The CofE’s best way out of this gay marriage mess? Stop marrying anyone in church.

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.

France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

Pope Francis vs Archbishop Justin: God vs Mammon?

It’s quite unusual for a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury to be appointed in quite such temporal proximity, and it rather invites comparison. Justin Welby seems to have no potential skeleton in his ecclesiastical cupboard to compare with Francis I’s alleged conspiracy with a fascist military dictatorship, but in a way that merely underlines another contrast in their CVs. Justin has hardly any ecclesiastical back story of any kind, dubious or otherwise, having been a bishop for only months rather than years.

In what follows, I am not making any kind of personal criticism of either pope or archbishop. But I am struck by the symbolic contrasts in their respective appointments. Pope Francis’ reputation other than that of possibly cosying up to dictators is altogether more wholesome. He is widely described as modest, humble, and one to eschew the trappings of wealth, power and high office. He travelled on public transport in Buenos Aires, and declined to wear the ermine-trimmed shoulder-wear he was offered on being elected pope. His first public pronouncements have emphasised the need for a “poor church serving the poor”. How long this admirable outlook will be able to survive the inevitable disjuncture with papal palaces, sumptuous ceremony, and all the other worldly accoutrements with which the papacy has entangled itself for centuries remains to be seen. But the virtues for which he was elected pope seem to be spiritual first, and managerial second.

Compare the selection of Justin Welby. The key qualities for which he was chosen seem altogether more worldly. His experience as an oil executive seems to have been considered of much greater significance than his patent lack of experience as a bishop. His key tasks, it would seem, are considered to be more to do with managing the seemingly unmanageable fissures and disputes within the Anglican Communion than to do with any orientation of the church around a principle as basic as poverty. Let me emphasise again that in making this point I am not criticising the Archbishop, nor am I suggesting that his appointment was not a good one. He has certainly not shied away from taking on the Government on the issues of welfare reform, and I think that augurs well.

But I do think that the contrast I have drawn is not insignificant. In many ways both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have pressing internal problems to address: for the former pre-eminently that of sexual misbehaviour and its mismanagement, whilst for the latter it’s the corrosive disputes about gay priests and women bishops. Faced with such serious concerns, Anglicanism has chosen a manager from secular society, whilst Roman Catholicism has chosen a Jesuit concerned with fundamental principle.

It’s perhaps unfair to suggest that one has chosen God, and one Mammon. However, if either Church is to be able to overcome its current difficulties, the Roman Catholic hierarchy will need to show much greater managerial skill than it’s shown recently, whilst Anglicans will need to be less obsessed with sex, and more concerned with the Gospel. Perhaps Francis would have been a better Archbishop of Canterbury, and Justin a better pope!

Sex, the Church, and the Cardinal

Oh dear. Yet again the Roman Catholic Church has managed to bring itself into disrepute over sex. One feels the need to mangle Oscar Wilde: that to make a right royal sexual cock-up once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it repeatedly, indeed constantly, looks like carelessness. Not that carelessness even begins to cover it. The Church has managed, at every turn, to substitute rules for principles, obfuscation for clarity, and lies for truthfulness.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s catastrophic fall from grace, in a display every bit as spectacular as that of any unannounced meteor over Russia, seems almost to have been designed to concentrate all the Church’s confusions and dishonesties over sex – and gay sex in particular – into one super-saturated droplet of self-destructive poison.

Christianity’s moral principles could, at root, be distilled into two precepts: that we should consider others’ needs before our own; and that what we want is frequently not good for us, and even less good for others. Or, to put it more biblically, we should love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, and love God even more than we love ourselves. When applied to our sexual behaviour this means simply that we are not at liberty to indulge our sexual desires merely for our self-gratification, and that to do so is to put at risk our own health (in a holistic sense, not merely in the sense of disease) and that of our sexual partners. This is, in itself, quite a sufficiently counter-cultural position to take in a society that seems increasingly to want to sexualise everything, and to idolise (in its literal sense) the obtaining of sexual pleasure and satisfaction. It was never necessary for the Church to over-egg that pudding by adding prohibitions on particular sexual acts, or particular couplings – still less for it to relegate sexual activity itself to some sort of barely permissible pastime that can only be justified by the procreation of children.

But the Church has got itself into a right old mess. It’s created a male-only environment, and then been gobsmacked to discover that it has attracted a lot of gay men. It’s demonised homosexuality, and then looked aghast as its gay priests have found themselves obliged to conduct their sexual lives undercover and clothe their public lives in layers of hypocrisy. Having created a sexual underworld, it now discovers that its secrecy and denial have permitted it to be colonised by paedophiles and all kinds of other purveyors of sexual deviancy.

Seen in this light it’s hard to know if Cardinal O’Brien is more victim or more perpetrator. His hypocrisy in speaking out so vehemently against homosexuality whilst, apparently, indulging in that very activity in his private life, is indeed breathtaking. But at the same time, it seems to me, he has been as it were entrapped by an institution that has simultaneously both created a homosexual culture, and also denied the validity of homosexual expression. It can surely be no surprise that such contradictions have produced so much damage and human tragedy.

The cardinal’s sin isn’t really his hypocrisy, still less his homosexuality. It’s his lack of moral courage. Ultimately, I can’t condemn him. He is a victim, no less than those priests who so belatedly exposed him. Indeed, they are all victims of a Church that has got it all wrong about sex. And until it starts to get it right, there will be more sexual scandals, more cardinals exposed, more priests abused, and more victims in the pews.

There’s no right to be offended, but perhaps there’s no right to offend either

Many in the Islamic world are up in arms again. The American video is now followed by cartoons in a French satirical magazine, the BBC reports. France is taking precautions at its embassies and schools in Muslim countries. We’ve been here before, and will doubtless be visiting the same territory in future. In the meantime more innocent people will lose their lives.

The principles at stake are crystal clear. In contrast, the practical way forward is about as opaque as it’s possible to imagine. So let’s start with the easy bit, and establish the principles. I have a right to practise my religion without interference or constraint, other than where such practice abuses the rights of others. So no, I can’t freely practise my religion if that religion leads me to murder (as in the recent cases of “demonic possession”) for example, but if I want to waft incense around the place it’s no business of yours. I have the right to ask that my beliefs are accorded respect, but I have no right to demand that they are. I have no right whatsoever to demand of those who do not share my religious convictions, anything at all. I most certainly do not have the right to kill and maim those who profane my beliefs no matter how hurtful I might find that profanity. Whether the Islamic world likes it or not, it seems to me that these principles are inviolate.

So what should happen in practice? This is much more difficult. It’s tempting to elevate all matters of principle to the same level. The principle of free speech may seem to be so basic that every attempt to constrain it should be fought tooth and nail. But if, in pursuing my right to free expression, I have reason to believe that innocent people may well be brutally killed, should that give me pause? If people die because of the cartoons in that French magazine, notwithstanding that ultimate responsibility must lie with those who kill, and not with those who “provoked” the killing, is it sufficient to say that those deaths are merely an unfortunate collateral damage sustained in the fight for the assertion of freedom of expression?

I am in no doubt that a magazine in a free country should have the untrammelled right to publish any cartoon it bloody well likes, to include images of the Prophet Mohammed notwithstanding the views of those who think such a thing a blasphemy, and the devil take the hindmost. But I’m not at all sure that asserting that right is worth a single drop of other people’s blood. If I want to make a stand, I should make it at my expense. It’s all a bit too easy to make a stand when other people are going to pay the price, and pay it with their lives.

Once more unto the breach for gay marriage

Do please forgive me if I’m boring you, because I know I’ve written on this subject twice before. To be honest, even I don’t think that gay marriage is up there with environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation in the pantheon of things we should be most urgently fretting about, but the issue does seem to have an extraordinary ability to part people on all sides from any sense of proportion, or indeed, of any sense of sense.

For those who believe simply that gay marriage is an abomination in the eyes of Almighty God, and then leave it at that, I have some respect even if no scintilla of agreement. But the opponents of gay marriage seem far too embarrassed just to leave it at that, and instead feel constrained to make up all sorts of other spurious and, frankly, scaremongering additional objections. None of them, it seems to me, stand up to scrutiny.

So here’s a canter through some of the most often advanced additional reasons, beyond that of God’s personal displeasure, and why they make little or no sense.

  • That gay marriage will somehow make it impossible to bring children up properly in future. Aside from the rather obvious point that we don’t seem, as a society, to be doing a very good job of bringing up children properly now anyway, without gay marriage, this seems the strawriest of straw men. How exactly will the fact that some gay men and women are married impact on how I bring up my children in my heterosexual marriage? Will it be the embarrassment of having to explain these same-sex couples to my children during the supermarket run? If avoiding parental embarrassment were central to successful child-rearing, then sex education would disappear overnight. Insofar as this argument has any coherent basis, it generally seems to be something to do with making it more likely that the off-spring of unsuccessful heterosexual relationships will find themselves coerced into gay ones. Well, if that’s so bad, it happens now anyway. How will being coerced into a gay marriage be any more damaging than coercion into a gay civil partnership? The same argument applies to gay couples adopting. If it’s so wicked, why will it be more wicked if the couple is married?
  • That society is founded on marriage between a man and a woman, and to extend the concept to gay couples will knock society’s struts from under it. I happen to be a supporter of marriage (now – I haven’t always been) but if too few marriages are threatening society’s cohesion, I should have thought that adding more marriages would be a good thing. I fail entirely to see how permitting gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage. As a heterosexual married man, why would the sight of gay married men, for example, make me more likely to be unfaithful, or to abuse my wife? Were I to be tempted to gay unfaithfulness, then perhaps the knowledge that I was also threatening someone’s marriage might give me greater pause. Hang on, I’m starting to give this notion more credibility than it deserves. I’m not tempted to gay unfaithfulness largely because I’m not gay.
  • That it’s OK to have heterosexual marriage, and gay civil partnerships, but calling them all marriage will cause the heavens to fall. I rather doubt it. But the fear that it may do is based on an old misunderstanding – that equality between things is tantamount to saying that they are the same thing. That’s not true. To say that gay people and heterosexuals are equal in being married is not to suggest that gay relationships and heterosexual relationships have mysteriously become the same thing. A pound of carrots is equal to a pound of potatoes, but carrots are not potatoes. Gay and heterosexual marriages would be equal, but not the same.
  • That allowing gay marriage is simply a giving-in to selfish demands for the indulging and normalising of sexual perversion. This is the crux, actually. This is why the opponents of gay marriage are so vulnerable to the charge that they are simply homophobic. Once the legitimacy of gay sexual attraction is conceded, then all the other objections melt away. No less an authority on the subject of sexual desire than St Paul himself accepted that it is better to marry than to burn.

Thus there are only two real objections to gay marriage, and they are often merged together. God is implacably opposed to it, and/or homosexuality is a filthy perversion anyway. Either or both of those is an honest position to take. If you believe those things, say so and be damned. But don’t witter on about society, bringing up children, or changing what has always hitherto been understood as the nature of marriage. Just stick to your guns, and I’ll stick to mine.

Chance is a cruel mistress indeed

The appalling coach crash in a Swiss road tunnel in which 28 people died, amongst them 22 children, is one of those news stories that simply transfixes you in dumb, mesmerised horror. You don’t have to have children yourself to appreciate the awfulness of course, but for any parent I suspect this strikes a deep and heartfelt chord of anguished empathy. I simply cannot begin to imagine the shock and despair that must engulf the parents of these children. They sent their kids off for a fun-filled skiing holiday, and never saw them again.

One might think that losing a child in this way represents some kind of ultimate limit of suffering, a sort of absolute zero on the scale of emotional experience. But in this incident there’s another layer, a twisting of a knife that one might have thought could not be twisted any further. The coach in which so many children died was but one of a convoy of three. The other two coaches arrived unscathed in Belgium, discharging their occupants to the loving arms of their families.

The agony of having one’s child killed in the third coach must surely be cruelly aggravated by the inevitable thought that they might just as easily have been travelling in one of the other two. For the parents of those killed, the temptation to fall into a bitter jealousy of those parents of children in the other coaches must be almost irresistible. And in a symmetric but equally unfounded manner, the guilt experienced by the parents of the safe children must be just as overwhelming.

The need which we all have to make sense of events, to construct some sort of narrative that explains what things mean, that looks beyond “how” into the realm of “why”, makes us vulnerable to all sorts of distortions and tortures every bit as destructive as the meaninglessness from which we are trying to escape in the first place. In trying to rationalise events that in fact are devoid of meaning, we ironically create irrationality.

We know with our heads that there is no answer to the question, “Why was it my child that was in the coach that crashed?” No answer to why my child was spared when others were not. Yes, chance is indeed a cruel and unforgiving mistress.

In the face of such a mistress we have nothing to offer except our prayers. Meaningless fantasy in the face of meaningless events, many might feel. Yet if I were one of those grieving parents, I might take the prayers anyway. Anything is better than empty nothingness.