And we the blessed ones
A talk to the Association of English Cathedrals on same-sex blessings in the context of “Living in Love & Faith”
If you haven’t been up here in Bangor, welcome to one of those western-shore places that kept Christianity going in these islands during those years after the retreat of the Roman Empire, while most of the rest of you were waiting for Augustine to turn up in whatever was left of Canterbury. In 525, a millennium and a half ago come the year after next, Saint Deiniol established his cell here, in a narrow valley running down to the sea, Snowdonia to one side of us and Anglesey beyond. The word “bangor” comes from the hazel fence that the Celtic saints raised around their enclosures for shelter and sanctuary; and our new Nave furniture, that Luke Hughes delivered to us during Passiontide, includes a bronze abstract of that self-same wattle fence, that bangor, in the back of each pew.
The city of Bangor sits at the heart of an astonishingly beautiful and interesting diocese. The city itself, though — a provincial university market town, really — is a bit of sad in parts — it’s one long High Street down Deiniol’s valley; and it suffers from all the challenges of any other mediocre provincial university market town in the wake of the ABC of Amazon, Brexit and Covid.
What are we about as a Cathedral in the middle of it? My go-to image from the time I’ve been here at the Cathedral dates from just before my installation. During the lockdowns, some wild peacocks from the hills above the valley took possession of corners of the dilapidated High Street, the cars and the people gone. There they’d be, ghostlike but majestic, on my morning runs. Iconographically, of course, peacocks are symbols of the Resurrection — that tail raised again, anew each spring — below my crude effort on this year’s Paschal Candle.
But they’ve become for me a bit of a symbol of what we’re building up here at the Cathedral — a community of beauty, truth and love with and for this city, which deserves no less.
It was a “beauty, truth and love” moment for us, last year, to celebrate here the first blessing of a same-sex marriage in the diocese, and in any Cathedral of the Church in Wales. A few days ago, Llandaff became the Welsh second Welsh Cathedral to do so.
Looking back at that (and at what made it possible); and looking at where we are now and into the future, I thought of sharing some reflections this evening, first, on strategic and missional imperatives; and, secondly, on some practical and pastoral paradoxes; before getting back to my peacock before we’re done.
Strategic and missional imperatives
Part of a wider strategic and missional purpose
Hosting, welcoming, celebrating a same-sex wedding blessing was a missional step for us here in Bangor because it was part of helping us as a Cathedral to counter some of the church-y, cathedral-y expectations of us as an anxious, pretentious, judgemental, unresponsive place. Hosting, welcoming, celebrating a same-sex wedding blessing didn’t stand alone in that effort — it lives alongside educational and family ministries, and music outreach. More specifically, it lives alongside a broader LGBTQ+ programme that’s included flag-flying, flood-lighting, talk-hosting, festival-welcoming, and commemoration-holding. We underestimate how many people the Church has hurt or alienated; we take for indifference what is often an aggrieved, intentional distancing from our historic judgmentalism. Hosting, welcoming, celebrating a same-sex wedding blessing was a missional step for us become it was part of our wider strategic and missional purpose to invite people to cross the threshold; to trust us again to help them to encounter God.
The Cathedral as a connected, but not a neutral, space
We also offered more introspective moments for exploration and discussion alongside and in the wake of the Church in Wales’s national discernment regarding same-sex wedding blessings. In Chapter meetings and as part of diocesan synodical conversations, Cathedral colleagues participated freely with colleagues and friends with diverse views from across the diocese. More publicly, and frankly more interestingly, at Cathedral online forums and public lectures, we platformed voices from the across the LGBTQ+ community, while creating a space where the Cathedral and the Church could be, and was, challenged by more conservative and more progressive voices. Those moments for conversation were important for providing a space for voices from across the diocese to be heard; or at least to know that there was a space to be heard at their Cathedral, or by their Cathedral colleagues. That’s meant that the Cathedral isn’t a neutral space, trying to find a median point in the middle of the road to please both sides; but it is a connected space, with lines of communication kept open.
Hosting, welcoming, celebrating a same-sex wedding blessing at the Cathedral was also life-giving, and friction-less for us because it went with the grain of episcopal leadership within the diocese and the Church nationally. Our diocesan bishop, also now the Archbishop, has been an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and a consistent advocate of same-sex blessings and, indeed, of same-sex “holy matrimony” (as i believe the Church of England legal office would have us call proper weddings). I’m good at upward-management most of the time; but I can’t imagine the hassle of navigating engagement with an unsupportive diocesan in this area of Church life.
More locally — congregationally and personally — it was possible to host, welcome, celebrate a same-sex wedding blessing without local contention in small part because I and some other colleagues were quietly confident advocates; and we could be that because we, in turn, had been able to live with some public and ministerial integrity as members of the LGBTQ+ community for some time previously. I haven’t had to hide for a while now; I haven’t, for a while now, had to calibrate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion; to judge and self-censor when to say “I” or “we.” I got good at doing that in London. I haven’t had to do that for years here; and that deep environment, that non-anxious honesty, has helped to make it possible to host, welcome, celebrate without contention. I suspect that such an environment can’t be cultivated overnight.
Practical and pastoral paradoxes
Not a wedding… that looks like a wedding
First (and I know this is more an irony than a paradox, but):
Our liturgy in Wales for same-sex marriage blessings is experimental but proscribed — the text of the liturgy for a 5 year trial period, with some very limited exceptions, can’t be changed. From what I’ve seen, Prayers of Love & Faith, on the other hand, will allow all of the liberty of a Service of the Word.
But what’s startling, as the liturgical movement ought to have taught us Anglicans, is that it’s the liturgical theatre that gives life to the text. And, in this context, the liturgical theatre that almost any couple is likely to want and to expect produces something that quacks, walks, and looks like a wedding, no matter what the narrower normative and formal theology of the rite implies. Whatever the prayers say, two lay people walking down the aisle holding hands will say more, and the photos will say more again. It’s good to be prepared for that.
More like a parish… and yet less like a parish
Secondly: One doesn’t need a qualifying connection for a blessing, or for prayers. No Special License needed here. I wonder whether that make an increased demand on a Cathedral’s pastoral resources — it’s not absurd to think of there being more requests for same-sex blessings at Cathedrals than there would be permissible opposite-sex weddings, and therefore a need for Cathedrals to flex more traditionally “parochial” pastoral muscles when it comes to what is, essentially, an occasional office, a “life event”, if they’re still called that.
Paradoxically, although that could make a Cathedral more parochial in one sense, I wonder if a Cathedral could also become a place of refuge for those who cannot see their parish church hosting such a blessing, or for those whose parish priest’s conscience wouldn’t countenance it. Is there a certain sort of parochial life-event-ness that could make a Cathedral appear more distinctively set-aside within a diocese and even less parochial in its exceptionalism?
Too late… and too little
Thirdly: I was conscious of a sort of ecclesial progressive smugness within the Church in Wales at us having allowed same-sex blessings. There was the Synodical portentousness; a piety about the priestly conscience protected; a liberal self-satisfaction at another Rubicon forged.
Curiously, there will be a quiet pastoral discomfort to be negotiated — on the part of those whose long-term same-sex partnerships or same-sex love-lives have been hallowed by their own efforts under God, the Church having been formally indifferent if not hostile these many decades, and for whom this step comes just too late, much as they may delight at what is now available to a younger generation. We shouldn’t expect those people to be grateful or guilty that their want nothing to do with this, and we might even need to be alert to the anger and hurt lurking beneath their indifference.
Equally, for Gen-Z, for the students in our Choir, it’s a curious sort of progressivism that’s just coming to terms with lesbian and gay people, and expecting plaudits for so doing. BTQ+ awaits us. We’re as likely to need a pastoral apologia for only going this far as for having taken this stuttering step.
Finally, and related to that last paradox, I was reminded this past week of a 2013 post on the satirical website of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley. Ten years ago, they posted a mock Anglican parish liturgy for what we might call Prayers of Love & Faith: The Maximalist Version.
“Dearly beloved,” the Officiant says, “we are gathered together today not to bless something we’d rather not think about.”
To which the people respond: “And also with you.”
The Officiant goes on: “We welcome F & F (or, as it may be, M & M), who have come to be not joined in anything holy at all, although we will be praying for them to be blessed — not blessed, more kind of recognised — in their doing what we’d rather not think about.”
To which all respond (and this the killer line): “It’s some kind of a tribute to them that they’re here at all, frankly.”
I’m acutely conscious that the blessings, here and at Llandaff, were of couples of whom one half, at least, works for the Church. And even for them, it’s some kind of a tribute to them that they’re here at all, frankly.
But, that they are here, and that we could honour them has been one of the greatest privileges of my ministry, and of this Cathedral’s witness. Their rite, here celebrated, and their presence here as part of our community, has helped us, for example, to welcome, with a normalcy of which I’m incredibly proud, two trans Choral Scholars this academic year; and, perhaps just as importantly, to welcome their parents, too, to a place (a Church) where they can see their student children known, accepted and loved.
As with so many occasional offices, we think ourselves the host, the imparters of grace; but we’re as likely ourselves the recipients of gift. We, the Cathedral, are the dilapidated High Street in this scenario, and beauty, truth and love, those peacock colours, are what we learn, what we receive, from those who come to celebrate alongside us. It’s a tribute to them that they’re here at all, frankly. And we the blessed ones.