What might Lincoln and Euclid have to say about same-sex marriage?

Last night I heard Bible verses quoted with abandon.

I heard God’s will invoked in defence of the cause.

I heard that some things are against how God created nature.

I also heard a man quote Euclid, “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. I saw a man who for the greater good denied the strength of his commitment to racial equality: to free the slaves he was prepared to limit his conviction that all men are equal.

Last night I went to watch Lincoln after watching the parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill. And I’m well aware that Jennie Pollock has already made precisely this comparison, perhaps it was why my ears pricked up at the relevant moment.

tommy-lee-jones-linconln-thaddeus-stevens EJFAdvocates of same-sex marriage argue that this is an issue of equality on a par with the struggle for racial equality which won a huge leap through Abraham Lincoln and then lurched on in fits and starts for the following century. I do not, however, think this is an appropriate comparison, and maybe Euclid can help us out. Man, both black and white, equal a human, they are therefore equal to each other.

To achieve the same result with same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage requires some linguistic gymnastics. It involves emptying marriage of much of its meaning and then refilling the shell which is left with what ever we choose, only then can we suggest that the two are equal. If marriage was only about love and commitment between two people, then Euclid’s notion might provide some comfort, but to achieve that you have to remove much of what makes up marriage and turn it into little more than a contractual agreement. This is why I agree with those who say you can only achieve marriage equality by changing what it fundamentally is. For marriage to be extended beyond it’s heterosexual bounds it requires first turning it into something which it currently is not.

I would have a great deal more respect for the government if they were honest about this, what bothers me is the insistence that this is no great change, just the extension of something to a previously excluded group. But no one is excluded from marriage, people only become excluded from marriage when it is first changed into something different, something that is defined solely by love and commitment and not also by male and female, and conjugation and the potential for children. Only once you have changed this definition can the institution of marriage be considered to be restricted. But the government jump to the end and use their own definition of marriage to pretend their plans are no big deal, moreover that they are a vital step towards equality..

But as Philip Blond and Roger Scruton put it: “The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating: in seeking equality with something unlike yourself, the thing that you join to is no longer what you joined.”

* * *

Maybe it was the experience of following the debate that made watching Lincoln immediately after a slightly strange experience. But I couldn’t help but watch the many scenes of the House of Representatives debating the thirteenth amendment and wonder whether future generations might look back at yesterday’s debate in the same light. I wondered whether those who oppose same-sex marriage would be viewed in coming years as behind the times, stuck in the mud, on the wrong side of history – as some observers have suggested this week.

I also wondered what I would have said and done had I been in either of those chambers. Whether I would have stood and spoke of the equality of man, or sought to protect my prejudice or financial interest. I wonder whether I would have compromised my beliefs in order to see a greater wrong righted. I wondered what constituted a greater wrong.

I wondered if I would have said what I believed despite the critics howling at the door, I wondered if I would have had the courage to make my own mind up and not hear threats of no promotion, or being ousted by the voters at the next election. I wondered if I would have taken the calls from the media, stood outside the steps of parliament and found the words of grace that did not deny what I believed to be true.

And I saw the hostility of the 1860s and the legacy it left in its wake stretching nearly a century until the 1964 Civil Rights Act achieved much and left much more to do. I saw the bitter wrangling over reconstruction as the Confederate leaders sued for peace.

If I was in that chamber in Washington DC 150 years ago I would hope to have been like Thaddeus Stevens. Many others thought peace was more important that equality but he stood for freedom and justice. But if I was in the House of Commons yesterday, I don’t think I would have been so strident. I wanted understanding, and I wanted peace. I wanted space for different views. And I wanted some understanding that just because something is claimed in the name of equality, that doesn’t automatically make it a good thing.

I didn’t pray enough for peace during the debate yesterday, but I will in the coming weeks. I know not what the weeks and months to come hold but I hope for a future where we can have civility and peace even if we think fundamentally different things. Perhaps I hope that those with the strongest of views can find a way that is better for all of us. Perhaps.

It’s been one of those days

FNT compassionIt was one of those days when I all I could find to take down details of a voice mail message was a paper plate.

I suppose today started at 10.30 last night. I got an email. The Times had the story: Steve Chalke supported active monogamous gay relationships, you can read all about it in Christianity Magazine. I knew a day destined to be busy because of the European Court of Human Rights judgement on four religious freedom cases was about to get a whole lot more hectic.

And through the day one thing turned over and over in my head. If we’re to call for civility in society and civility in dealing with situations where Christian beliefs rub up against differing prevailing views in society, then we need to model civility

Civility doesn’t ignore difference, but it seeks a way for us to live together despite our differences.

I work for the Evangelical Alliance (I might as well be honest about my affiliation) and that put us at the centre of today’s storms. When the role of faith in public life is under question, and potential legal coercion, it is a subject of interest – we want to articulate in a calm and reasonable manner what the upshot of these cases is, and also what it might not be. And when a figure with huge profile in the evangelical world makes statements such as Steve Chalke’s today, then it is something requiring a response.

But how to respond? How to speak honestly and thoughtfully on an issue such as homosexuality which carries with it such depth of personal experience and highly charged emotions. This answer is patently not to ignore it and hope it will go away. The answer is to search once again for that balance that lies at the heart of the Christian life: truth and grace.

It sounds trite, it sounds simple, it also sounds like a way to take a swipe at someone while parading Christian credentials. But I cannot think of two things that are needed more, in either of these discussions. But it is still how we should try and respond. In neither case would everyone be pleased, in neither case would everyone think the content or the tone was correct.

Disagreement might not always be nice. And in fact it rarely is. But conflict is also part of life and we cannot ignore it. I’m not going to set out the theological issues in play here, because I am both ill equipped and I think Steve Holmes has provided a strong but careful critique of Steve Chalke’s position. What I am going to float is that having a view about what is or is not the best way for a Christian to live does not stop Christianity, or any particular church from being inclusive.

Because if you take the opposite argument to a logical conclusion it makes it hard if not impossible to promote any values within the life of the church. This is not what Steve Chalke was saying, but the critique of the church for holding a certain view of homosexuality does not hold water if to change it is solely in pursuit of inclusion. The church believes in discipleship towards the likeness of Christ, and that means there are things we should do and others we should not. And it promotes a way of life in accordance to those goals. What this is definitively not is a threshold of moral achievement that allows us to call ourselves Christian or a ticket into heaven.

Instead it is building a community where we live in full acknowledgement of our frequent ability to get things wrong, but also set our sights on something else.

How the church can be more welcoming, more inclusive, is a challenge that cannot be ignored, and it is vital if we are ever going to get close to civility. But it cannot mean that the church just changes its teaching so not to risk alienating those who disagree. It is also where the difficult task of speaking truthfully comes in, being prepared to speak when we disagree, and most of all not forsaking our relationships with one another for the sake of being right.

That’s a tough gig. But it’s one the church has to rise to.