There’s been a huge amount today on the blogs, on Twitter and around the interwebs generally about the Church of England’s official submission to the Government’s consultation (their word, not mine) on same-sex marriage. Apparently it could be the end of the world as we know it.
It needs to be said that in this semi-rural town in Worcestershire, I haven’t heard a single flesh and blood person mention it all day. I suspect that, whatever vociferous proponents and opponents think, this is not a front-page issue for most people.
There are quite a few people who seem terribly indignant that they, as members of the Church of England, were not consulted on this response. However, while I’m sure there could have been greater transparency about the process of responding, the document explicitly roots itself in the most recent agreed statement the Church of England has made on marriage, and one which virtually all clergy will have repeated several times already this year. It’s called the marriage service. It might need challenging, but it’s a democratically approved corporate view.
Personally, I think the question is much more open than the official response does. As I argued a while back, the key question is whether a committed loving relationship between people of the same sex is sufficiently like one between those of the opposite sex to be included within the institution of marriage. There are queer arguments against it as well as Christian ones. (As there are gay and Christian arguments for it.) Some, particularly those who are aware of the ways in which marriage has continued to change and grow as a social institution, will agree that it can and should now include gay couples. Others, particularly those who resist relativism and prioritise some kind of traditional ontology over cultural construction, will feel (at the very least) that it is a sufficiently different relationship to need a different kind of social institution.
Currently in the UK we have different institutions implying different types of equal relationship which give the same legal rights to those who have entered them. The existence of civil partnerships makes it harder, I think, to justify the arguments for gay marriage on the basis of equal rights. It is an argument, rather, about what sort of institution marriage is.
The fact is that procreative relationships regularly – perhaps normally – take place with little or no relationship to the institution of marriage. It is equally true that a very large proportion of marriages, including a great many conducted according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, are “lifelong” as a romantic dream rather than a worked out and hard-headed commitment. The Church of England’s understanding of marriage has a fairly tenuous connection with a lot of actual marriages, or the ways people have and raise children.
A significant part of the pressure for including gay relationships within the institution of marriage is because in practice the institution has already been redefined as a romantic commitment between two individuals for as long it lasts, and wouldn’t it be nice if it was happily ever after. Indeed, the Church of England’s own Wedding Project has openly embraced a consumerist model of marriage. No longer are people signing up to a hallowed common institution in which each marriage is one and the same, but encouraged to request a personalised experience tailored to the uniqueness of their relationship.
Not all that many years ago, Michael Nazir-Ali called down a storm of opprobrium on his head (what’s new?) for calling couples who wanted marriage without children “self-indulgent”. But actually, he was at least being consistent, and, indeed uncomfortably but truly traditional, in his understanding of marriage.
It is genuinely a problem that there are a great many people who want to uphold “traditional marriage” (whatever exactly that is) when discussing same-sex marriage, but who don’t wish to “moralise” about the relationships of straight people. It is the inconsistency which gives rise to a lingering suspicion of “homophobia”.
Personally, I think there’s a serious conversation to be had. I just don’t see anyone – individual or organisation – really interested in doing anything other than getting their own way.