14th December 2011 Articles
Originally published in The Times
The House of Lords votes tomorrow on whether religious premises can be used for civil partnerships. A Tory peeress proposes to strike down the relevant legal provisions, arguing that religious organisations might suffer undue pressure to conduct civil partnerships.
I have been flooded with letters about this, mostly from Christians opposed to civil partnerships. One is from the vicar of the church I used to attend, who writes that he is “sure you will understand that churches like ours would never wish to conduct these ceremonies”. Not that he has any choice. The Church of England’s bishops have instructed that no church may be used for a civil partnership without agreement of the synod, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Many of us in the Church look to Rowan Williams for leadership. So imagine my relief, on rifling through the Lambeth Palace bins, to discover this draft of what appears to be a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
‘My friends in Christ, As your Archbishop, I have learnt that religious leaders who consider themselves progressive and compassionate, but hesitate to confront the reactionary views of some of their followers, resort to opaque language to encourage reformers while not in fact advocating any change to the status quo. Anglican bishops are adept at this, which is why we claim to be in favour of women bishops, yet there is still no provision for them actually to be consecrated. The priesthood is now the only profession in the country where a woman cannot be promoted.
It is also why we claim to allow gay priests, but only provided they do not engage in homosexual practice, which is as morally nonsensical as it is cruel and humiliating to the men and women concerned. Again, it would not be tolerated in any other part of society, and we are supposed to be the ones standing up for the oppressed.
We now find ourselves in the same position on civil partnerships. Our casuistry on this is so ingenious, the Jesuits would be proud. We argue that because civil partnerships are not legally the same as marriage, it is not discriminatory to refuse to allow them to be celebrated in church. This gives the progressive impression that we might change our view were same-sex marriage allowed, while excusing our refusal to allow Christian couples the right to celebrate their unions in the only way possible here and now.
Still more ingeniously, we assert that marriage and civil partnerships are not morally alike by claiming — wait for it — that sex isn’t at issue in civil partnerships. While this strains belief in the case of the clergy, it surely beggars it in the case of the laity. Yet I have argued in the past that the introduction of civil partnerships is welcome “in so far as it gives people certain rights in the public sphere”, but “it doesn’t presuppose there’s a sexual relationship, it doesn’t presuppose that there is anything like … what we would call, as Christians, a marriage”.
When pressed further, I said: “It’s a very complicated issue”, rooted in “2,000 years or more of theology.”
Of course, it is a very simple issue. By a painful process, and yes, it has taken more than 2,000 years, society has come to recognise that homosexuality, like evolution, is an unalterable fact.
The difference between gay and straight is not the difference between right and wrong but between some genes and others.
It should surely now be obvious that homosexuality is not a threatening social reality, but one to be accepted and accommodated. Gay people have the same need and capacity for love and partnership as straight people. A Church one of whose main purposes is to solemnise loving partnerships can no more morally pick and choose between couples who are gay and straight than between black and white.
So when last week my spokesman said that “the Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia and would want to defend the civil liberties of homosexual people and to welcome them into our churches”, he did not mean to add sotto voce “except to celebrate one of the most important and uplifting events of their lives”.
What of the Bible? Jesus is silent on sexuality, although he has a lot to say about justice and love. What of “the procreation of children”? Having children has never been a condition of marriage, and I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it should be. The Book of Common Prayer also ordains marriage “for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity”. These great things are no less essential for gay people, and we should be on their side.
Civil partnerships are morally good and here to stay. Gay marriage will soon be here too — even our Tory Prime Minister supports it — and it too is morally good. In such a great cause, we Christians should lead not follow.
Let me end on a personal note. Every one of us has friends and/or members of our families who are gay. I know plenty of clergy who are gay. They are equal to the rest of us in the sight of God. They have the same capacity for love and goodness. Our Church should be their Church or it is no Church at all.