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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday 28 March 2014

Equal Marriage: crossing the threshold

Today, equal marriage has become law in England. I want to welcome it and offer congratulations, good wishes and prayers to all who will be getting married today and in the coming weeks. It’s been moving to read stories of the very first ceremonies held in the small hours across the country.

I don’t know what I can add to the debate we have had in state and church over the past months, or for that matter, to what I’ve already blogged on the subject. But here are some thoughts from a Christian perspective as we cross this historic threshold.

First, I recognise how hard this has been for many fellow-Christians, some in this country, but especially overseas. It is unfair to dub all who dissent as homophobic: there are many people of integrity for whom equal marriage is hard to accept. It would have been for me at one time. We need to allow time. Our bishops don't find themselves in an easy position here, so I welcome Justin Welby’s realism about this change and his wish for the church not to campaign against it and pursue hostile agendas but at least to call a truce, and more positively to welcome and embrace gay couples in Christ’s name as they find their home in the church.

Secondly, we shouldn’t be afraid of how this development enlarges our understanding of marriage. Some say that equal marriage is an invalid distortion of marriage as traditionally understood. But if it is, so was the 19th century change in marriage law to allow men to marry their deceased wife’s sister (once forbidden as incestuous in the table of kindred and affinity). More recently, remarriage after divorce and the church’s provision of services of blessing were equally contentious at the time. My point is that neither of these changed the nature of marriage: they simply enlarged its scope by admitting to it people who were once excluded. Equal marriage is another stage in the long evolution of an institution that has been reshaped at different times down the centuries. But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.

Thirdly, I think we need to be more intelligent about thinking biblically in relation to equal marriage. It’s not enough to quote texts by themselves, as if they prove or disprove a particular position: what’s necessary is to understand the direction in which scripture is leading us in the way we reflect on human relationships. I was struck by a conversation the other day with a convinced evangelical who asked: why does the church come across as so hostile to equal marriage when it’s so clear from the Bible that covenanted monogamous lifelong commitment is always better than casual, promiscuous coupling? For the covenanted relationship is precisely how God marries himself to humanity. Shouldn’t the church positively welcome equal marriage as affirming this rich biblical insight into God’s nature and ours? And even if we aren't sure, isn’t it better to risk a more generous way of reading biblical writings rather than a narrower, in the spirit of a text I come back to in so many controversial settings: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). This is the kind of hermeneutical risk I see Jesus taking with Torah texts in the gospels.

Fourthly, let me acknowledge the pain and anger of gay people who continue to feel excluded by the church’s stance on equal marriage. The recent guidance from the House of Bishops has not reassured them, and it’s now clear that some bishops were far from comfortable with the advice they had issued. However, I do not think that this represents a stable position. As equal marriage becomes accepted by society and, as the indications are showing, by the majority of lay people in the church, we shall see a shift in the official stance. In time, the church will accommodate itself to this development, and recognise that by blessing same-sex marriages and even solemnising them, it is affirming the principle that covenanted unions are fundamental to the way we see (and more important, the way God sees) human love. Precisely the same happened with the remarriage of divorced people in church, and with female bishops. It takes time for change to be received and its theological significance understood. It’s not much comfort to those asking the church for recognition now, but in time I believe we shall get there.

And finally. After today, we shouldn’t talk any more about equal marriage, or same-sex marriage or gay marriage, just marriage. I’m glad that one more layer of discrimination and prejudice has been stripped away. It’s a day to celebrate generosity, justice and love. And while I’m sad that the church won’t officially be part of today’s celebrations, that doesn’t stop us rejoicing with all who rejoice, praying with them and blessing them in our hearts.


  1. I really wish I could be convinced to agree with you Michael. Still, it is significant to me that one as reflective as you has come to a different conclusion to me. Actually, strike "conclusion", I think "working understanding" would be better - at least as far as my position is concerned.

  2. Thanks Tom. I like the phrase and can live with 'working understanding' in this as in so much else in faith and life. But when in doubt, I will always try to choose the more generous, just, inclusive option because this is what I see modelled in the Gospels.

  3. I'd love to agree, after all "love God, love your neighbour" directs us toward it. But (due to the fact that the church seems to have spent much more time defending a position to the world than discussing it internally), I'm stuck on a theological roadblock.

    'The marriage of the lamb': This is the key focus, hope even, of the church; that Christ will come for his bride - the church. Now, if that remains our faith, and we consider that biblical, God honouring marriage is a 'type' of that, then it needs hetrogenity! We cannot claim that it wouldn't matter if God & Man joined together as instances of 'the same'.

    Unfortunately, this argument doesn't wash outside the walls of Christendom, hence why it seems that it hasn't come up, but it's something I'd say we need to have thought about before we can balance love & justice on the issue. Otherwise, the church will just perpetuate the reputation they seem to have as johnny-cum-lately's, blown by every wind of dictorine and more interested in pleasing the world than the one who created it!

    I'd welcome thoughts...

    1. I understand the metaphor to have been derived from the (only) secular psalm, Psalm 45, which rejoices in the wedding of the king to the princess of Tyre. It got connected to the Messiah culture of later Judaism. Then it was referred to in Hebrews chapter 1. The church as bride is neither key nor roadblock. Go forward with Jesus.

  4. The figuring of the church as a "bride", ie "female", is surely purely metaphorical, as is Christ's as "bridegroom", ie "male". The point in that "marriage" is their coming together, their union, not their literal genderhood. Isn't the point of the Incarnation the humanity, rather than maleness, of God as flesh?

  5. It is quite clear what God's view is on the subject. The Bible is very clear all the way through, and why I should want to change what it says or re-interpret it as something beyond plain speaking I do not know. I will stick to God's word and not worry if it is going along with public opinion because it is God's view that matters in the end.

  6. This is a gracious and generous understanding of the change in the law that took effect today, but I'm afraid I can't accept it and I don't believe many Christian people will because there is no mention of marriage as the place in which to have children. The law has changed but the fundamental nature of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman has not and no Act of Parliament, no matter how well intentioned, can make it so.

  7. Thank you, Michael, for addressing this, as always, with characteristic wisdom and humanity. I think we are all seeking to respond to this new reality as events unfold. The House of Bishops statement is a tragic example of what happens when the perspective of lawyers is given free reign in official communications and the theologians are deafeningly silent. It would not have happened in quite the same way under Rowan Williams, I am guessing, and highlights (yet again) the frightening dearth of professional theologians among the membership of the House of Bishops. For my money, this situation exemplifies something Simon Tugwell OP wrote in his seminal The Way of Imperfection: ‘The Church has known many different moods in the course of history … And it is not necessarily in her “best” moments, when she is most confident and clear, that she is most true to herself. There is a kind of unsatisfactoriness written into her very constitution, because she is only a transitional organisation, keeping people and preparing them for a new creation, in which God will be all and in all, and every tear will be wiped away. When she speaks too securely, she may obscure the fact that her essential business is with “what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered the heart of man”’.

  8. Thank you Simon R and others. I love the Tugwell quote which exactly sums up my dis-ease about over-confident church pronouncements in areas where a long journey of discernment/reception is needed.

  9. Is the bible really so hot on ‘covenanted monogamous lifelong commitment’? The Old Testament is full of polygamy.