About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

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Gay Marriage Issues

 

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….

Bearing the Cross – or just Wearing the Cross?

Recently we saw cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about workplace discrimination against Christians.  If I heard it right (that was a busy day, so forgive me if I misheard) the basic results were

  • A lady working for BA had been improperly suspended for wearing a cross; the court felt that a discreet cross did not affect her performance in the job.
  • A nurse wearing a cross failed in her case because it was deemed possible in that context that the cross – or any jewellery – was a hygiene risk.
  • A registrar who refused to conduct gay civil partnerships and a marriage counsellor who refused to counsel gay civil partners failed in their claims that they had suffered discrimination.

All the ‘ifs and buts’ of the ‘gay marriage’ cases would make a long and tedious essay here; I’ll just make one point.  There has been a long history of Christians lording it over others in so-called ‘Christian countries’, and that has included making homosexuality illegal and subject to all manner of persecution and discrimination.  With Christianity largely losing that place in the state, despite the nowadays rather nominal ‘establishment’ of the Anglican church, gay people are essentially ‘fighting back’ and understandably are not willing to make any concessions to their erstwhile persecutors.   I invite my readers to consider how different things might have been if Christians, though still not approving of homosexuality, had not claimed such a place in the state and thus both Christians and gays had faced the state as bodies who dissented from the majority in the state and who also happened to disagree with one another.  Not a friction-free situation, I grant – but very different dynamics, I suggest, and as you’ll have gathered, my blog is advocating that different kind of church and different relationship of church and surrounding society.

Anyway, according to a newspaper today, the diversity quango[i] has been speaking again about such issues as the business of wearing crosses and other overt religious symbols, styles of clothing, etc.  So I’ve brought back thoughts I wrote at the time of those cases and I’m posting them now.

And my first question – where in the New Testament does it say we are to wear crosses like jewellery to show our faith?

In fact Christianity is remarkably free of any such obligatory symbolism; there are no dietary requirements, no dress code except reasonable modesty and no cross-dressing, no compulsory days of worship (Colossians 2; 16).  Even our one formal-ish ceremony, the communion, is a meal – and I’ve attended a fair few which have taken place in meal settings rather than as church services.  Anything of that kind that we do is voluntary, we’re not required to stand as martyrs for such things in the way that Jews have at times over Sabbath observance.  Yes, I know various denominations have over the years developed traditions about these externals, even among Anabaptists, but these are not truly biblical.

Bearing the cross’ is sort of compulsory; but that’s not about jewellery or symbolically carrying a big cross around like Arthur Blessitt used to; it’s about risking martyrdom by being faithful to Jesus as Lord and facing the possibility that you too may be crucified or whatever penalty your country applies to the non-conformist.  ‘Bearing the cross’ has in the past meant being literally crucified by Nero, thrown to the lions by other Roman emperors, being drowned as an early Anabaptist or imprisoned like John Bunyan, sent into Hitler’s concentration camps or Stalin’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ or more recently facing either a legal death penalty or an illegal lynching in many Muslim states.  To say you are being persecuted because you aren’t allowed to wear a cross at work is, I fear, trivial in comparison.

Not totally unimportant, of course; it is at any rate an indication of changes in the status of Christianity in Britain.  It is because of such changes that many believe we are entering a period that can be described as ‘Post-Christendom’, the fading of the era when Christianity dominated in the West.  Of course we still see many aspects of that era including big ones like the continued existence of an established church in England, but it seems that society has now changed so much, passed through so many ‘tipping points’, that it’s unlikely the trend will be reversed. 

For ‘Anabaptists’ like me (See Setting out my Stall for a brief explanation) the decline of Christendom is seen as a good thing; the start of it when Constantine nationalised the Church in his Empire we regard as a mistake.  We do see it wasn’t all bad, but it ultimately distorted much of what the Bible teaches about our faith, and we believe it is now long overdue to abandon that idea and return to a more biblical way to run God’s church.  When Britain was a ‘Christian country’ other religions (including for a long time non-conformist Christians), agnostics and atheists could face discrimination, even into my lifetime.  Now the balance has shifted and atheists and agnostics particularly have started aggressively attacking many things Christians used to take for granted – like wearing crosses as jewellery.  Often the pretext is political correctness supposedly not wanting to offend Muslims etc., but often those of other religions say that it doesn’t in fact worry them, so it looks as if really this is unbelievers getting their own back for the time they were subjected to discrimination.

Those who still think in Christendom terms are often very upset by these attacks; and respond by loud complaints about ‘persecution’ and by trying to reassert that old privilege – look at George Carey the other week.  To me, this is unhelpful, and likely to have a ‘Cry Wolf’ effect so we don’t get taken seriously over things that do matter.  It would be better to admit the wrongness of Christendom and recognise these minor irritations as the pretty much deserved response to the improper privileges Christians used to enjoy and the discrimination they used to practice themselves.

Rather than aggressively fight for minor issues we need to take some time out and work out far better which issues really matter.  Where they don’t matter so much we should sit light to them and be ready to give them up ourselves voluntarily before others even start harassing us; meanwhile in the ones that really matter we will be ready to ‘obey God rather than men’ and in those cases meaningfully ‘bear the cross’ following Jesus. 

Not for our own sake but for our fellow-citizens we Christians should be giving thought to the right and just way to handle these issues in the state.  But face it – we’ll have no credibility if it looks like we’re just trying to hang on to the rags of former privilege; that we need to give up, and not as a ‘sacrifice’ but as a recognition of something we shouldn’t have had in the first place.  We need to repent towards God for the things we and other Christians have done in his name.


[i] When I put ‘quango’ in, my spell-checker didn’t like it, and suggested ‘guano’ as an alternative.  Hummm!