Colin Coward and Rod Thomas – who wins?

Colin Coward of Changing Attitudes and Rod Thomas of Reform were interviewed by Justin Webb yesterday morning on the Today programme on Radio 4.  The interview contains the essential elements of the disagreement between the two  Church of England parties and so I’ve drafted a rough, abridged, annotated transcript to help anyone reading this blog to fathom the mystery which is the Church of England. My annotations aim to unpack the argument and expose the different appeals to authority as well as show what legal lengths Changing Attitudes admit to be willing to fight for their particular view of social justice.

Colin Coward – Changing attitudes
Rod Thomas – Reform
Justin Webb – R4

JW: Civil partnership cannot include a ceremony in a place of worship, that is the law at the moment. The government is to table legislation to allow religious groups to conduct civil partnership ceremonies if they want to. Government is also to scrap official designation of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

CC. In church and many non-Christians want to contract a civil partnership in church with a blessing from God.

At this point, Rod Thomas appeals to the absolute authority of God in the bible for teaching on marriage:

RT. This is changing the understanding of marriage. People want civil partnership to equal marriage. Bible teaches marriage is more than a mutual commitment. Marriage is a union between man and women out of which children will be produced.

Colin Coward then appeals to subjectivism when reading his bible and changes the focal point of authority from God’s word to what society thinks today:

CC. I’ve never read the bible in that way. The bible teaches that a deep and intimate bond of love is blessed by God, the gender doesn’t matter. UK society recognises this.

Rod Thomas then shifts the focus of the argument from authority to the consequences of having the state legislate over the affairs of the church:

RT. What is being proposed is not compulsion now, but giving a right will quickly lead to perverse legal effects. Soon someone will take a vicar to court on grounds of discrimination. Legislation will undermine freedom.

Colin Coward then digs himself into a hole, which he never  really climbs out of:

CC. We will back a legal case if appropriate but we won’t force anybody to contract a civil partnership in a church building.

JW: You can’t have it both ways.

Colin Coward tries to distinguish between individual clergy and places of worship where those clergy minister:

CC. Clergy will be legitimately be able to refuse to conduct services but ALL church buildings will be made available for civil partnership.

RT. This is clearly an arm twisting initiative designed to force a change. Vicars will not allow services to be conducted in their buildings as doing so will condone the practice.  Who wants this legislation?  6,000 civil partnerships per year and over 250,000 marriages.

CC. I don’t play the number game

He then goes onto play the number game by counting heads in general synod and the house of bishops:

but conversations in general synod and with bishops show there is huge support in the church for equality of marriage and for ceremonies in church buildings.

CC. I am sympathetic towards those who are anxious about acting against their conscience but I do want lesbian a gay people free to conduct services in all church buildings.

Colin Marshall sees the principle of freedom in all places of worship as a matter of social justice. As long as there are places which are unavailable for gay “weddings” there is injustice to be stamped out. But, as Rod Thomas argues, by stamping out one injustice, as Colin Coward subjectively understands it, he will create another where clergy take God’s word as authoratitive.

RT. This will force some people to conduct services against their conscience.

CC. I do not want to see people do anything against their conscience but I do want lesbian and gay people to be free to conduct services in all church buildings.

CC. CofE will opt out of legislation but we’ll keep campaigning.

RT. It is vital that we opt out. As soon as the law is involved it does not take long for people to be forced to do things against their will.

JW: Let’s see what happens next week.

The first point to note is that members of the Church of England will never agree on this issue as long as two sources of authority are pitted against each other; the bible on the one hand and the mood of the nation on the other.

There is a need in the church for a single source of legitimacy. Either members of the Church of England remain faithful to its founding formularies; the 20th article of 39 applying in this case, which limits the authority of the church in ceremonial matters to what is taught in all of the bible, and not just the bits we choose to like at (article 20 states that we can’t treat the bible like a box of chocolates, only selecting our personal favourites), but must understand and apply all of it:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.

or, we must go with the mood of the times and the nation.

Jesus himself taught that a house can’t have two sources of authority and remain a unified entity (Luke 11:17). According to Christ himself, the Church of England, in its present state, will fall. A church divided on its source of authority this way will schism.

The second point to consider the relationship between church and state. The Reformed church in Geneva, under Calvin, made the state confessionally Christian and so made marriage a matter for church and state. This relationship reached England in 1753 when the marriage act insisted that all marriages must be conducted in the church and be registered with the state in the same ceremony. The state is now secular and might turn the tide on the church. But why should the state insist on such a reversal? Why not simply break the ties? Make all marriages and civil partnerships state registered, in separate procedures, through the civil registration process, and then allow any religious ceremonies which follow to be a matter of freedom for people of all religions and none. Why must the state insist on its uniform and secular view of marriage in religious organisations?  Why not allow for local and theological variation?  There are enough places of worship to cater to everyone’s needs, if left to our own direction. This would be a proper enactment of the principle of the big society.

Lastly, we might ask, who will win? If the state insists on legislation in favour of gay and lesbian couples then in the end some clergy will fall foul of secular law, as Rod Thomas prophesied. But LBGT people will also continue to feel second class in a uniformly secular state but divided church. Worst of all, as the church bickers over who can marry and where, the nation gazes on in bewilderment and with little real interest except perhaps to wonder if this is really why Jesus came to earth. And so hundreds of thousands of people will fail to see the grace of God in the death of Christ for sin and so die without knowing or receiving salvation. Everyone will lose. No, not everyone. God will win and Christ will be shown to be Lord of all, one day.

Psalm 33:10-12 The LORD shatters the plans of the nations and thwarts all their schemes. But the LORD’s plans stand firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken. What joy for the nation whose God is the LORD, whose people he has chosen for his own.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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2 Responses to Colin Coward and Rod Thomas – who wins?

  1. jason ward says:

    Isn’t your second to last point exactly the point? Wouldn’t screwtape advise exactly on those lines? Isn’t that what Paul was worried about with controversy and heresy in general? That good gospel ministers are constantly distracted by a rear guard action on this tells me exactly whose idea this all was.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Jason, great to hear from you. Welcome to TG. As William Still would say “we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ and preach him crucified whilst keeping the devil in our peripheral vision.” The way the secular media structures the above debate, Christ is peripheral, at best, and the sexuality debate takes centre stage. Alamat (Malay for “how frustrating can it be?”)

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