Marriage and same sex relationships
Pre-occupation with who is allowed to marry has led us to ignore a much more significant issue - the side-lining of marriage itself, says Harry Houldsworth
Adrian Alker, the chair of PCN Britain, is to be applauded for his criticism of the House of Bishops Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships. My only reservation is that, once again, a single issue has been permitted to deflect attention from the fact that marriage in any form has been under sustained political and legal attack for many decades. The highly emotive language used in this latest debate is doing little to stop the institution of marriage being further undermined…
In their report, the House of Bishops start by reaffirming that the “key Christian understanding [is] that all human beings are made in the image of God”, immediately proving how remote they are from the rest of the population. Which century are the bishops living in? Except in a metaphorical sense, this idea was destroyed 150 years ago by Darwin and his theory of Evolution.
Having put their proverbial foot in it, the bishops explain that their focus is like that of St Paul: “giving priority to the Cross and resurrection in Christ.” I have to suggest to the bishops that this is not how most people today see things. Most people probably understand Christianity in terms of Christian values and the Christian ways of life, rather than in terms of the Cross and the Resurrection.
These examples illustrate the extent to which the bishops of the Church of England have a big problem: they are incapable of thinking outside the box created by ‘scripture’ and ‘Church traditions’. They are very reluctant to accept that scripture mixes myth, poetic description, exaggeration, confusion and fact, in telling the Biblical story; all biblical scholars know this. Church traditions are equally suspect. They were developed largely by male clergy, and mostly after Christianity achieved power in the Roman Empire.
However, the bishops do acknowledge in their Report that “serious study of scripture and theology has reached conflicting conclusions in the way we handle the faith we have inherited” and that, while “a conservative view . . . is that of faithfulness to God’s word”, “for others, the imperative to read scripture differently stems from a parallel conviction”. Sadly, the conservatives are in the majority and moving beyond the status quo is not considered an option.
The House of Bishops accepted advice given by the Bishops Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS) that there was a need for a fresh tone and a new culture of welcome in the Church for lesbian and gay people and others who experience same sex attraction. The BRGS recommended that their suggestions should be incorporated in a new “Teaching Document” and in new guidance notes for the clergy. Their intention was to affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church and to include penitence (apologies) for the past treatment of gays and lesbians. Also to be considered were:
the significance of community and relationships and modern manifestations of individualism; the role of solitaries/single people in the Christian community, and what is good in all types of friendship (not just sexual friendships) from a theological perspective; an exploration of the meaning of marriage in terms of vocation; a reaffirmation of the doctrine of marriage between one man and one woman, faithful for life; and an exploration of the distinction between the State’s concept of “equal marriage” and the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony and the implications.
Inevitably, the affirmation of the place of lesbians and gays in the Church is seen as insulting by many who know that lesbians and gays have a long unacknowledged history of doing valuable work in the Church.
Critically, there is a tendency to forget that the idea of marriage as being between a man and a women pre-dates Christianity. Many societies and religions around the world have adopted this model as an essential building block for constructing a stable, sustainable, and self-financing society. Marriage has never been simply about having “loving relationships”, though this may have been a characteristic of many a successful marriage. Maybe the Taj Mahal bears witness to this ideal; as does the Albert Memorial?
Scholars have pointed out that it was only in the early Middle Ages that a formal, Church-authorized marriage service came into being – and then it was probable more about inheritance and taxation opportunities than about theological needs. Before this, marriage in Christianity was looked on as a civil contract.
The ancient Hebrews were also ambiguous about marriage. Abraham indicated that divorce was permissible in cases of adultery (by the wife). Jesus didn’t worry about this, or about the Law; he simply examined the current context (where one teacher was saying one thing, and another teacher was saying something else) and told husbands that marriage was for life, and those who divorce their wife (even for adultery) made the next man she married also an adulterer. His concern was for the woman. Then, a man could reject his wife simply because he was fed-up with her. The result was that she might starve, become a prostitute, or be taken back by her family in a total state of disgrace. The logic is that a different context requires a different decision.
I believe that the focus on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships” is not helpful in allowing us to have this wider debate about marriage.
One central social reason for marriage is to bring children into the world and nurture them until they are able to live independently. With a man and a woman who breed well, this could be a contract of thirty years or more. This is their main social obligation, and many societies may see the following generation as having duties and obligations to their parents and close relations, as they get older.
Are these not critical points that need further emphasis in any meaningful discussion of marriage?