Tag Archives: gay marriage

Two sides of the Church

It has been a big week in my ongoing spiritual odyssey, as I wrestle with my agnostic contradictions.  My anti-Church  hackles were raised, all too predictably, by the Church of England’s response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage.  But I was was  disarmed by the response of a priest to a blog on the subject.  And then I chanced into hearing an episode of Richard Holloway’s radio series Honest Doubt.

First that Church response on gay marriage.  To start with I relied on news reports, mainly from the BBC.  And these were (predictably) provocative – saying that the Church felt the issue to be one of the gravest in its 500 year history, and implying that the Church still considered marriage to be about having children.  I could not but feel this was a calculated insult to my own, childless, marriage.

But rather than sounding off in that vein, I thought I had bet read it (summary here, with link to the full response).  It was of course, much more measured.  But it also cut no ice.  Indeed it seemed to be just begging the question (in the proper sense of being circular rather than the common usage of “inviting the question”).  Two problems preoccupy the drafters: first that it changes the meaning of marriage.  To which the liberal response is, “Well spotted.  So?”  The second worry follows: it means that the Church’s definition of marriage will no longer follow the state’s.  They say that there should be no difference between “religious” and “state” marriage; there should be just marriage.  The natural response from liberals is, “Well, that’s entirely up to you.  Why should that bother us?”  The Church marriage would be fully recognised by the state; it would be a subset of state marriage.  Actually, the reason for the Church to worry about this distinction was spotted by many commentators.  It is part of that wedge with is slowly separating the Church of England from the state and may one day force its disestablishment.  But to most people the establishment status of the Church is just an ornament with nostalgic value, rather like the monarchy.  Few are against it, unless it tries to flex its muscles.  Trying to prevent overdue change to civil customs is just such a muscle flexing: and if it leads to disestablishment, so be it.

On reflection it is difficult to be angered by the Church’s position.  It is just demonstrates all the disappointment I have in it and other Christian institutions.  It just cannot reinterpret ancient principles in light of its more fundamental principles and our changing understanding of the world.  It is just heading for the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile atheistic Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack challenged the Church on the grounds of historical inconsistency.  One of his posts was entitled Could a theologian please help…?  The point at issue was divorce rather than the single sex bit – if the Bible says that marriage was to be for ever, why did they change their view on remarrying the divorced?  Typical smart Alick stuff from an outside commentator.  But it drew a long and wonderful response from a Methodist minister, Philip Wren.  He took time to start with the biblical quote from the Gospel of St Mark that defines the basis of marriage (“…what God has made let no man cast asunder.”)  But he explained it  in terms of the tension between forgiveness and sin.  It’s the sort of stuff that reminds me why I’m agnostic rather than atheist – Christianity is not about neat, cut and dried rules.  It’s about love and redemption.

This was enough to throw the Christian religion back into a more favourable light.  And then, by accident, I caught one of the BBC Radio 4 talks on “Honest Doubt” on Friday, tackling the issue of morality – if we throw out God and religion, on what basis do we found and enforce morality?  The honesty with which it confronted the question made me stop in my tracks.  I immediately went find other talks in the series from the BBC website.  Unfortunately the it isn’t available in podcast, and they apply a strict 7 day rule – so I could only backtrack a week on iPlayer, and missed the first 10 episodes (it extremely irritating when BBC do this, for no good reason that I can see).  I wasn’t disappointed as the series went through the various Victorian thinkers’ reactions as the faith was shaken to its foundations by a series of shocks.  I was particularly taken with Keats’s idea that truth comes from the process of doubt itself.

The talks are given by Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh and professor of theology.  I was hugely struck by the way a religious person could have the courage to confront deep questions that few dare to (amongst atheists as well as churchmen).  If they could do this, I thought, there was hope for the church yet.  I could be a member of a church that contained Richard Holloway.  As I researched Dr Holloway (my practice of using people’s titles as a mark of respect causes difficulties here – his not a bishop or a professor; I assume he is a doctor though!) I was not reassured, though.  He resigned from being a bishop, and now describes himself as an agnostic – his views taking him beyond the pale so far as the official church is concerned.  My struggle continues, but it is good to know that I am not alone.

The talks are given by

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The mysterious ways of God and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church’s untenable stand on gay marriage  undermines its entire corpus of moral teaching.

So what are we to make of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s outburst, We cannot afford to indulge this madness, in the Telegraph over the weekend against the government’s proposals to open civil marriage to gay couples?  After the outrage has subsided I am left with a feeling of plain bafflement.

The implication of the Cardinal’s words is that traditional values in British society are Christian ones, and that it is the duty of Christians to defend them against more modern modern attitudes.  One of the early critics of the Cardinal’s article argued that he was crying wolf; since he had similarly objected to civil partnerships for gays, and as this had not led to the predicted collapse in civilisation, we should ignore his objections this time.  But Cardinal O’Brien takes this episode as part of his justification: he had warned that civil partnerships were just the thin end of the wedge – and, just as he predicted, the debate has now moved on to the sacred ground of marriage.  Where will it all end?  He suggested such outrages as marriage covering more than two people, as a sort of reductio ad absurdam.

But such thinking just shows how much he is out of touch with most of the general public.  Two things have changed.  First people have come to accept that there is nothing harmful in gay relationships, and that such relationships stem primarily from how people are made, and not from their perverted choices.  This change is particularly striking amongst the young, as this Economist article shows.  The second change is that people no longer think that marriage is primarily about having children: it is about lifelong partnership and companionship, driven by love rather than the need to keep the population going.  Put these two things together and objections to gay marriage melt away.

And it’s not as if these issues challenge any fundamental Christian principles.  It is true that the Old Testament comes out pretty strongly against gay relationships, though their prohibition doesn’t merit inclusion in the Ten Commandments.  But Christians, from Jesus Christ onwards, have always taken a flexible attitude to Old Testament teachings.  If Christians may eat bacon, why can’t they have gay relationships?  we nust fall back on higher principles than simply referring to ancient texts.

And on the question of sex, marriage and the family, the Church’s past flexibility is striking.   In New Testament times the primary focus of Christians was the urgency of the Second Coming.  Sexual relationships of any kind were regarded as a distraction.  In the gospels where Jesus makes it plain that the Christian calling may well conflict with family ties, and where this happened family comes second – as he himself had shown through his difficult relationship with his mother.  But now compatibility with family values are a central claim of practically all Christian denominations, with the implication that no conflict exists between family and Christianity.

And the Catholic Church has been here before.  Their stand against contraception is widely ignored in even fervently Catholic countries like Poland.  Opposition to gay relationships and gay marriage is headed in the same direction.

According to its leaders, one of the main attractions of the Catholic Church is its clear laying down of moral principles, in a world where values are undermined by relativism.  And indeed there are important moral weaknesses in the world at large – such as when individuals come up against the state or anonymous organisations (looters and benefit cheats at one end of the social scale, company directors avoiding tax and voting themselves unwarranted salaries at the other).  It’s not that the Church avoids these moral issues, it’s that its untenable stand on issues such as contraception and gay relationships encourages a pick’n mix approach to its teachings even amongst its loyal followers.  And its credibility in the wider world is shot through.  And that’s even before we have talked about the moral failings of certain Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy’s first response when it found out.

It is safe to assume that the Cardinal is a man of faith, and feels that his actions are guided through prayer and are the will of God.  He must follow his calling, and political calculation and what the majority think do not come into it.  So why is God sending him and his Church up such a blind alley?  The ways of God are indeed mysterious.

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