best case for the “traditional” view.

[The Government’s] understanding of marriage breaks with the inherited meaning of marriage across many cultures and over many centuries – indeed for as long as marriage has existed – and is very hard to reconcile with the Christian churches’ traditional teaching on marriage. Indeed the notion of difference between marriage partners is enshrined within this doctrine which has historically understood human marriage to be a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church.

This should pretty much settle the issue, shouldn’t it? – until we realize that Mr. Nye is simply describing the “tradition” as one pole of the development of doctrine (see Contention 5B). By approving same-sex civil partnerships, the Church of England has already taken a giant step away from the tradition, which sees all extra-marital sexual relations as sinful in the eyes of God.

2.     The Church of England, TEC, and the Wider Anglican Communion

Mr. Nye now turns from England to the wider Communion: “I do not need to rehearse the history within the Anglican Communion of issues concerning human sexuality.” Oh, please do! Just as the Bible gets left out of this letter, so also there is NO mention of Lambeth Resolution I.10, nor of the various Primates’ Meetings that followed it, nor even of the pleas for moratorium in the Windsor Report. Again, that was then.

He does worry that “the new rites by TEC may be accompanied by calls for more, and more stringent consequences to be imposed very publicly.” What precisely is the anxiety here? Who might issue these calls, and Where might they make them? The Who is not the Gafcon Provinces, who have already broken with TEC, but rather the “moderate middle” of Global South churches. The Where is Lambeth 2020.

What if a provocative American action spoiled the unveiling of the “Episcopal Teaching Document” being prepared for Lambeth 2020. But, you may say, we do not know what this document will say. Well, the Response gives a strong hint:

  1. It will “draw upon expertise across many disciplines, social, anthropological and biological, as well as theological, to express the Church’s teaching clearly. Interpreted: it will emphasize context over doctrine.
  2. It will “demonstrate the areas where we can count on wide agreement and expose those areas where our disagreements run deepest. Interpreted: it will claim that marriage must be intimate (monogamous) and stable (lifelong in intent), but that Christians may agree to disagree whether it need be heterosexual.

For the Episcopal Church to grab the headlines prior to Lambeth 2020 would be most “unhelpful” because it would preempt “the question of whether or not same-sex marriage is a first-order issue which precludes continuing together in communion within the Communion and within the Church of England.”

The Archbishops through Mr. Nye go on to make the plea personal: “the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as one of the instruments of unity within the Communion” is at stake. If TEC refuses to follow the script, Canterbury loses face. If TEC falls into line, Archbishop Welby’s role as the Great Reconciler is enhanced.

3.     Pastoral Practice and Open Reception

The letter goes on to mention one other feature of the proposed new marriage service: “the role of procreation as a central purpose has been erased” and replaced with the conditional option “when it is God’s will” of the “gift of children.” This erasure, Mr. Nye notes, “is a very big step to have taken unilaterally in the face of global understandings of our shared traditions across the Church of God.” Indeed!

Mr. Nye does not mention a second unilateral proposal by TEC of an alternative rite to bless non-marital partnerships. Of course, these innovations are interlocking. If marriage does not require the joining together of man and woman, then the divine mandate for procreation is nonsensical. And if society has come to dissociate the marriage from procreative sex, then why can’t the Church oblige it by blessing cohabiting couples?

The TEC proposals are an example of “open reception” in practice, and the Church of England does not oppose these innovations in principle but only in terms of process. The Archbishops are not calling on TEC to rethink (repent) their doctrinal innovation – “we accept that TEC has taken the decision” – but to consider the “manner in which same-sex marriage is incorporated into TEC’s pastoral practice.”

The Response concludes by considering several scenarios of implementing TEC’s new marriage rite:

  1. adoption of the new rite in the Book of Common Prayer as the only rite therein;
  2. adopting the new rite alongside the existing rite, as alternatives; or
  3.  retaining the new rite for Trial Use indefinitely.

The Archbishops come down strongly against the first alternative, as it would scare off traditionalists who “would feel their fears about the future trajectory of Anglican doctrine to be reinforced” and would increase “the pressure to dissociate the Church of England from TEC.” They strongly urge either the second or third alternatives, which maintain the façade of “good disagreement” while allowing TEC to proceed with its agenda.


So what is this response really saying? Here is my imaginative construal of the text:

Dear TEC,

Thanks for the advance notice on same-sex marriage and your upcoming General Convention.

We appreciate your conviction that the arc of history is bending toward marriage equality. Many in our Church agree with you, but some do not. The question is whether you will be prudent and let others in the Communion come along.

We would like to remind you that “traditional marriage” has a long track record in the church and human history. It will take time for some folk to come to your conclusions. There are even islands of resistance in your own church – and ours. So be patient and give them space.

We have been planning a grand Lambeth Conference in 2020 that will go a long way toward mending the tear in the Communion that followed Lambeth 1998. It’s called “Walking Together.” Our team of distinguished bishops and scholars will report on the complexity of human sexuality, and the assembled bishops of all nations will spend three weeks in small groups modelling “good disagreement” on all kinds of issues, including marriage. The Conference will come to a climax with pomp and circumstance in the Cathedral, and of course tea with the Queen!

As you know, the Archbishop of Canterbury is renowned for his role as a reconciler. He is determined to play the role of the wise Solomon who can heal the divisions of the Communion – except of course for the dissident Americans (a.k.a. ACNA), who are not really Anglicans anyway.

We can see the handwriting on the wall in the Episcopal Church. Just don’t do something stupid like making same-sex marriage “my way or the highway.” Sure, continue with “trial use” liturgies and subtle rewrites of rubrics and canons. But don’t change the Prayer Book yet.

Yours sincerely,

On behalf of the Archbishops of the Church of England

P.S. Thanks for facilitating the million-dollar Compass Rose grant for the grant to cover travel expenses for Global South bishops in 2020.

I have good news for Mr. Nye and the Lambeth planners so they can breathe easy. There is no way TEC will or even can ensconce same-sex marriage in a new Prayer Book by 2020 (see Blue Book pages 200-201). The same will probably be true in Canada.

TEC’s leadership knows how to play the long game of “open reception.” So long as the trial rites are approved and all the North American bishops, including openly LGBT bishops, are welcome at Lambeth, these “facts on the ground” will move the process forward. Even the theological Left’s angry protests against Mr. Nye’s letter fit the game plan, as they will push the leadership of the Church of England to apologize for the tradition and compromise the outcome.

One thing is certain about the process of the “arc of history“: it only moves forward, never back. So just as TEC’s “trial use” rites will become the norm, so also we can count on the thumbs-sideways reception by the Church of England to trend upward and become two thumbs-up before too long, after Lambeth 2020 is safely past.

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