Moves towards gay marriage

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.

Just to put things into a bit of perspective, let me point you towards this fantastic article by Ricky Gervais about atheism and Christmas.  Among the many points he makes is this powerful one:

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.

8 thoughts on “Moves towards gay marriage

  1. I agree. It saddens me when we live in a world populated by sensible articulate Christians who think before they speak (as we do) that some, often with a narrower focus and mind, tend to try to speak for Christians as a whole.

    It also upsets me that when doing so, rather than encourage others to investigate Christianity further, they tend to encourage people to ignore it as they reinforce the stereotypes that others hold about it.

    That is why, though I object to the Catholic interpretation for my own reasons, I will always defend it when accused of the things people claim it does that it does not. As someone said to me, that is the way to have a true critical discourse. And something that it seems this Canon failed to recognise.

  2. Good stuff. As an outsider as far as religion is concerned, this to me looks like a classic case of someone (Canon Sugden) using his belief as a convenient excuse for his own pre-existing prejudices and/or simply wishing to influence policy on a civil matter in the hope that gaining such a concession will lead to further concessions down the line.

    It’s like a spokesman from the FA demanding all sport be run according to the rules of football whilst also trying to lay claim to exclusively owning the concept of ball games and team activities. And if you don’t agree to only play football, you can’t play at all.

  3. I made my position known to you, but have not been brave enough to reply to your argument on the blog for fear of being labelled as bigoted and prejudice by unbelievers and liberal thinking Christians who pertain to your line of thought, as you indicated yourself you feel I am being prejudice, when actually I am not willing to bear false witness and be accountable to God for that. I am not being homophobic, I am not suggesting that unconditional love should not be shown to all people; I myself am a sinner, but I am still struggling to understand where scripture indicates that homosexual practise is not abhorrent to God. The argument that homosexuality in the bible is in a different context from the present day or to justify it because we now allow the ordination of women or that hats are not necessary in church is blinkered.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (New International Version)

    9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

    (1 Corinthians 6:9 The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.)

    1 Corinthians 6:18-19 (New International Version)
    18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own.

    I would like to see a systematic argument to back up your position that the bible does not indicate that homosexuality is abhorrent to God. For me, to uphold that it is not abhorrent to God cheapens Christ’s sacrifice and deceives others.

    1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)

    He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

    This issue should not be a major focus of the church, but the church cannot afford to give a false testimony.

    In Luke 17:28-30 Jesus compares his second-coming to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (RSV):

    “Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.”

    God’s judgement is very real and it cannot be dismissed by Christians just because others feel it is non existent.

  4. Nicole, I don’t believe you’re being bigoted or prejudiced as you’re just sticking with what you believe, which is fair enough. However, the following two things are inherently true:

    1. The church (and here I mean *any* church, not just the C of E) has no exclusive right to claim the formal institution of marriage as its own. Therefore no one church should be allowed to define what the rules are for marriage for the entire population based on it’s own subset of rules.

    2. Marriage in a legal sense is entirely separate from any religious service of marriage and should absolutely remain so.

    The problem is, people with a vested interest in the religious sense are trying to influence what marriage can and can’t be in a legal sense for everyone to suit themselves. Whether ultimately the C of E allows gay marriage or not is almost by the by – if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It is entitled to set its own rules, and if people disagree they can of course leave and join another denomination. In fact, this may be the beginnings of a schism that will see the church split (and given it exists in its present form largely as a Tudor divorce fudge, it’s fair to say there’s previous for rearrangements of convenience!). In the meantime, however, it should not have the right to prevent gay marriage outside of the C of E and it’d be nice if it remembered that many of us – in fact, the majority of us – find it quite offensive when an organisation we have no investment with tries to tell us what to do with an implication it is because they inherently know better. Which I’m afraid is how people like Canon Sugden come over, and why they tend to evoke such a backlash.

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