Coalition for marriage
The government have recently launched a consultation on the definition of marriage which has created a lot of discussion in the media and perhaps in some conversations you’ve been part of with others. One of the challenges I feel in this debate is how to say I’m in favour of retaining the current definition of marriage (the voluntary union between one man and one woman) - which I am - without being perceived as homophobic - which I’m not.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult is because it is such a personal and sensitive subject that goes to the heart of people’s deepest feelings, sexual orientation and relational attachments – it’s very personal stuff. So anything said on this subject is best said with humility, compassion and grace.
And hopefully, in that spirit, the things I would want to say briefly are these:
First of all, as a church, we want to give just as warm a welcome to gay people exploring faith, spirituality, Christianity, and who Jesus is, as we would to people who aren’t gay who want explore these things – there should be no place for homophobia in the church.
Secondly, I want to recognise that it can seem, in one sense, unreasonable or unsympathetic to suggest a couple committed to each other in a same sex relationship can’t get ‘married’ in the way that a committed couple in an opposite sex relationship can.
Thirdly I think Michael White, writing in The Guardian, has a point when he says “I have been impressed by the importance which so many gay people have attached to civil partnership, in contrast to the disdain for marriage among plenty of heterosexuals”.
And yet I remain convinced, along with the Church of England’s position on this debate as stated on its website, that retaining the current definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman – and ideally intended as lifelong – is right. Because overall it has served society well, not least in terms of being (generally speaking) the best context in which children are raised and wider society is strengthened.
Jesus, in his day, frequently cut across cultural and religious practices which were outdated or oppressive to people’s wellbeing. But when asked specifically about issues relating to marriage, Jesus affirmed marriage as a gift of God in the created order in which a man and a woman come together and become one flesh. A new bond is formed, in which children might be born and raised.
And it seems to me that if Jesus – who certainly wasn’t afraid of shaking up the status quo and who was and is the radical of all radicals – affirmed that definition of marriage, we’re unwise to try and define it as something beyond that.
A letter to The Times this past week put it like this: “Marriage is vital because it is where child-raising tends to take place. Evidence recognises that married parents are good for children and society. The reason why in the space of just two weeks 100,000 people have signed the Coalition for Marriage petition (now nearly a quarter of a million) is not based on prejudice and being anti gay but because of a genuine concern that if you change the shape of marriage you change its purpose.”
And Michael White in The Guardian wrote this: “…just as the tyranny of majority opinions over minority rights is usually wrong, surely so is its converse - the assertion of minority rights beyond equality before the law” (which in this debate, civil partnerships have already provided). “So instinct tells me that, whatever they have done in Argentina, Iceland or Portugal, it will be wise to retain a legal distinction between marriage and civil partnership. Noisy bishops aren't always wrong.