Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Love, Honour, and Dismay

It did not come as a surprise that the Church of England has rejected the government consultation on same-sex marriage. While the Church has always been a wide coalition of opposing viewpoints it is currently dominated centrally by a conservative outlook. And if we're not ready to permit women equality with men then giving any acknowledgement to non-heterosexuals is asking quite a lot. And yet, knowing all of this and thinking myself prepared for it, the Response itself has still given me fresh disappointment. 

In its opening paragraphs the document highlights the importance of, "the possibility of procreation" in marriage, an element which is optional to the marriage service and which places a value on the institution no higher than the fertility and compatibility of a couple's genitals. They go on to wheel out clich├ęd but nonsensical arguments; I have never had it explained to me in what way other people being married changes the nature of marriage for heterosexual couples, nor why the constant and never-ending shifting definition of words is suddenly to create a seismic event.

However, I was most shocked to discover the document defending its stance by arguing that allowing same sex couples to marry, "deliver[s] no obvious legal gains given the rights conferred by civil partnerships". Of all institutions, the Church should be able to acknowledge that the gulf between marriage and the legal trappings that accompany it is as wide as the difference between death and the handling of your estate. A religious marriage is about presenting your relationship to God and to your family and community (whatever shape the latter takes) and asking for their combined blessing and support in sustaining it. A civil ceremony may attempt, sometimes successfully, to capture some of these elements, but it cannot capture all of them, and for members of the Church the legal similarity of the two is completely irrelevant.

It is only since 2002 that the Church of England has officially sanctioned the re-marriage of divorcees (somewhat ironically given the Church's origins). The mechanisms of marriage available to ordinary people has changed a number of times over the centuries, without radically overhauling what that mechanism symbolised to the couple involved (though that has happened too). But all other things aside, for the Church of England to use the standard secular arguments to defend its position is utterly ridiculous. It completely misses the point of marriage, in a way which the Church of all organisations really ought not to. If it is an issue of theology, then say so. If it is an issue of doctrine, then say so. Don't hide behind weak irrelevancies and thinly-veiled prejudice.

The Church of England's website has a page discussing the background to the Church's position on marriage. On it, Rowan Williams says of same-sex marriage, "issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law". For once, I could not disagree more. The government, community leaders, and yes especially the Church, have a duty to take the lead on such issues and set the tone for culture to follow. It is what we are called to do as Christians, and are in an unusually strong position to do so as an established Church. This Response is cowardly and embarrassing. And wrong.