A Church of England report urging a softer line on cohabiting couples has drawn fire from all sides. A former Anglican vicar, Brian Brindley, says that such issues cannot be fudged.
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND has only itself to blame for such tabloid headlines as The Chiarh Says Living in Sin is Not a Sin, and many good jokes along the same lines.
Of course, when we stop to think about it, we know that the Church of England is not (and does not claim to be) "The Church", that the Board for Social Responsibility is not the Church of England; that the report Something to Celebrate carries only the authority of the board which produced it; that the General Synod (which speaks to and for the Church of England in such matters) has not yet considered it, let alone adopted it. Important voices in the Church of England, from the Archbishop of Canterbury downwards, have expressed reservations, and there was at least one resignation from the working party; we ourselves probably know many devout members of the Church of England, clerical and lay, who are as dismayed by it as we are.
Yet the impression has been created, and will abide, that "the Church" has somehow or other said that fornication (generally called "living together" and meaning in this case extra-marital sexual relations) is "all right" and that yet another of the sanctions against the practice has been removed. There are many reasons why couples choose to live together, and many reasons why they might choose not to: parental disapproval is still a strong deterrent; there are, even today, social factors against it;
and we must admit that it is unlikely that ecclesiastical censure, as such, would deter many.
Perhaps very few couples will choose to live together without the formality of marriage as a direct result of the Report and the headlines; but the witness of the poor old Church of England in favour of truth and against error has been, once again, weakened, just as happened in the case of remarriage after divorce, and homosexual relationships to say nothing of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith. The hapless Dr Carey must at times feel like Mr Major faced with yet another alleged ministerial indiscretion.
Let us, for a moment, try to look on the positive side, and see where we can side with the authors of the Report. It is true that sexual sins are not the only sins; it is true that fornication is not the worst of sexual sins; it may well be true that many young couples enter into extra-marital relationships with the best of intentions one can hardly say "in good faith" and we may hope that many of them may emerge from them into good and lasting marriages.
It is also true that the phrase "living in sin" is rather imprecise when applied to their situation alone, and might better be used to describe, for example, a family where children are abused or where employees are exploited. (The irony is that the phrase has hardly been used, other than in jest, for many, many years: it belongs with
pictures of the erring mother and her child being turned out into the snow, or with the poem "Oh no, we never mention her!" or with the cruel names which used to be applied to children born out of wedlock.)
But, when all this is said, the fact remains that God has appointed only one right frame
work for sexual relationships: "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others" that we call Marriage. Human ingenuity and perversity have devised many other, wrong frameworks for sexual relationships; some of them, to be sure, are "more wrong" than others, but none of them are right.
In dealing with matters of morals in the Catholic Church it is often perceived to be too "hard" rigid and lacking in love. That this is not the case will be understood by penitent sinners: the Church speaks fortiter in re but acts suaviter in niodo; what the Church will never do is to say, or imply, that a certain action is right if it is wrong.
Oddly enough, the Church of England is officially and permanently committed to the belief that fornication is sinful: both the marriage service and the Prayer Book Litany equate it with sin, and the Book of Common Prayer is normative for doctrine.
But in practice, in dealing with matters of morals the Church of England is perceived to be imprecise, evasive, and unhelpful. In an effort to avoid being "judgemental" the Report refrains from considering which circumstances of cohabitation are more culpable or less culpable; yet anybody who stops to think must recognise that there is a wide variation in culpability between cases.
Catholics are (I am sorry to say) as likely as anybody else to enter extra-marital relationships: it will fall to the lot of parish priests to help them pick up the pieces with wise, patient, sensitive and discriminating advice. Although it is really nothing to do with us, the task of our priest will be made harder by the unguarded language of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility and the way it had been reported in the press. For the poor parochial clergy of the Church of England who hold to a sound doctrine of marriage and wish to enforce a godly discipline, it will make things very difficult indeed.
What are traditionalists within the Church of England to do?
For some of us the answer has been clear; but there are others who are unpersuaded by the claims of the (Roman) Catholic Church; who are reluctant to leave the Church which has nurtured and sustained them, and especially to leave it in the lurch at a time when it seems threatened from within and without.
They will stay and fight on; but the Anglo-Catholic party is diminished and demoralised; and many Evangelicals seem to be busy with another agenda. Catholics should pray that God will sustain their Anglican brothers and sisters to be valiant for the truth.