Radio 4’s early-morning Ramblings programme is a very unlikely-seeming place to discover a sexually radical niche in the schedules, but presenter Clare Balding is gay and there seem, to this casual listener, to be quite a number of same-sex couples walking with her. The other morning the conversation involved a lady who naturally mentioned her wife as not being a great walker and disagreeing about the way to manage dogs. I still do a slight mental double-take when I hear the language of marriage applied to same-sex couples and am not completely sure why.The Church as a whole has rather less mild reactions, but the CofE’s response to the Government’s consultation paper on same-sex marriages marks a very important step in developing its ideas. I say ‘developing’ because it’s not very clear what those ideas are, no more clear than mine as an individual.
The CofE’s ideas on marriage have been able to stay vague because the Anglican Church has been shielded by its legally-privileged position from having to think. As European countries succumbed to revolution and occupation over the centuries they developed their legal systems in a direction which left Britain behind. Elsewhere, the Church, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, or whatever, doesn’t have the right to legalise marriages: the State does that and, if people want a religious marriage too, they do it on another occasion. In England and Wales Anglican clergy act as registrars, as State functionaries, for marriages, and a legally clotted and convoluted business it is too. Ministers of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland used to do the same, but surrendered this right in 1977. One of the benefits for the Anglican Church has been that it hasn’t had to decide how what it does when it marries people is any different from what the State does: the law assumes, as the Response points out, there is a pre-existing thing called ‘marriage’ and two different ways, one religious, one secular, of legally entering into it. Both versions are the same.
The Response says that what the British Government is proposing creates a new situation in which there are two separate things, religious marriage and civil marriage. This is absolutely correct, but it’s only what happens everywhere else in the Christian world.
The Church’s next argument is that it doesn’t trust the legal safeguards the Government is promising to prevent it from having to preside over same-sex unions and shielding clergy who refuse to carry them out from prosecution. It has a point. When I marry a couple, I’m acting as a State functionary, and it’s not unreasonable for the State to expect me to carry out the whole of what it means to be a State registrar. I can’t pick and choose who I agree to marry. There have been parallel cases where Christian professionals have been prosecuted, in my view sometimes rightly, for refusing to carry out the duties of their job as it may relate to areas that affect their conscience – the therapist who didn’t want to counsel a same-sex couple, for instance. The Church’s argument that the European Court of Human Rights may well refuse to recognise any exemptions the British Government may grant to the duty to marry has a certain amount of weight. But you can argue the other way too. At the moment, as an Anglican clergyman, I don’t have to marry divorcees or ‘persons of acquired gender’ if I don’t want to, and neither of those positions has been affected by equality legislation. So that’s a moot point.
Not mentioned in the Response itself, but in the public discussion of it, is the possibility that, if such exemptions were overturned legally, it would mean the Church of England having to withdraw from conducting legal marriage services and thus weaken the Establishment of the Church. Other than that being legally extremely complicated, it’s difficult to see why too many people should care about the ‘weakening of the Establishment’. OK, it may be a bit of a shame, but the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church can hardly trump the legal rights of same-sex couples. What nobody talks about openly is the amount of money the Church would stand to lose if it no longer carried out its legal role in marriage. At the moment every couple who marry in an Anglican church pay at least about £350 for doing so, roughly half of which stays with the local church while the other half passes up to the diocese. That’s not including fees for things like certificates, flowers, bells, music and so on. It’s not a huge amount of money, but multiplied by the quarter of all marriages in England the Church conducts at the moment, and it more than covers the canapés at the Bishop’s tea party.
These are all pretty thin arguments. Behind them is a basic lack of clarity about what marriage is and therefore why same-sex couples shouldn’t marry. And that’s no surprise to me.
I’ve just been back to my theological college notes to look at what we were taught about marriage. There’s a single A4 page reflecting one 45-minute lecture, two-thirds of which are taken up with Scriptural quotes about divorce. The closest we got to thinking about what marriage was and what it was for was the first bit of the lecture, on ‘Models for Understanding Marriage’, with beneath the heading the four words, ‘Contract – Creation ordinance – covenant – sacrament’. Even the ‘sacrament’ bit, to judge by my notes, was mainly about the technical details of how the ritual works and its dissolubility, which is typical Western-Catholic thinking. None of it thought about how marriage actually related to real people and what they did with one another.
That wasn’t a lot of help. It didn’t answer the question of why the Church marries people at all. I’ve only developed my ideas about what marriage is since being ordained, partly through the business of having to take couples through the process of preparing for their wedding, talking and listening to them and their experiences. I think most people, including most Christians, have a ‘rites of passage’ model of the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism for babies, marriage for adults, funerals when you’re dead. It’s completely natural, and completely wrong. Only when you see the sacraments as signs of God’s saving work going on in us that you come to view them differently. Baptism is the sign of the rebirth of the natural human life into the divine, raised life of Jesus; the funeral office proclaims the hope of the resurrection as witnessed in the life of one particular human being. So what is the sacrament of matrimony about? Why marry people in a religious rite?
From my conversations and reading – especially Orthodox theologians – I got as far as this: marriage is, as one writer put it, the sacrament of rage. It takes natural human love, which involves sexual desire, and puts it into a situation which demands commitment, compromise, the dealing together with mutual anger and sorrow. Of course many other human relationships do this to some degree, but marriage is voluntary, exclusive, and intense in a way that no others are. A good marriage becomes God’s means of processing sin and hurt: it bears fruit. The basic linkage of sex with procreation comes in here: the generation of children from their parents’ sexual relationship is a sign of the fruit the marriage bears in other forms too. Not, as the Response recognises, all marriages result in children, but that’s the model which lies behind the ritual: the union of difference, the processing of cosmic damage, the emergence of fruit.
At this point we come to the most important of the Response’s statements. Firstly, and dramatically, it acknowledges the presence of positive virtues in same-sex relationships: “Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage”, it states. That raises the question of what heterosexual relationships do which homosexual ones don’t. Clearly the difference lies in, well, difference, as the Response suggests:
However, the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.
Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.
To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals. It also undermines many of the arguments which support the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions on the grounds that a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender.
Here we actually get at something worthwhile and substantial, even if it’s expressed in vague terms. It will be difficult for the Church to make its case over this, partly because society is indeed very busy working on the assumption that men and women are interchangeable in every way that matters, and past oppression of women was justified for so long on objectionable assumptions of sexually-determined differences that such a reaction is quite understandable. You don’t have to spend much time dealing with real men and women, especially real men and women in relationships with one another, to discover that they differ; but in what, and where these differences may come from, is contested ground. The Church’s discovery of complementarity fits in with the conclusions I’ve come to, in so far as any of them are settled, through actually talking to men and women in sexual relationships with each other, but I don’t think it really understands it any more than I do. Nonetheless, here are the beginnings, the first inklings, of a proper, clear theology of Christian marriage. Christian marriage is a sign of the model of Christian relationships generally. The problem with marrying people of the same sex is that they are not different enough to be effective signifiers of what Christian marriage represents.
To think about another sacrament: the wine of the Eucharist represents the blood of Jesus; it is an effective signifier of blood in its fluidity and redness, and of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in its burning quality and intoxicating effect (not that you drink enough to be intoxicated unless you’ve over-provided). The Church’s law provides that, in extreme circumstances, you can consecrate water instead of wine if no wine is available. You can’t consecrate ink, though, because it’s not intended for drinking and is too far away from the thing it signifies to be an effective signifier. Two people of the same sex in the marriage rite are in that position: their relationship may be perfectly valid for what it is, but it’s too far away from the thing it wants to signify to represent it effectively. A sacrament doesn’t necessarily present what is, but what is supposed to be.
The Response is absolutely right when it says that the Government’s proposals represent a change in what the law has hitherto presumed marriage to be. Where it’s wrong, I think, is that the Church assumes British society hasn’t already made that shift. I believe it has. For most people, marriage simply means ‘two people who love each other promising to stay with each other’. They can’t understand what the Church’s problem with same-sex marriage is, because as far as they can see Christian marriage is just about the Church saying, ‘Here are two people who love each other, isn’t it lovely, thanks very much God’ with lots of dressing up and parading about. And the Church, frankly, has allowed them to believe that and lots of other nonsense as well. A proper Christian idea of marriage is only beginning, shyly and reluctantly, to emerge, under the pressure of challenge. As for society as a whole, its idea of marriage doesn’t need to be ‘diluted’, it already has been.
The general response of the Christian Churches to the prospect of same-sex marriage is, at least in part, a howl of pain at being forced, for the first time, to work out what it actually thinks in the horrible knowledge that most people don’t understand it any more. The Church isn’t in a position any longer to enforce its views; and refusing people of the same sex the ability to participate in society’s new definition of marriage that institution is plainly iniquitous. The separation of Christian and secular ideas of what marriage is has already happened and the Church hasn’t even realised it. Well, it’s starting to. This is a process that has to be undergone. If I and other priests lose our legal status as regards marriages, so, with ambivalent feelings, be it.