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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Great Marriage Debate

I'll come straight out and admit that I regard the near hysteria of certain sections of the Church of England over the proposal to call the union between two people a "marriage" regardless of their sex, a little less than truly Christian. It is predicated on the doctrine of the Church which describes "marriage" as being between a man and a woman for the purposes of procreation. It also draws on the Bible (KJV canon) and one frequently hears a quote of one of the three texts which are generally interpreted as injunctions against same sex relationships. Interestingly, in the Vulgate Canon of books and translations, the number of texts is down to two and a maybe ... But, the context is very important when reading these in any version.

Most Christian professions argue that the Bible requires us to "love the sinner; loathe the sin." In the case of homosexuality, this means loving the "Gay" and loathing the sexual act. It is a very tricky balancing act, because it can easily become a weapon against any person who admits being in a "relationship." Much of this is also driven by the interpretation of the "sin" of Sodom and Gomorrah as being sexual, whereas it is actually their breaking of the sacred rules of hospitality to the stranger that is the cause of their downfall. Likewise, the "sin" of Onan is not the act he commits to avoid making the woman pregnant, but the fact that he is defying God by NOT making her pregnant.

First of all, the present concept of "marriage" is of fairly recent date. Yes, there is a "marriage rite" in the earliest CofE Prayer Books, just as there was in the Roman Catholic missals. But this doesn't necessarily mean everyone went through that process. Many didn't. As recently as the 19th Century many couples simply "cohabited" as the process involved in getting "married" could be extremely protracted, expensive and fraught with difficulty. In the early 19th Century, in parts of Britain, "fairs" were still being held where a farmer or farm labourer could bring along his "wife" and trade her for another. According to one source I have read it was really only from the 14th Century onwards that the "common" people began to ask the church for a formal "blessing" of their marriages. This was driven, in part, by a desire to mark such a union in the same manner as their overlords.

The Church has always had a view on marriage, but in early Roman times it was the Civil Law that governed this. Marriage was an contract between families. For the commoner, it was a much less formal affair.

In most of Europe we have a system where anyone wishing to get married MUST undergo a "civil" ceremony and may then have a church ceremony. Most have also, sensibly, termed the civil side a "civil partnership" or, where it is still a marriage, have a "civil partnership" ceremony for those of the same sex. It is a purely legal matter necessitated by the laws of inheritance which dictate who inherits what and when. Unlike Britain, where I could leave my entire estate to a home for disabled bats, in Germany that would not be considered a valid bequest unless my "heirs" - in the first instance my wife and in the second my children - waived their right to inherit. It is the law regarding "inheritance" which is bedevilling this debate in the UK. However, there are a number of other small problems with any change to the legal definition.

The first is that the CofE Vicar, in his legal position as "Priest of the Parish" is usually also a Marriage Officer. This means that marriage in a Church of England Parish is recognised as legally binding. If one marries in a Non-Conformist Church where the Minister is not a Marriage Officer, one would then have to undergo a Civil Marriage with a Registrar of Marriages for it to be legal and binding. Changing the law to make the CofE Vicars "marry" same sex partners creates a difficulty for the whole Church in that it is completely contrary to the Churches teaching regarding the purpose and nature of "marriage." This does create a moral dilemma for the Vicar. If he follows the teachings of the CofE, he must actually defy them to perform the ceremony. The Table of Kindred and Affinity isn't much help here either, since those who drafted it never envisaged a union between two members of the same sex.

The second problem arises in law, certainly in England. In case law, a marriage is not a marriage unless it is "consumated." That means the couple must more than cohabit, they must actually engage in a sexual act. Here again, the law is rather specific as it describes that as an act intended to procreate. Patently that can't happen between people of the same sex.

As I see it the Church has a problem. As the "Established" Church, it is required to "minister" to every member of the Parish. That also means that everyone wishing to be baptised, married or buried has the right to have this provided in their Parish Church. No, the State does not provide any funding to support this or a wide range of other things the parishioners are entitled to. Yes, we can acknowledge that the Bible does have passages suggesting that sex between two people of the same sex is not acceptable, but it was written in a climate where sexual acts between men, between women, between men and animals and all the panoply of possible sexual activity was the norm in the whole variety of fertility gods and goddesses worshipped in societies throughout the Middle East. It is also based on the idea that homosexual preferences are a "life choice" made deliberately by the individual.

The matter of "choice" is an increasingly untenable position. The growing body of scientific evidence which indicates that around 3% of all males are homosexual and around another 5% may well "swing both ways" from birth is difficult to ignore. If the Church truly believes what it teaches regarding God having made each of us as we are, then it cannot continue to deny the evidence that some of humanity simply isn't "wired" toward procreation and cannot be denied the essential human need of partnership and the grace of bonding with a kindred spirit. Yes, this is a minefield, but we do also need to ask ourselves what Christ would say and do if confronted (as he probably was) by this question.

I rather suspect his answer would put the Synod into something of an apoplectic fit, because I don't believe he would endorse their stance! That said, I do believe that Mr Cameron-Clegg has taken an unnecessarily confrontational path on this. I suspect there is a rather nasty political motive behind it, since the solution is a simple one - just redesignate "marriage" as a "civil partnership." Those who wish to can continue to be "married" and the non-believers who wish to can call it what they like. Since the whole is a civil law matter anyway why challenge the faith of those who find the change spiritually difficult? It achieves nothing except to create deep and bitter division over the "right" of a few hundred activists to force their domestic arrangements into the public eye.

What this is most likely to achieve is the mass resignation of Church of England vicars and clergy as Marriage Officers. That will cause enormous hardship for thousands.

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