13 August 2015

Why are faith groups so concerned about civil legislation?

My half-page feature in ‘The Irish Times’ on 7 May 2015 during the same-sex marriage referendum has been published as a chapter in an ebook, ‘Yes We Do’, edited by Denis Staunton and published by Irish Times Books (pp 48-50)

Why are faith groups so concerned about civil legislation?

Patrick Comerford, May 7th, 2015

The referendum on same-sex marriage has led to a number of religious groups and individuals calling for a conscience clause. One petition, drafted by Galway Quaker Richard Kimball, has been signed by a diverse group, from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland and the Irish Council of Imams, to individual evangelical churches and individuals.

A similar intervention has come with “A Cross-Denominational Response”. The 50 signatories calling for a “No” vote include the Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin, the Most Rev Kevin Doran, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, the Right Rev Ferran Glenfield, and others who claim that “freedom of conscience will be challenged by a ‘Yes’ vote”.

On the other hand, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, supports a “Yes” vote. Yet in a BBC interview last year [May 2014], he explained: “I also recognise the Church of Ireland’s definition of marriage is for itself and I adhere to that discipline.”

In February, the Church of Ireland urged its members to vote according to their consciences. The Methodist Church supports the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and woman, and the Presbyterian Church is also advocating a “No” vote. But is there “one traditional view of marriage”? And why are faith groups so exercised by civil legislation?

To take the Church of Ireland, as an example, an individual’s conscience is formed by Scripture, and informed by tradition and reason, the three foundational principles of Anglican theology.

The General Synod voted in 2012 that “marriage is in its purpose a union permanent … for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side.” It goes on to affirm: “The Church of Ireland recognises for itself and of itself, no other understanding of marriage than that provided for in the totality of Canon 31.”

Canon law and the decisions of the General Synod are binding on the bishops and clergy of the Church of Ireland, as Bishop Colton accepts. But is the tradition frozen in time? Or can it be in a process of developing? This question is raised by Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel. In an interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette (April 24th, 2015), he says the 2012 resolution is “open to difference of interpretation” and that the church’s understanding of “the essential nature of marriage is capable of development, and indeed has already significantly developed over the years”.

Jewish teaching

There is no one common, unchanging theological understanding of marriage shared by all faith traditions. Jewish teaching traditionally accepts a liberal approach to divorce, yet often applies severe sanctions to those who marry outside Judaism. The Muslim understanding of marriage, at least in the past, has tolerated polygamy.

Adam and Eve are often treated as providing the biblical standard of marriage. But the Bible offers many different models of marriage, including marriages with and without children. Abraham had a wife and a consort; his grandson Jacob had two wives and two consorts; David had many wives, although their number is unknown; King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; and, of course, St Joseph and the Virgin Mary had a marriage that does not conform to today’s expectations of parenting and having children. In the Gospels, the only ground for a divorce is porneia or sexual immorality (Matthew 5: 32). Christ’s teaching challenged the easy-going divorce customs of his day. Later, St Paul added one other legitimate reason for divorce – the wilful desertion of a Christian by a non-Christian spouse (see I Corinthians 7: 15).

Over the centuries, Christians have altered their views about marriage and divorce, often in the wake of legal and legislative decisions. For example, the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius restricted the grounds for divorce to grave cause, but Justinian relaxed this in the 6th century. Even in the Middle Ages, church marriages were often a privilege of the property-owning classes while “common law marriage” was the accepted norm for the rest.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and many Anglicans too, hold that marriage is a sacrament. Christ regularly speaks about marriage and the wedding banquet as an image of the Kingdom of God, and many see sacramental marriage as a covenantal relationship that reflects Christ’s relationship with the Church. The Second Vatican Council shifted thinking about marriage from a juridical view to a more “personalist” approach, shifting the focus on the objective duties, rights and ends of marriage to an emphasis on the intimate, interpersonal love of the spouses.

A similar development came about in the Anglican tradition, and new marriage services shift from the emphasis on having children, ordering society and preventing sin to the priorities of comfort, help, delight, tenderness and joy, with children as a blessing rather than a purpose.

It can be argued that marriage is part of the natural order or conforming to natural law. But there is no one, accepted definition of what is natural or what is not natural, and no one accepted code of natural law. When appeal is made to reason, one person’s reasonable approach becomes another person’s prejudice.

Most defensive

Paradoxically, many who do not define marriage as a sacrament can be among the most defensive about its sacred character, its indissolubility and in restricting it to one man and one woman capable of having children.

Bishop Burrows suggests in his interview that those with difficulties with the referendum proposals “have perhaps failed to consider sufficiently the nature of Anglican moral theology over several centuries” and “with the way in which Anglicans have reflected on relational ethics over the centuries”.

However, the move in recent years towards accepting same-gender marriages, particularly in the US and Canada, has caused deep division within the Anglican Communion. It has led to demands for an Anglican Covenant, although this too has been frustrated by voting in diocesan synods in the Church of England.

In the past, Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore has said in a book on liturgy: “The Church of Ireland has always recognised the total validity of civil marriage ceremonies, as marriage is essentially an ordering of civil society . . .” But even if the faith traditions left civil society to legislate on marriage, they would still be left with divisions and the dilemma about the limits of conscientious dissent and assent.

The contributors to this eBook are:

Una Mullally, Ursula Halligan, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Benedict O Floinn, Stephen McIntyre, Patricia McKenna, Maire Geoghegan Quinn, Heather Barwick, Finn Murray, Noel Whelan, Colm Toibin, Vincent Twomey, Rosaleen, McDonagh, Kathy Sheridan, William Binchy, Diarmaid Ferriter, Breda O’Brien, Fintan O’Toole, Patrick Comerford, Colm O’Gorman, Paddy Monaghan, Derek J. Byrne, Jane Suiter, James Kelly, Juan Carlos Cordovez-Mantilla, David Hoctor, John Holden, Quentin Fottrell, Jensen Byrne, Aoife Byrne, Ronan Mullen, Ivana Bacik, Prof Ray Kinsella, Denis Staunton, Fiach Kelly, Kathy Sheridan, Stephen Collins, Marie O’Halloran, Ruadhan Mac Cormaic, Miriam Lord, Patsy McGarry and David Norris.

Jeremy Taylor and forgiveness
in ‘Holy Living’ and ‘Holy Dying’

Jeremy Taylor … wrote about forgiveness as an essential part of Holy Living and Holy Dying

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Thursday, 13 August 2015,

12.45 p.m., Mid-Day Eucharist

Joshua 3: 7-11, 13-17; Psalm 114; Matthew 18: 21 – 19: 1.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today, in the calendar of the Church, we remember the saintly Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), one of the key bishops in the restoration of the Church of Ireland after the ravages and spoliations of the mid-17th century.

Jeremy Taylor was born in 1613 in Cambridge, where he was educated at Gonville and Caius College. He was ordained in 1633 and, as the Civil War got under way, he became a chaplain with the Royalist forces. He was captured and imprisoned briefly, but after his release went to Wales, where the Earl of Carbery gave him refuge.

During the Civil War, Jeremy Taylor suffered internal exile and persecution, but remained true to the essentials of his Anglicanism, worshipping daily according to the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer.

In this exile, he wrote The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living (1650) and The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying the following year (1651).

In 1658, Jeremy Taylor moved to Ireland, and with the end of the Cromwellian era, he and Archbishop John Bramhall of Armagh moved immediately to restore the Anglican tradition within the Church of Ireland. They revised and updated the Book of Common Prayer, they restored catholic order to the worship, liturgy and the organisation of the Church of Ireland, they provided priests for parishes that had long been vacant, and they ensured the consecration of bishops for vacant dioceses.

He became the bishop for three of those dioceses – Down, Conor and Dromore – he restored and rebuilt cathedrals, visited his parishes, and provided sacramental and pastoral care for the people.

Yet he never neglected the deeper spiritual truths. His two best known works, Holy Living (1650) and Holy Dying (1651), are precisely that – models for how to live and how to die in faith in Christ.

Learning to live with our lives as they are, and learning to die when death comes are important themes throughout his writings.

Thinking on today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 18: 21 – 19: 1), and its emphases on forgiveness, I am reminded that Jeremy Taylor also writes, throughout his works, about the constant need for forgiveness – giving and receiving forgiveness – as essential parts of the health of a Christian, spiritual health and physical health.

He reminds us in Holy Dying that we receive absolution of our sins in proportion to our forgiving of one another.

He reminds us that when we are distressed, in sickness, find ourselves without hoped-for and prayed-for healing, sorrowful and feeling the weight of sickness, as he describes it, we should call to mind what injuries we have been forgiven.

He wrote: “He who knows not to forgive, knows not to be like a Christian, and a disciple of so gentle a master.”

Jeremy Taylor’s health was worn down by the protracted conflicts of his day, and he died on this day, 13 August 1667.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Collect:

Holy and loving God, you dwell in the human heart
and make us partakers of the divine nature
in Christ our great high priest:
help us who remember your servant Jeremy Taylor
to put our trust in your heavenly promises
and follow a holy life in virtue and true godliness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with Jeremy Taylor to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This reflection was shared at the Mid-Day Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, accompanied by prayer and laying-on of hands in association with the Church’s Ministry of Healing, on Thursday 13 August, 2015