Some of the rhetoric of church leaders has been little short of hysterical. To call gay marriage a ‘catastrophe’ or hammering the final nail in the coffin of marriage is not the measured language of responsible debate. In a recent tweet, I urged that Christian leaders should turn the volume down.
I have been a bit baffled by some of the arguments on both sides. For instance, it worries me that in the draft legislation for same-sex marriage, there does not seem to be any clear understanding of marriage as a covenanted relationship that requires loyalty and fidelity. I am told that this is because the lawyers can’t agree about what constitutes same-sex consummation or unfaithfulness. So straight away this makes equal marriage unequal because it is not defined in precisely the same covenanted way as heterosexual marriage. It is not surprising that some Christians are concerned about weakening the classical understanding of marriage by not placing the vow of faithfulness right at its heart.
On the other hand, I am worried by assumptions on the ‘conservative’ side that to allow couples of the same sex to marry somehow undermines the institution of marriage. If this were true of gay marriage, it would be even more true of unions including a divorced party. Indeed, if the vow of fidelity is of the essence of marriage, then divorce and remarriage are in theory a far bigger threat to it than enlarging covenanted unions to include same-sex couples. In fact, this has not turned out to be the case. So I can understand the claim that to advocate gay marriage is in fact to honour marriage as a wholesome institution, good for individuals and good for society because it fosters stability. This is the very opposite of subverting it. So I recognise that it's seen as a matter of justice (I don't say human rights) that same-sex couples should be able to enter it too.
There’s a story in the Acts of the Apostles that may help. A Jewish leader called Gamaliel had to intervene in a furious row about whether or not the infant Christian movement should be tolerated. When things threatened to turn violent he said this: ‘Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do…because if this plan or undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them; in that case you might even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5.33-39) In today’s febrile atmosphere of heated debate, what would Gamiliel say to us now? Here are some thoughts.
1 We should remember our history. In his speech in Acts, he warns the traditionalists not to be too hasty to condemn. The Church of England has been in this position several times in the past century. The furious debates about artificial contraception in the early 20th century are barely remembered now, but at the time contraception was rejected by bishops and church leaders as a terrible threat to the nature of marriage as meant for procreation. The legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults was another example, the remarriage of divorced people in church yet another. The Church of England has found ways of accommodating itself to all these developments. We have seen this as recently as the past decade. Bishops’ initial hostility towards civil partnerships has become at least a working recognition of their importance to the extent that they are now invoked as desirable as arguments the new-fangled gay marriage. The church will, I’m pretty sure, do this once again and come to recognise equal marriage; if it can’t welcome it, it will at least become pragmatic about it in time.
2 Wait and see how the argument develops in the months ahead. Don’t rush into condemnation. It doesn’t do any good, it will probably make you look foolish, and in the future you may find you wish you could take back things you had said in anger or haste. Gamaliel does not invoke the principle of Christian charity, but I think he would have urged us to debate with restraint, moderation and courtesy. The megaphone never clarifies arguments; only thoughtful reflection can do that. There is no point in shouting at Parliament for supporting equal marriage, or at those in the church who are at least prepared to consider that there might an important principle here.
3 There is no likelihood of turning back the tide of events. So the church must learn to live in the light of them. We are beginning to do this in the welcome we give to gay people in the church (though there is still a long way to go: if the bishops really believe that civil partnerships are good or not-bad, the church should be able to bless them as it has come to bless the marriages of the divorced). What we especially need to do now is to make sure that the legislation is informed by the wisest and best insights that Christianity has brought down the centuries to its understanding of marriage, such as the dimension of fidelity and covenanted love that I mentioned earlier.
And if charity directs the way we respond to equal marriage as everything else, I believe we shall continue to hold the goodwill and respect which, despite everything, many people still have for the established church.