The abominable human rights questions being raised over gay marriage will fall on deaf ears until we start asking the right question.
Equality has never been the issue. There’s some bizarre notion that members of the clergy come out in a rash when confronted with same-sex marriage, wielding their crucifix and throwing holy water at the door to protect the church against a new ‘fad’ that is sure to fade in the same way the punk rock movement’s brand of disestablishmentarianism never fully materialised.
But that’s how we’ve come to view the church.
Backward, out of touch and archaic are common accusations, and it’s hardly surprising; society is moving at a faster rate than it ever has and the nature of change is to unearth established institutions. But even in a tolerant and progressive age there are still traditional aspects such as monogamy and family values that continue to act as societal pillars, the protection of which falls into the hands of our longstanding institutions and the nature of which are far less malleable than contemporary aspects of society.
Abominable human rights
The Gay marriage question isn’t about it being an abomination in the eyes of the church – the historical misinterpretation hasn’t slipped the eyes of the clergy, if anything they are more aware of the dangers of literally translating script thousands of years old. The bible is a message of love and the church do more than any other institution to project that message. The question over gay marriage isn’t why it should be allowed, but how.
The Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill received Royal Assent on 17th July 2013, having been passed by both Houses of Parliament. We will discuss the difference between parliamentary assent and religious approval later in the article, but the response from church members was noteworthy.
Along with questions of Humanist weddings, the equalisation of pension/ survivor benefits and the future shape of civil partnerships – also causing big stirs in the church – the Bishop of Guildford raised concerns about the place of fidelity and the position of children in relation to parents in same-sex marriages. There was also support to enable civil marriage registrars who have a conscientious belief in traditional marriage to have that properly accommodated in the workplace.
But one comment was particularly notable. The Archbishop of York raised questions about whether the definition of all marriages must change in order to accommodate the desire of same-sex couples to marry. The answer, in my opinion, is of course they will.
Legalising religion is a tricky prospect.
In the parlance of Norman Smith, politicians cross church leaders at their peril. Ever since Henry II famously lost his rag with Thomas Becket there has been a conscious divide between religion and politics. Parliamentary procedures differ considerably from the ways of the church. The interchangeable forces of a democratic public voice require change as a political remit, but the values promoted and protected by the church aren’t easily written in to law.
Ask a politician to define love and he might draw up a white paper on the role schools play in championing strong relationships. Ask them of the role of the family plays in a child’s upbringing and they may draw up an Act of Parliament to ensure the right public services are in place to support parental needs. But ask them to build the institution of marriage, one that encompasses all of these things and more, and they will soon realise that parliament has no answer.
The Gay Marriage Question
As the Archbishop of York alluded to, the gay marriage question is about redefining marriage and not debating whether same sex couples should enjoy the same privealages hetrosexual people are afforded in the eyes of God. Of course there are traditionalists who believe gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed – both in religious circles and outside of them – but the prevailing opinion is that for the advancement of the church and society, it is right. The question is how.
The Church of England said in its response to the consultation prior to the same sex marriage legislation that “the proposition that same sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. Same sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity… two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage.” The third virtue is obviously childbirth, which remains a sticking point.
A following announcement noted that “the introduction of same sex marriage in our country is a new reality and has consequences for the life and discipline of the Church of England”.
Within these two brief statements there’s a recognition that same sex relationships are right, the prospect of gay marriage is imminent but, crucially, its introduction would require fundamental change in the church. Until we suss that out, it’s inevitable that much-needed change will not be forthcoming.
Let’s give up the pursuit of why we should allow gay marriage, and start asking how.