The Gospel reading for today in Anglican and Catholic Churches was the old Sunday School story about the wise man building his house upon the rock and the foolish man building his house upon the sand. It finishes saying that Jesus “taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”
It reminded me of an incident fifteen years ago caused me to question the authority and the integrity of our bishops.
Ministering in a tiny rural, intensely conservative community, there would not have seemed much prospect of doing anything radical or stepping out of line, but a situation arose. The daughter of a local farmer, by that time in her thirties, wanted to marry a local plumber. He would have been around thirty-five at the time.
The problem was that he had been married before; his wife had left him soon after they were married to go off with someone else and he had lived on his own for some years. I contacted the official channels and was told that it was not permitted for them to be married in church; they could go to the registry office for the civil part of the ceremony and come to the church for a blessing. This seemed a complete nonsense to me—we seemed to be offering a spiritual ceremony, but were denying them the legal and civil part of the marriage.
I asked the cleric who was the local marriage licenser, about this and he told me that he was under instructions not to issue licences where one partner to the marriage had been married before. I tried to reason with him that his logic was daft; we weren’t refusing a church ceremony, what we were refusing was the legal paperwork.
I had no desire to fall out with my bishop or any church authority, but very real hurt had been caused to this couple who were quiet country people; they reasoned, quite sensibly, that if the church was prepared to bless their marriage, then why couldn’t the church marry them?
Marriage licensers were appointed by the bishop and I felt there was little prospect of the couple getting the necessary licence, until I was told that there was a clergyman about twenty miles away who would issue a licence. I phoned him and he said that the Church had no legal grounds to refuse a marriage licence to someone. If people could legally be married, then the church could not refuse the legal paperwork. It could, of course, refuse a church ceremony. What the Church of Ireland was doing was granting a church ceremony and refusing the legal dimension.
‘Ian’, he said,’ either they are being married or they are not being married. If we say that remarriage is not possible, then the blessing ceremony is a blessing of a relationship that we are saying is adulterous. If remarriage is possible, then let us have the honesty to have a church marriage’.
The bishop had appointed him as a marriage licenser in the full knowledge that he might issue licences to people who had been previously married. I couldn’t understand this. He explained that it meant that the bishop could feel that the official line was being upheld, whilst at the same time there was someone to deal with the reality of the situation.
The bishop seemed guilty of hypocrisy to me—saying one thing and allowing the opposite; we were being as bad as the Roman Catholic Church, who refused divorce point blank, but then granted annulments to people, sometimes to people who had been married for years and who even had children.
I was 29 at the time, less than a year into my first incumbency. I didn’t want to fall out with anyone, but there were good country people who came to church Sunday by Sunday, who said their prayers and who loved their neighbour as themselves, who were being hurt by the bishops. I sent the couple to see the man twenty milse away; the licence was issued and the marriage went ahead. We had a lovely occasion with a couple of hundred people from the local community present. Fifteen years later they are still very happily married.
The local licenser heard about it and phoned me. ‘Why didn’t you send them to me for a licence?’ he asked.
‘Because you said you were under instructions not to issue them a licence.’
‘What I say and what I do are not necessarily the same’, he said.
Thankfully, the situation has changed since those days; we can now treat people with compassion. But my experience seemed to pretty much sum up the problem with the whole Church – words are not matched by actions. There is a lack of integrity and people look at the Church and say, ‘why should we listen to them? What have they to offer the world? Sure, they don’t even believe the stuff themselves, otherwise they would be very different’.
Jesus “taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” Jesus is the picture of perfect integrity, in every way his life matches his teachings, and people are challenged by his life as well as his words. The Church lacks authority because it lacks integrity.