How do you behave when your conscience or your sense of justice sets you against the law and your superiors?
If you watched the comedy Rev on BBC2 last Monday you will have seen a sharply funny enactment of the way in which this question is being focussed for many church people at the moment in respect of gay weddings.
The Rev of the title tied himself in knots attempting to honour the prayerful wishes of a gay couple, the demands of his superiors and the law I often talk about the different hats that a vicar wears when conducting a wedding.
As a registrar I am responsible for ensuring that the couple to be married are legally entitled, married using a legally binding form of words and that the marriage is properly certified and witnessed.
How dreadful if I failed in this responsibility and a couple were not legally married despite my having conducted a marriage service.
As a priest my responsibility is to provide the best context within which a particular couple can make solemn vows to one another before God – in the presence of family and friends and in joyful and prayerful celebration of the past, present and future of their relationship.
It is in this context that a vicar gives God’s blessing to a couple who have made those solemn vows and says those powerful words “those whom God has joined together let no-one put asunder’’. Sharing in marriages of couples who are in past, present and future relationships is one of the greatest joys and privileges of a vicar’s life.
Legislation about gay marriage prevents anglican clergy (amongst others) from acting as registrars in relation to marriage between couples of the same gender.
The church thinks we can bless couples, including those whose marriages have been publicly celebrated but it mustn’t look like a wedding.
As poor (fictional) Rev discovered on Monday that’s not so easy.
He tied himself in knots trying to honour the heartfelt desire of gay parishioners and their friends who wanted to come to church after a civil a marriage to celebrate.
He tried to action and explain why there couldn’t be vows or rings although there could be flowers and whilst everyone in church was ready to celebrate big time he found himself treading a minefield of what could and couldn’t be said or done, and his heart just wasn’t in it.
Despite his best attempts he was still called to account and made, quite literally, to eat his words.
Of course I laughed at the idea of “bishops hit-squads in unmarked cars’’ and I was close to tears when the non Christian, seeing the distress of his partner, asked “would it really matter to exchange a ring?’’
But mostly I felt a deep disquiet that a priest who wants to celebrate good relationships within the love of God can only be caught up in a compromise that is so hard to understand or explain.