God is not a human being that he should lie, or a mortal that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? See, I received a command to bless; He has blessed and I cannot revoke it.
Last March, I sat down with two of my parishioners to plan the service to bless their union. Their marriage, actually: they’d been married about four and a half years at that point. The General Synod of the Church of England had finally—after years of foot-dragging and stalling, kicking the can down the road and reflecting in small groups about questions of “Living in Love and Faith”—agreed to approve prayers to be used in churches to acknowledge the presence of God’s love in the relationships of people of the same sex. Gay Marriage Blessings, in other words, though one was warned not to use the words “marriage” or “blessing” in relation to the word “gay” unless there was a “no” or a “not” in the sentence. This, remember, is 10 years after the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 and 19 years after the Civil Partnerships Act of 2004.
By October we should be able to bless you, I said. “Make it towards the end of October, and we can have it on our fifth anniversary,” they replied. So they chose the music and readings, invited their friends and families, and began to plan the party. By this point, I’d read over the “Prayers of Love and Faith” that we were going to be allowed to use, and, frankly, I didn’t think much of them. They seemed half-hearted, pinched, meagre and principally concerned with reassuring everyone who was opposed to this couple’s marriage that the Church of England didn’t believe that they were actually married and devoutly hoped that they were not having sex. So I turned to the green book, Common Worship Pastoral Services, to the service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage. Ah, yes, here we go. Cross out all the preliminary penitential material inserted into the service back in the year 2000, when the Church believed that people who get married at the registrar’s office must have something to repent, and go directly to page 177. “N and N, you have committed yourselves to each other in marriage, and your marriage is recognised by law.” Ah. Here we find the need to do a little more editing: “The Church of Christ understands marriage to be in the will of God the faithful union of two persons [not "a man and a woman"], for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer… etc, etc. Is that your understanding of the covenant and promise you have made?” Couple: “It is.” Then just change “your wife” and “your husband” to the names of the couple, and we’re set. We could go back to the marriage service for the prayers, glad to have #13, “For marriage as a sign to the world.”
On this day, it was as if the church was filled with light
The afternoon before the service, Friday 20th October 2023, a document was released by the House of Bishops: 108 pages, none of them cheerful reading. More work needed to be done. No blessings before 2025, anyway, it said. But, in my parish, the feast had been prepared. The church warden had chosen his tie. The bellringers were paid, and the orders of service were printed. The Parochial Church Council had given its unanimous approval more than three years ago for us to bless marriages like this.
After a lifetime of writing, I’m still ill-equipped to give an account of the joy that filled St Vigor’s at J and B’s blessing. I’ve never known anything like it. The church was full, but we’ve had big congregations before. On this day, it was as if the church was filled with light. The music was glorious. My sermon, though, veered off-piste. Even with the excellent readings they had chosen (Romans 8.28-39 and Matthew 5.15-16), I had to add another. Thinking of the bishops, and looking out at the congregation: young women in floral dungarees, one feeding her baby, a dozen or so other children squashed in the pews or playing in the north transept, elderly relations in rakish hats, young men in loud coats, a little red poodle in a rainbow collar, I began to retell the story of Balaam, who, I said, was hired to curse the people God loved, and eventually set out to do it, until his donkey—a she-donkey, by the way; important to get the pronouns right—stopped and wouldn’t move another step. How the donkey rebuked Balaam in good Biblical Hebrew, and how the angel, whom the donkey had been able to see, told him that if it weren’t for the donkey, he would have been struck dead. And then what the angel told Balaam to say, and how Balaam, to the consternation of those who had hired him, pronounced the full and unequivocal blessing that God gives those God loves.