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On Gay Rights, a Church Shows Its Irrelevance

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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.

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About Dr Dreadful

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    As you know, I’m a fairly religious individual and am strong in my support of the Church of which I’m a member. There are areas where I disagree, and homosexuality and gay marriage is one of those areas. For those who are tired of the old “God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve” line that homophobes use all too often, there’s an easy way to defeat it: ask them why it is, then, that God allows natural-born hermaphrodites. Oh, they’ll say that such are very rare, but the obvious reply is “All it takes is ONE naturally-born hermaphrodite to prove that God did NOT make “only men and women”.”

    But then, as you know, there’s all too many for whom “science” has somehow become four-letter word.

  • One might also confuse them by pointing out that in France, Adam and Yves can be a gay couple.

  • Clav

    “All it takes is ONE naturally-born hermaphrodite to prove that God did NOT make “only men and women”.”

    Or, as is the reality, that there IS NO god…

    god is a creation of humans too frightened to contemplate (and accept)the truth that the only meaning their lives have is what takes place here on Earth; that there is nothing beyond death.

  • Clav

    Funny, Doc! (Also true)

  • STM

    Nice one Doc. I think it’s hilarious that the CofE is the state church … but events overtook them hundreds of years ago and they are – as you say – consigned to the margins despite what the statute books and the constitution say.

    No one give’s a rat’s … same deal, having the same monarch – The Queen of Australia – and all that.

    Interestingly, despite the UK not having separation of church and state officially and the US officially having that separation, the Churches in England have virtually no sway over politics in any way shape or form, while in the US the opposite is true. Religion holds huge sway over US politics.

    Try being a presidential candidate in the US and running for office and saying you’re “not much of a Christian”, as British PM David Cameron did. You would simply make your exit from the presidential race there and then.

    Yet in Britain, it didn’t affect Cameron’s chances in the slightest.

    In Australia, a PM could say they were agnostic, perhaps even atheist, and it would make a difference to their chances provided they were up to the job of running the country.

    In a secualr state, exactly as it should be.

    Such contradictions are worthy of note, one way or the other. Lip service and all that …

  • Funny thing is, Stan, I have a strong suspicion that at least the last five or six US presidents are/were also “not much of a Christian”. I think Carter was the last truly devout one.

  • Stan, it is not entirely true that the Church of England (as opposed to the Churches in England) has no sway in politics. It has 26 members of our unelected upper House of Lords, the Lords Spiritual as they are called.

    As such, not only do they have the right to introduce legislation, they also have direct access to the innermost workings of government at all levels.

    Not only that, most politicians appear to be religious and some go to great lengths to conceal it, such as that notable political scumbag Tony Blair who secretly converted to Catholicism whilst in office. He also admitted, after the fact, that his religious beliefs influenced his decision to go to war in Iraq.

    Cameron is also playing games with the British public. According to Wikipedia “Speaking of his religious beliefs, Cameron has said: “I’ve a sort of fairly classic Church of England faith”. He states that his politics “is not faith-driven”, adding: “I am a Christian, I go to church, I believe in God, but I do not have a direct line.” On religious faith in general he has said: “I do think that organised religion can get things wrong but the Church of England and the other churches do play a very important role in society.”

    Questioned as to whether his faith had ever been tested, Cameron spoke of the birth of his severely disabled eldest son, saying: “You ask yourself, ‘If there is a God, why can anything like this happen?'” He went on to state that in some ways the experience had “strengthened” his beliefs”.

  • Chris, I did note in the article that bishops sit in the House of Lords. The incident with the Conservative MP getting in high dudgeon over the bishops voting against welfare reform is far from isolated.

    However, as you know, the Lords is itself largely a toothless body, and the Commons generally has the final say on everything. So, though any member of the Lords including a bishop may be able to introduce legislation, it has no chance of becoming law without the support of the governing party in the lower chamber.

  • Indeed you did, Doc D; my comment was addressed to Stan and his earlier comment.

  • Patrick Smith

    Can I suggest a resolution to the Homosexual Marriage thing. Why not let them all have their own way, through their own religious infrastruture. Their Church, their gay/les ministers, their documents. Nothing then, to do with Hetrosexuals or the CoE. Let them have it all, their way, so they`re not in confrontation with hetrosexuals. They are what they are until science can resolve it.

  • zingzing

    seperate but equal, eh, patrick? i’m sure you can see where this is going…

  • zingzing

    ahem, separate, clavos.

  • Until science resolves what, Patrick?

    There are many questions that have been resolved by science but that churches still aren’t happy about: for example, the age of the Earth, the evolution of life, or the origins of man. If it were scientifically determined once and for all that human homosexuality is natural, what makes you think the Church of England or any church would change its mind?

    Likewise, there are many questions that science is not in the business of resolving: for example, whether contraception is moral, whether a terminally ill person should be able to end his or her own life, or whether there should be capital punishment.

  • STM

    Chris, my comment was based around the idea that the bishops sitting in the house of lords have no real power, as Doc points out too. I don’t believe the Church of England holds much sway at all in British politics, beyond pandering to and appealing to the curtain-peeker types who might have The Daily Mail delivered to their doorsteps every day.