Currently suffering workmen in the flat, I haven’t been able to prepare much for a few weeks, I’ve resorted to re-using something I originally wrote in response to someone else’s blog; his topic was the then headlining ‘gay marriage’ issue. I’ve slightly edited for its role on my blog….
What many people haven’t realised is that there is a constitutional issue because of our established church in England which means that the gay marriage/civil partnership thing is rather more than just playing with words.
People in society make all kinds of legal relationships of varying degrees of formality, including business deals of all kinds, family affairs, etc. Some kinds of relationship are so common, and often affect others, that the state provides legal ‘templates’ to facilitate and regulate those relationships/contracts/covenants/ wills, etc. In some cases, these relationships are so valued by the state, and considered worthy of encouragement, that the state offers various kinds of benefit to those in the relationships, such as tax breaks. Family agreements – some private, some state recognised – may confer inheritance rights, next of kin rights, and so on. Marriage has been such a relationship until recently, though there have been some changes.
In a pluralist society, such legal templates of relationships should be largely neutral – that is, they should be about what is convenient in the state, not what one or other religion believes; and they should be available on an equal basis. In a specifically religious society some such situations will be defined by the religion in question and the state’s support of the relationships may be biased by that priority.
Exactly how these provisions might best be changed for an equitable settlement in a plural society is probably too complicated to discuss here. The key for us is to be clear on the Christian position, which is that we don’t expect a privileged position for ourselves in society. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth as ‘resident aliens’; we do marriage voluntarily because we obey God, not because we get tax breaks or because it’s the law of the land. If society provides an acceptable framework for our marriages in some sort of civil partnership, we can of course use it.
The current position in our society is that though we are very nearly a fully pluralist democracy, technically we are still a ‘Christian state’ with an established church of which the monarch is earthly ‘supreme governor’. Therefore in England other beliefs and practices – even though now realistically the majority – are still only ‘tolerated’ rather than fully and equally accepted. Marriage in the Church of England is therefore still technically slightly privileged and separate in some ways from the system under which civil and non-conformist marriages are conducted. For gay people, if the Church of England, the state church, continues to see gay life as inferior and refuses to ‘marry’ them in that church, this is essentially still discrimination not just in but by the state itself, whose church the C of E is. They will not be satisfied that they are equal until the state church gives them the full recognition they seek – in this case, equality in the state’s Anglican church including marriage by its rites.
Equally, so long as the state refuses to tackle this issue of the established church, any debate we have on marriage is going to be confused by the special privileged status of Anglicanism and to a lesser extent of Christianity in general, and therefore the debate will be unsatisfactory. The Anglicans themselves will be facing serious conflict between on the one hand the desire to continue their special place in the state, and on the other hand the desire to uphold the moral teaching of Christianity on gay issues.
There is really no way out of this conflict so long as Anglicanism remains a state church. Which might be OK if that was what the New Testament itself teaches; but my reading is precisely that the NT does not teach that, but teaches a very different way for God’s people to live in the various states throughout the world. In the NT, it is the Church itself which is God’s holy nation, and no earthly nation can properly make itself a ‘Christian country’. This doesn’t just affect the gay issues; I was first drawn to consider the ‘Christian country’ issue by seeing its effects in Ulster when the ‘Troubles’ kicked off while I was a student in the late 60s, and it’s also very relevant to all the current problems with Islam.
If Christianity does not have a privileged position in society, the whole issue becomes different; including the proposition that in a truly plural democracy we are entitled to disagree with the gay lobby and others so long as we don’t want our disagreement to be expressed by discrimination by the law. Again, working that out in detail will need a separate post in future….