The Church of England likes blessing things. It thinks blessing is good. I have been present at bishops, deans, and parish clergy blessing a whole panoply of stuff from notice boards, credence tables and new homes to boats, chairs and meeting rooms. I myself have done a fair bit of blessing. And yes, we in the church bless people. These moments of blessing - ultimately an expression of God’s prevenient grace and love - typically happen as we are prepared to be sent out into the world in love and for love. Priests also bless relationships. One the highlights of my hardly stellar church ‘career’ was being asked to ‘bless’ my parents’ relationship as they renewed their vows together after fifty years of marriage. I can be hard faced and cynical and yet I felt like a guest, unexpectedly invited, to the most remarkable feast.
Given the number of cynical mickey-taking atheist friends I have, I’m used to folk questioning the efficacy not only of ‘blessing’ but questioning what on earth we think we’re doing when 'blessing' not only people but inanimate objects. However, setting aside whether one thinks that ‘blessing’ invokes something either super or supra-natural, my sense is that the hunger for blessing typically reflects a desire to participate in something greater, more focused and more significant than our usual ways of going on. The blessing of objects often strikes me as strange but it indicates a human desire to ‘set aside’ something for a use outside our usual understanding of time and space. The blessing of water at baptism, for example, indicates – among other things - that something quite ordinary is being used for a story that is extraordinary – a story of death and resurrection. Equally the interest in ‘house blessing’ may indicate a very human desire to live in a space consecrated to peace and goodness. No matter what one feels about that, it reflects something humans instinctively understand – that where and how we dwell is not only shaped by us but shapes us as well.
I am stating the yawning obvious when I say the church has got itself in a complete mess about relationships and blessing. The proclamation and conferral of God’s blessing is one of those things which makes the church ‘the church’. That’s one reason why – even if you think we’re deluded – the church gets rather excited about it and rather enjoys going round blessing things. As indicated earlier, there is something remarkably intimate, beautiful and ‘world-changing’ about being able to bless not only ‘things’ but the relationships of committed human beings. Thus, it is a remarkable and bitter tragedy that the C of E – which seeks to minister to the nation – has found itself in a situation where it blesses noticeboards, boats and liturgical gubbins, but refuses to bless the loving committed relationships of a section of the population the church (& society) has historically excluded and even persecuted. I am on record as supporting ‘gay marriage’ (or as sensible folk call it, ‘marriage’), but until the church finds the courage, the love and the faith to begin blessing civil partnerships it continues to isolate itself.
One often feels that the church is more at home with blessing ‘things’ – with tables, ocean-going liners and so on – because there is no real cost to the grace conferred. Grace that matters transforms and extends us – it brings us into deeper relationship and love. The fundamental failure in refusing to bless civil partnerships is a failure in our theological anthropology. That is, it is a failure to truly recognize LGBT people as not only bearers of the Image but of being able to grow into the likeness of Christ – fundamentally in their loving, committed relationships. In my experience, LGBT people are as good and as bad at relationships as ‘straight’ folk. I find this very encouraging. But the real thing people of faith need to come to terms with is how we see people. There are no 1st class and 2nd class members of the Kingdom. And part of the reason for this is that, despite protests to the contrary, the church is not called to be either its border guards – checking people’s holiness papers - or its judiciary.