I’ve been listening this morning to the Radio Five Live phone-in about the legal moves to allow gay marriage in the UK. I am wound up to the point of anger about much that I’ve heard, not least the comments from Canon Chris Sugden from the Church of England about why gay marriage is wrong.
Just to set the scene – especially for those not reading in the UK – we have had in this country for some years now civil partnerships, whereby same-sex couples can get legal recognition and protection much as if married, albeit not strictly in name. Legal moves are now afoot, as this article outlines, for marriage to be open to homosexual couples and civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. As famous campaigner Peter Tatchell persuasively pointed out in the phone-in, it’s comparable in a way to Apartheid, in that we have one institution for people of one sexuality, and another for others – in a way that we wouldn’t dream of doing along for instance racial lines.
There is a little mileage in the opposing argument that if gay people have civil partnerships then they don’t need marriage as an institution, but then of course if marriage was open then we wouldn’t need civil partnerships, which I have always thought to be a rather odd compromise in the first place. When they were introduced, I never saw the case for a distinctive civil partnership arrangement, wondering why we didn’t just equalise marriage and solve the problem in a much more straightforward way.
What I particularly want to dwell on in this post is some of the myths and prejudices pedalled by Canon Chris Sugden.
First, he was saying that the Bible ordains marriage as between man and woman in a loving relationship. That may seem true on the face of it, but many of the arguments as to why homosexuality is not clearly Biblically condemned also apply to justify that this too is a stretch. Yes it is clear in many passages that marriage is for men and women, but of course the Bible was written in eras of very different social norms and very different understandings of sexuality, such as condemning same-sex practices as ritual pagan activities. Indeed, it was powerfully pointed out to the Canon by a caller into the phone-in that there were Biblical justifications for and descriptions of polygamy – so, the caller asked, if the Biblical interpretation of marriage changed before to prohibit polygamy, how can it be claimed not to be changeable today?
Secondly, the Canon claimed that marriage between men and women as a basis for family life is proven to be the optimum conditions for bringing up children. Now I am not a sociologist and do not have the facts to either endorse or contradict this fact. But I do know enough to state that generalities are insufficient in this debate. Maybe, to be generous, it is entirely true that heterosexual marriage is the best environment for children. But does that mean that homosexual couples are therefore inherently less capable of bringing up children? No doubt some are, some aren’t: just like with heterosexual couples. Indeed, the implication that heterosexual marriage, especially of the Christian variety, is better flies in the face of the many potential flaws of heterosexual marriage – many are violent and oppressive, many are loveless, many are broken by lies, cheating and so on. No doubt defenders of marriage as a heterosexual institution would not claim it is a perfect institution, but can with hard work be effective, happy and a great environment for children. Fine. So, then, by logical extension, can a homosexual marriage.
Allied to this point was the argument made by the Canon that one of the inspirations for the Victorian-era moral crusade in favour of stable marriage and family life was to counter the detrimental effects on relationships, such as prostitution. Fair enough as an argument in itself, but in the context of the debate in hand, the implication is that homosexuality (or specifically, loving, monogamous homosexual relationship) is as much a threat to marriage and family life as prostitution. To compare homosexuality to prostitution is not only shameful, brutal prejudice, but actually harms the Christian cause and the power of the other contributions Christians would make to society. If one school of thought in Christianity is seen to pedal bigotry, all Christians are often tarred with that same brush and thus their contributions to social discourse are seen as inherently lacking in credibility.
Third, it was claimed by the Canon that marriage is a Christian institution, with Biblical definitions and endorsement. Correct of course, but not exclusively Christian. As a caller to the phone-in pointed out, marriage has existed throughout the ages in civilisations and cultures throughout the world, including before Christianity, and so one religion cannot claim monopoly over or ownership of what is both a historic and natural human condition and also a secularly and legally recognised state.
It is this arrogance inherent in the third point which particularly angers me. Christian organisations and leaders do terrible damage and insult to Christianity when they fail to make arguments that those who do not follow the faith can relate to or engage with. For instance, to offer a Biblical defence of marriage as a heterosexual institution blindly ignores the fact that there are people out there who do not accept the Bible as a source of law or guidance (not to mention arrogantly assumes that this particular interpretation of the Bible is the correct one) and have no desire to be subject to it.
Of course, none of this would be surprising to anyone who knows Canon Chris Sugden. I’d never heard of him but having quickly popped his name into Google I’ve discovered he is a key actor within the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, a Church of England pressure group whose ostensible motivation is to ostracise gays from the church and claim that one particular human interpretation of the Bible is somehow a timeless and inerrant one.
The church must learn humility. It must learn that it exists in a society that it doesn’t control, doesn’t rule, doesn’t have any formal custody or responsibility for. Its rules are not the default for those outside. It cannot claim a monopoly over marriage – which is after all a civil act which can, with choice, be also a religious act.
Of course, there is a case to be made (though I am unsure how persuasive) for people to opt out of endorsing gay marriage or for churches to vote to refuse to conduct religious ceremonies for gay couples, or at the very least to be entitled to their views. But this is where the issue of choice comes in. We cannot be in a world where a minority view gets 100% of the implementation, when we’d be better off simply giving people choice: whethether that’s a choice to do something (eg get married as a gay couple) or not do something (eg give approval to someone else’s relationship choice).
The sooner there is fairness and equality in marriage, the better. And our churches – particularly certain sections within them – must understand that belief in an absolute truth by one person or group does not make that truth inescapable for those that do not believe it. Of course, an absolute truth is by definition ultimately inescapable, but one person’s belief in it doesn’t make it any more so nor does it justify the right to force the consequences of that truth when it is not universally accepted as an absolute truth.
Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have cataloged over 3700 supernatural beings, of which 2870 can be considered deities.
So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.
Of course, as a Christian, I firmly believe that my God is the one true God. I believe that God’s truth is an absolute one and none of us can ultimately escape it.
But I don’t for one microsecond believe that gives me a right to tell others to adhere to the societal implications of my interpretation of that God. Nor do I doubt that my disbelief in 2,869 Gods is any more justifiable in my own mind than an atheist’s disbelief in 2,870 is in their mind.
Any Christian who thinks they can dictate to society what it does with marriage, should be compelled to read Gervais’s testimony first, then ask themselves if their arguments actually advance the Gospel, or just undermine it.