A new entry in the gay marriage debate is offered to us this week by the Church of England, which has responded to a UK government public consultation on the proposal to legally recognize same-sex marriages by reaffirming its position that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
The consultation concerns only civil marriages, and the government has been at pains to point out that no member of the clergy would be forced to perform marriages between couples of the same sex. Undeterred, the Church – in a convoluted yet spectacularly feeble piece of circular reasoning – argues that there is no distinction in English law between religious and civil marriages, and then professes dismay that the proposal, if enacted, would create a single, nondiscriminatory state of “marriage”.
The Church’s response, as it must, pays lip service to the biblical concept of marriage as “a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh”, but what it is really worried about is that its traditional role in facilitating marriages with “full state recognition” would be weakened. But it has no such role. Apart from a brief period in the 18th and 19th centuries, no religious minister has ever been required under English law to solemnize a marriage. Marriages performed by a Roman Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, or according to the rites of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, or any other faith, are perfectly legal. And for those who do not feel the need for their nuptials to be blessed by the man in the sky, legally recognized, formal, secular ceremonies have been available to anyone wishing to get married in England since 1837.
The Church is on less steady ground still, having softened its stance on gays and lesbians in general in recent years. It now supports civil unions for same-sex couples with equivalent rights to marriage, which are already legal in England. So its objection now rests on the unconvincing lament that “the definition of marriage [would have] to change for everyone”, without offering any explanation of how this would adversely affect “traditional” male-female couples. It does not even seem to be in touch with the mood of its own flock, with at least one recent poll finding that a majority of self-declared Christians support full legal equality for heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Unlike the United States, with its constitutionally secular government, the Church of England is the official state religion: the monarch is the head of the Church, senior bishops sit in the House of Lords and can vote on legislation, and many important state ceremonies and functions have a religious component. So perhaps it should not be surprising that it is having difficulty coming to terms with its steadily diminishing significance in English life. Censuses and other surveys consistently show the numbers of adherents of other faiths – and of no faith at all – continuing to grow and membership of the Church of England continuing to shrink.
And this is far from the first time it has been called upon to re-triangulate its position on the moral high ground. This is the Church, for example, that takes a strong official stance against the sin of gambling – despite the fact that it is one of the biggest players on the London Stock Exchange. In 2008, at the height of the economic crisis, the Church went on record condemning the practice of short selling – and were then caught doing it themselves. And recently, bishops who voted against a Conservative welfare reform bill were taken to task because their personal chauffeurs receive a salary lower than some of the benefits they voted to preserve.
It is high time that the Church of England realized what the monarchy, and in particular the current Queen, have long known: its proper role as a constitutional body in a modern democracy is, or should be, purely ceremonial. As an Englishman and a British subject, I have no issue with the monarch having to be an Anglican, with the national anthem being “God Save the Queen”, or with Church rites being part of state ceremonies and occasions such as the opening of Parliament or royal weddings. These institutions give our nation a unique structure and identity and provide continuity with our history. And even to an irreligious person like me, there is something reassuring about the presence of the parish church at the centre of every community; and it is impossible to enter one of our ancient cathedrals and not feel a great sense of calm and connection with the past, even among the bustle of tourists in its vaulted spaces.
Strangely enough, the Church’s way out of this moral battle with the secular government – which it is bound to lose – lies in one of its great strengths: the bottom-up structure with which it governs itself. Unlike the Roman faith, in which papal directives are expected to be adhered to by the global Catholic diaspora, the pronouncements of Church of England archbishops and bishops are not binding, and parishes largely run their own affairs. It is the local parish councils and committees who manage finances and who appoint their own clergy – albeit usually on the recommendation of a bishop. These clergy have their own styles and visions for the congregations they serve: there are traditionalist Anglo-Catholic parishes, moderate liberal parishes, charismatic evangelical parishes, and just about every kind of parish in between.
This is the way the Church resolved the question of whether to ordain women as priests, a similarly emotive issue that dominated ecclesiastical debate during the 1990s. Bishops who did not agree with the ordination of women were not forced to do so; and parishes that were uncomfortable with female clergy were free to refuse to appoint them. There were plenty who still would: it was a satisfactory compromise. In a similar vein, it is likely that, should full gay marriage rights become law, the Church will remain publicly unhappy about it but will not take punitive action against clergy who marry same-sex couples. In due course, as we look back on this debate, we will wonder, as we wonder now about the furor of twenty years ago, what all the fuss was about.