I’ve hesitated long and hard about whether to say anything about the debate over gay marriage and the government’s proposals. I’ve held back for a couple of reasons. My work has a view on this. And it seems impossible to say anything that casts doubt on the validity of allowing gay couples to marry without being denounced as a homophobe and a bigot.
Because I don’t think that the plans are a good idea. And that probably makes me unpopular, both with those outside and some inside the church.
Today on twitter I’ve observed a lot of people despairing at the Church of England’s response to the consultation in which they urge the government to rethink changing marriage in the way that is proposed.
Because that is what the government are planning on doing. Whether you support the proposals or not, if these plans are implemented marriage will be different in a couple of years time to what it is now.
I want to make a few scattered comments about this whole escapade. I want to do so in the carefullest possible way as this is a subject that is not detached from people’s individual lives, emotions and identity. Maybe it would help by pulling out some of the slightly spurious points often made against those who would prefer that marriage remained as between a man and a woman.
I believe that there are ways to live that are better than other ways to live. And I know that this means that for some people it will seem as though I’m criticising the way that they choose to live. But I think that sexual relationship should only take place between men and women, and between one of each in the context of marriage. And marriage matters because it is placing the union between two people before God and under his authority. It is about submitting not only to each other but principally to God.
And as far as I can see that means we must do our best to live lives that honour God. Even if that means doing things we find hard, and not doing things which otherwise we may choose to do. For devout Christians who experience same sex attraction may well choose to put their belief in and devotion to God before that, and choose to live another way. This is not something I pretend to understand. It is not something that I pretend is easy. It is not something that I would pretend is not counter to the way that the world would choose to order things.
But as Peter Ould tweeted earlier today, “The moment you argue that Church should ‘catch up with society’ you demonstrate your theology is of man and not God”. Because while the church has so often got so many things so very wrong, and in it’s dealing with gay and lesbian people at times its actions have been horrific, that does not mean it should adjust its view because something is deemed out of fashion, or even intolerant.
The church is accused of inconsistency, and it has so often been guilty of that, but that’s not a reason to drop all of the values it holds to and rush towards a lowest common denominator that does its best to keep everyone onside. The church is told to not think that something is wrong, all the while told to stand stronger against other things that are wrong. Told to worry more about poverty and the injustices of the world because holding a view on sexuality will make people think the church is out of touch. It’s curious that at a time when morality is coming back into vogue, when questions are being asked about the value of money in our lives, or the isolation created by ongoing technological advancement, the church is told to pipe down.
Many have commented today that the church accepts divorce but opposes gay marriage. Often that’s the case. Divorce isn’t what God wants, but sometimes it’s the best way out of difficult circumstances. Confusing? Yes, but often handling the tensions in the way that we live will look like that. God is redemptive, and although marriages should stay together many will not. So there is hope in the hardest of situations, which is why divorce should be allowed. To introduce gay marriage is to create something new, and in doing so change something old.
And then there is the West Wing argument. About shellfish and mixed fabrics. It’s a neat little charge but it misses any attempt to understand the purposes of different Old Testament laws. This isn’t the place but I think a decent case can be made for those laws to keep people clean before a holy God and therefore not needed since Jesus’ death and resurrection have made us all clean; those laws given to aid the governance of Israel (many of which we can learn from without direct application), and those laws which give us moral guidance on how best to live.
The particular proposals that the government make suggest that a distinction can be made between civil and religious marriage. That’s nonsense, there are civil and religious weddings but they are just two different doors to the same room.
The proposals also allude to the fact that some people are banned from marriage, that’s just not true, anyone can get married, but only to someone of the opposite sex. Trying to allow gay couples to marry is trying to make marriage into something that it simply is not. On one level marriage will always be marriage, and nothing that the government says will change that. It’s like trying to suggest that the government should pass a law allowing two floor bungalows to be built.
A big part of me wants to stay quite about this debate. I want to shut up. Turn off my computer, deactivate twitter for a while and stay away while the government push their case, opponents dismiss it and are subsequently tarred and feather in their virtual stocks.
But that’s actually what makes me speak up and say my piece because I shouldn’t be shamed into silence. It is what worries me most if these proposals go through: that I won’t be able to hold, and promote, a view that marriage is and should be between a man and a woman. I’m not expecting every one to agree with me, much as I don’t expect everyone to agree with many of the things that I believe. When they do perhaps I’m a little too closely following the crowd.
Do I think that the world will collapse if gay marriage is constructed ex nihilo within the legal system? I don’t. Do I think that sometimes Christians have used language in their opposition that has made the charge of bigot stick a little easier? Yes.
But I don’t think that the church, and other opponents, should stay quiet when the government are introducing something which isn’t in keeping with what they believe is best for the world around them. And a world in which Christians are committed to making God’s kingdom come. That means fighting poverty and promoting relationships that reflect God’s desire. It means speaking truth in a way that people see God’s love and truth in the content of what you say and in the heart that lies behind it.
And this is not easy. And I’ve not really dealt with many of the issues in play but this is already plenty long enough.
What do you think, do you think Christians should back gay marriage? Should they stay quiet about their views? Or loudly make their opposition know?