I find myself writing to try and clarify some of my thinking on this subject and because of the pain I feel at the dubious light the Church has been shown in at the Human Rights Tribunal this week. Ordination is a bishop's prerogative; one assumes he/she takes advice, but to take the matter to this Tribunal is simply weird. One may wonder why the Church's discernment process for ordinands should seem to show so much interest as to what goes on in their bedrooms! Well, that's being frivolous of course - there is much more at stake.
Ordination sets one apart to be, as it were, a walking, talking sacrament, bearing something of God's grace. We do that in our vulnerability as much as in our strengths, but at the very heart of the discernment process must be a strong sense of the underlying wholeness of the person under consideration: a crucial aspect of that is always our sexual identity and relationships. Presumably the expectation is that we be clear about our identity and comfortable with it; similarly that we be committed and whole in our relationships. This is always a sensitive area of inquiry and one where everyone carries some vulnerability.
Traditionally marriage has been regarded as the standard that marks a mature, committed Christian intimate relationship. A formal public ceremony (marriage, or civil union now that it is available, or even a formal blessing) to mark a faithful, chaste, committed relationship seems highly desirable. Of course breakdowns and breaches of marriage have occurred and seen clergy subjected to discipline; for instance, a withdrawal of licence. However at present the church seems in a quandary about what to with same gender relationships (including those relationships that have amply demonstrated the maturity, commitment and loving faithfulness we associate with marriage): the default position has been to say 'no' or 'wait' and to remind all concerned that our church processes have to work on a theology of marriage - after which our statutes may be revised.
However the promised theological spadework may not be either simple or clear - though I am confident that it will happen. Think about it, what constitutes the essence of marriage: the declaration of the state and/or the Church? Surely not! I expect state and church would both say it is the free exchange of vows between two persons that defines a marriage; in which case state and church are principally witnesses. The 'real stuff'- the 'sacramental stuff' is in the inner life of the relationship between these two people who marry each other. What then is the status of persons who also live in an exemplary faithful committed relationship? Although there may not have been any formal exchange of vows, and despite the church's canons, can we simply 'write off' a relationship in which the partners are clearly bearers of God's love and grace to one another? In other words, can one discern signs of God at work in this relationship and, if so, can the Church disregard it? (This is hardly a new question for the church, as the debates in Acts over Gentile circumcision remind us.)
If we look ahead, looking past a change in our canons concerning marriage, what happens for those who are already ordained and in committed but 'unmarried' relationships? Could questions be asked and bishop's be compelled to act? If the canons on marriage are amended could clergy even be required to 'marry' their partners, or else? Some of the possible scenarios would be almost surreal: a series of 'shotgun' marriages? For goodness sake!