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.


Lord Carey: a buffoon by any other name

As in roses, so in ex-Archbishops. The sweet smell of a rose, Shakespeare reassures us, will survive a name-change, and Lord Carey’s buffoonery has survived his ennoblement just as successfully. Today, in a ceremony as predictable as the feast it purports to defend, the provisional wing of the established church has once more trotted out its tired old message. Sounding just like my son’s Warcraft video game with its cry of, “We are under attack!”, the Lord Carey marshals his paranoid troops in the annual defence against an enemy every bit as mythological as the religion he so fervently believes to be the butt of sinister forces bent on its relegation to the sidelines of our national life.

With his causes célèbres of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, cruelly prevented by British Airways and the NHS respectively from wearing their crosses at work, and the odious Gary McFarlane who decided that his conscience was more important than the needs of his clients at Relate, the apoplectic bishop bemoans that Christianity is being treated as an irrelevance, and its dethronement irks him mightily. Along with these aggrieved individuals, we have the full panoply of all the rest of the “winter lights”, “Season’s Greetings”, and “watered down or non-existent Nativity plays”. He is wrong about all of it.

Wrong that cases such as the three individuals cited above have anything to do with “air-brushing” Christianity out of our public life. They have to do contractual obligations, uniforms, health and safety. In some cases, health and safety is applied too zealously, or uniforms are fetishised too strictly, but it’s got nothing to do with religion in general, and certainly nothing to do with Christianity in particular. At least Lord Carey seems to have refrained from the particularly pernicious lie that such restrictions “would never be applied to a Muslim”, although Mr McFarlane was unable to resist coming out with it on Radio 4 this morning.

Wrong that winter lights and festive trees have replaced the Christmas equivalents in town centres and municipal events. I’ve come this very evening from the turning-on of the Christmas tree lights in Manchester, the switch having been thrown by the Deputy Lord Mayor aided and abetted by the Cathedral’s Dean and a crowd of us freezing in the street after Choral Evensong.

Wrong that the secularising of Christmas is anything to do with his lurid conspiracy theories, and wrong that Christian individuals are persecuted and obliged to hide their faith under a bushel.

Of course, he’s not wrong that Britain is indeed now a Christian society only in a vague cultural and historical sense. And he’s perfectly entitled to regret that. I do myself. Just before going to the Cathedral this evening, I went looking for an Advent Calendar. All I could find were things called “Advents”, full of cheap chocolate on the inside, and Peppa Pig on the outside. Compared to the beautiful, glitter-encrusted Nativity scenes of my childhood, these tacky objects are debased indeed. But it’s idle for me to try and blame this on some conspiracy of politically correct zealots and new atheist storm-troopers. What Lord Carey and I have to accept is that we’ve lost the battle of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that our religious faith is not shared by the vast majority of our fellow citizens. It would behove us to look to ourselves, and our churches, for an explanation, and one indeed stares us in the face. It is our failure to demonstrate that the truths we believe to be “self-evident” can be re-stated in ways that resonate with our comrades in secular society.

And that would, actually, be the more Christian response. Lord Carey seems to have forgotten one of the basic tenets of the Good News he is supposed to be declaring. The churches are called to repentance, and the time for that is now. Stop pointing the finger, my Lord Archbishop, and instead examine your conscience.

Secularism, faith, and the public square

The Pope has raised almost as many hackles with his fulminations against “aggressive secularism” as he has with his alleged covering up of the paedophile activities of some of his priests. We have here an almost perfect example of how the same objective reality can be seen totally differently when surveyed from opposite perspectives. The secularists claim that religious faith has a privileged position in the public square that it doesn’t deserve. Christian groups (since by religion secularists almost always mean the Christian religion when they talk about Britain – unless they are thinking about arranged marriages or burkas) on the other hand talk about discrimination against them and the use of the state to enforce the secularist agenda. So how can these diametrically opposed conclusions be drawn from the same data?

I think the answer is simpler than we might imagine. Is is merely a consequence of the direction of travel between two hegemonies. The hegemony of religion (and in the West, exclusively of Christianity for the past 1,700 years or so) was so absolute for so long, that its retreat in the modern world has been precipitate even though it’s taken the best part of 300 years. Now, although the hegemony of science-based secularism is firmly established, it still suffers from the nervousness and anxiety that characterises movements that are not entirely confident of their victory. So secularists are hypersensitive to any flicker of life from the ancien régime. Conversely, the bastions of Christian tradition (and no bastion is more bastion-like than the papacy) look with horror on how quickly their grip on their erstwhile hegemony has been prised from their grasp. So they, in turn, are ever-ready to snarl and snap at the forces that they feel have robbed them of their birth-right.

But, inevitably, neither of these jaundiced positions does justice to reality. And neither of them is based on a proper submission to the evidence. Secularism cannot properly sustain its contention that only secularists can reason, whilst the religious cannot use the idea of revelation to dismiss secularism. We will get nowhere if both sides view the tensions between them as some gigantic game of whist in which their own side has the ace of trumps. Religion’s least valuable gift to society was the idea that, ultimately, their sense of receiving divine revelation is unarguable. Secularism will repeat that mistake if they try to argue that “any grown-up and reasonable person” would reject religious faith, and that those who haven’t are therefore both childish and stupid.

What we need is a public square which is less concerned with domination, and more concerned with adding to the sum of human wisdom. Whatever secularists may claim, faith has brought with it important notions of the absolute worth of human beings, and pointed out the dangers of secularism’s more utilitarian tendencies. Equally, faith has also brought with it terrifying reminders of other kinds of absolutism. If the public square can be a genuine arena for exchange, challenge, and respectful debate, then neither secularism nor faith need fear each other’s contributions. On the other hand, we all share a responsibility for ensuring that the public square does not degenerate into a bear pit. Both Pope Benedict and Richard Dawkins might ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering the discharge of that responsibility.

Secularist zealotry?

It used to be fairly straightforward. Religious people reckoned they could appeal to a higher authority when it came to mapping out the contours of moral rectitude. Atheists, agnostics and secularists generally pooh-poohed this appeal to the imaginary friends of faith on the basis that these friends were, well, imaginary and that whilst religious citizens were welcome to their private fantasies, they had no business visiting them on anyone else. The most obvious outcome from this was a broad division between the religious with their restrictive moralities, squaring up to the heathen with their free-thinking, anything goes liberalism. In other words the liberal-authoritarian axis led pretty consistently from the secular to the religious. A more liberal individual could be pretty well assumed also to be a less religious one.

If things were ever really that simple, I suspect that they certainly aren’t any more. In his article in the Guardian criticising the Bishops et al over the Equality Bill, Terry Sanderson is assuming some moral rectitude of his own. It’s not a rectitude that I personally take any issue with – I agree that any exemption on religious grounds from equality legislation should indeed be proportional – but it seems to me that Sanderson’s appeal is no less based on a sense of moral absolute than that of any religious zealot. His article appears to be driven not by any sense of morality, but simply by the legal demands of the EU Commission. But somehow I doubt it. Suppose, in a future dystopia, the EU Commission gets taken over by people who, backed by the conservative religious right that Sanderson seems to think are making ground in the UK, propose legislation preventing citizens from shopping on Sundays. Would Sanderson then support it just because it was the will of the Commission? Probably not. Secularists should be more honest about the sources of their moral compasses, and not pretend that moral compasses are only an issue for the religious. The Secular Society oppose the Bishops on the Equality Bill because they believe the Bishops to be morally wrong, and that discrimination against gay employees, for example, is wrong, not just that it happens to be unlawful. I agree. It is wrong. Ironically, despite Sanderson’s implication that I must be a right-wing nut-case, my sense that discrimination against gay people is wrong comes from my faith. Where does Sanderson’s come from? Not from democratic consensus, I hope, or he’ll be backing the return of the death penalty. Not from Darwinian natural selection, I hope, or the outlook for disabled people will be bleak indeed. Not from legislative diktat, I hope, or he’ll be supporting those countries with laws permitting the killing of homosexuals.

At least the morality of people of faith is transparently based elsewhere (even if the other place is imaginary), but ultimately that of secularists seems to be based only in their personal sense of right and wrong. Not on biology, not on consensus, not on law, but in their personal opinions. If you want to criticise or take issue with my moral sources, I can tell you where to look, and it’s not inside my own head. If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.