Reactions to yesterday’s news that top Church of England bishops believe marriage equality is the biggest threat to the church in 500 years are appearing from other members of the Church of England. Many are furious, others see it as one more step to irrelevance, and common themes “ridiculous” and “shameful.” Those who support marriage equality wonder if it is time for disetablishment and accuse the bishops of “dictatorship”.
Episcopal News Service has an excellent roundup of the story.churchstate (Richard Chapman & Simon Stanley. We resource bishops in the Lords & CofE in parliament. Usually on message, but views here are our own, not CofE policy) has been actively defending the statement.
The Church of England has spoken. And apparently, we are against gay marriage. We are not “anti-gay”, we hope you understand. After all, as the statement says: “We have supported various legal changes in recent years to remove unjustified discrimination and create greater rights for same sex couples.” Oh, no. We are not homophobic. It’s just that we (the straight religious people) think that if gay people are allowed to get hitched in church then that will ruin things for the rest of us. The presence of homosexuals at the altar, vowing lifelong love and fidelity, will devalue the institution of marriage. It would be like letting women join the Garrick.
Apologies for the sarcasm. But I am spitting blood about the latest ridiculous statement from the Church of England. First, it is worth exposing the straightforward lie that is expressed here – that the C of E hierarchy has been supportive of civil partnerships. It has not.
In the main House of Lords debate in June 2004 the majority spoke against it and voted six to one in favour of a wrecking amendment. The leadership of the C of E will do anything to keep gay people out of the church. It uses the sickly language of welcome but won’t let gay priests (even celibate ones) become bishops and is prepared to cut the Church of England off from the Episcopal church in the US because they do. At every turn, the Church of England treats gay people as an unwanted headache.
The other shameful aspect about this statement is that it purports to represent the views of the whole Church of England. “How can a church that is so divided on this issue produce so one-sided a statement?” asks a contributor to the Thinking Anglicans web site. Quite. This statement has not gone before General Synod for any sort of discussion. It has not been discussed at diocesan level. It has been put together by small team in Church House, Westminster, who purport to speak in the name of many thousands of people who will think the whole thing is complete tosh….
And finally there is the absurd hyperbole of the thing. “The greatest threat to the church in 500 years.” Do us a favour. Worse than the dissolution of the monasteries? Worse than secularisation? It is telling evidence of the irrational fear that the church leadership has of gay people that they are prepared to make such ridiculous statements.
Christian supporters of marriage equality have reacted with dismay to a formal statement from the Church of England today (12 June) opposing proposals for legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
The statement comprises the Church of England’s response to a government consultation on plans to grant same-sex couples the right to legally recognised civil marriage ceremonies in England and Wales. It makes clear that the denomination’s leadership is firmly opposed to the idea.
Critics have been quick to point out that the document does not represent the range of views to be found within the Church of England or in Christianity more widely. Same-sex marriage is supported by Anglican groups such as Inclusive Church, as well as wider Christian groups with Anglican members, such as Accepting Evangelicals and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
The Church of England statement accuses the government of seeking to “redefine” marriage, which has “always and everywhere” referred to the union of a man and a woman. A considerable part of the statement is devoted to insisting that men and women are fundamentally different and that marriage reflects this “biological complementarity”.
The second major argument in today’s statement is the claim that men and women are fundamentally different. It speaks of the “biological complentarity” of men and women. Marriage, it argues, “embodies the… distinctiveness of men and women”. It states, “To argue that this [difference] is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals”.
The Church of England leadership do not seem to have noticed the reality, diversity and uniqueness of the human beings they are called to serve. Of course, the writers of this document may well have major problems with transgender and genderqueer people. Disgracefully, the document doesn’t even mention the government’s proposal to scrap the outrageous practice by which a married person who transitions gender automatically has their marriage dissolved. But no-one can deny the reality of intersex people – those who are born without a clearly identifiable biological sex. This includes people whose genitalia do not “fit” with social categories, as well as those whose chromosomes do not “match” their genitals. About one in every 2,500 people are born intersex. Has the Church of England nothing to say about them, let alone to them?
As the theologian Susannah Cornwall points out, the significance of intersex goes beyond its statistical frequency. It disrupts any attempt to fit men and women into simplistic binary categories.
In the past, people argued against mixed-race marriage on the grounds that people of different races are fundamentally different. The vast majority of people in this country would now find such a claim to be morally and intellectually abhorrent. I hope the time will come when we are just as appalled when the claim is applied to people of different genders.
The CofE’s statement includes more scaremongering about the possibility of churches facing legal action for not carrying out same-sex weddings. This is extremely unlikely (not least because almost everyone campaigning for marriage equality respects the right of faith groups to make their own decisions on it). Further, it is only an issue because the Church of England is an established church. This position gives it both privileges and legal responsibilities. If top Anglicans want to have more freedoms, they need to give up their privileges.
The Guardian has a legal critique of the church’s stance:
… the church may be right about a potential human rights challenge to the changes as proposed in the equal marriage consultation. But it has inflated the chances of the challenge succeeding. More importantly, even if such a challenge was successful, it is inconceivable that a court would force any religious institution to perform a gay marriage; the most that it would do is rule that religious organisations should be given the choice. This is hardly earth shattering. The church’s concerns may be real but they should not be a bar to the proposals becoming a reality
A press release from the Church of England has been posted today. See below…
12 June 2012
In its submission to the Government consultation on same-sex marriage, which closes on June 14, the Church of England states it cannot support the proposal to enable “all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony”.
It adds that the consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious” – “this is to mistake the wedding ceremony for the institution of marriage”. Changing the State’s understanding of marriage will, therefore, change the way marriage is defined for everybody and, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary, will change the nature of marriages solemnized in churches and other places of worship.
The official Church of England submission sent to the Home Secretary under a short covering letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York also points out:
Several major elements of the Government’s proposals have not been thought through properly and are not legally sound. Ministerial assurances that the freedom of the Churches and other religious organisations would be safeguarded are, though genuine, of limited value given that once the law was changed the key decisions would be for the domestic and European courts.
Such a change would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which includes, for many, the possibility of procreation. The law should not seek to define away the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women.
The Church has supported the removal of previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships. To change the nature of marriage for everyone will deliver no obvious additional legal gains to those already now conferred by civil partnerships.
The submission concludes that “imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise”.
The full submission can be sent on request and will be online from June 12 at http://www.churchofengland.org/our-views/marriage,-family-and-sexuality-issues/same-sex-marriage.aspx
About a quarter of weddings in England take place in Church of England churches. Marriages in the Church of England increased by four per cent in 2010 to 54,700 compared to 52,730 in 2009, the biggest increase in any one year over the last 10 years; services of prayer and dedication also rose by two per cent to 4,020, up from 3,940.