Way back in the mists of time, before secular gay marriage was a thing, I wrote this:
“What we need to do is to separate out the legal issues from the rest. It is no longer tenable for one particular religious perspective to hold sway over the whole of society. Freedom of belief demands that the Christian church (and other faiths that have doctrines on partnership) should be able to determine whatever religious restrictions they believe proper in religious marriage, and I totally reject the idea that the law should be able to impose, for example, same sex marriages on the church. As I’ve already said, I want my church to move to that position, but until it does I must just keep fighting. I do not look to secular society to do that job for me. But the quid pro quo is clear: the church must give up its traditional claim to define what marriage is for all of society. If we had a single estate of legal partnership that applied to all regardless of sexuality, and which dealt with the wide issues of property relationships between couples, religious and other groups would then be free bolt-on their own particular perspectives in their own way.
The church has its own word for marriage (albeit shared with Indian religions): matrimony. It’s ironic that the root of this seemingly patriarchal system is mother, but let that pass. Let marriage be the one word that all couples use, gay or straight, but let it also be limited to describing the civil contract between couples. And let religious folk determine what matrimony means to them, without civil interference. If humanists, atheists or anybody else also want to design their own additional ceremonies and meanings, let them do that too.”
Well, we’ve come some distance since then, but the poor old Church of England still seems determined to tear itself apart on the issue regardless.
I think the time has come for a completely different take on this whole business, and I want to develop what I was saying on the debate about gay marriage back when that debate was as yet unresolved.
The Church of England operates, in its deep and misguided fantasy, as if it were still the institution both of God and of the State. I’m not here interested in things like the Lords Spiritual sitting in the upper chamber of Parliament or the Queen being the Supreme Governor of the Church: I’m here concerned with its desire to operate as both the guardian of national Christianity, and as the arbiter of morality for society as a whole.
Whether those of us in the Church like it or not, we’ve long since lost the latter of these functions. We live in a society that has a multiplicity of moral and ethical understandings coming from a multiplicity of sources.
So, we need clearly and explicitly to separate out the Church’s understanding of matrimony as a sacrament (about which the vast majority of society gives not a fig) from society’s understanding of marriage.
And that means accepting that priests in the Church of England should no longer be able to marry anyone, gay, straight or with any other sense of identity as a sexual person. Marriage is a matter of legality, it’s matter of property, it’s a matter of tax, it’s a matter of inheritance. And it’s a matter for the state, not for the Church.
Once the Church is prepared to give up its right to marry people in the secular sense, it no longer needs to worry about the laws of equality as they are currently expressed. It becomes then a purely theological and sacramental issue, which it is no more the state’s business to pry into and determine than it is the Church’s business to dictate to the state what secular marriage is about, or for.
Then we will be free to have that sacramental and theological debate inside the Church. And one thing the Church of England has proven itself to be quite good at is its ability to encompass theological and doctrinal opposites within the same Body of Christ.
It’s become a popular pastime to ridicule this ability, whether it be about women bishops, or women in the priesthood at all, or fundamentalism, or high Catholicism, or any other of a myriad of ways in which most of us in the CofE find ourselves in virulent opposition to many of our brothers and sisters in Christ about almost any old thing you care to mention.
I don’t ridicule it. I celebrate it. None of us knows the right answer to anything if we’re truly honest. I can see no reason at all why we could not have some churches in which gay matrimony is welcomed and celebrated, and others where it isn’t, just as we have some where women bishops and priests are welcomed and some where they are shunned.
So let’s stop marrying anyone in church. Let them get married by the state. And start instead celebrating the sacrament of matrimony with all the rich diversity of understanding that only the Church of England is capable of containing.