The C of E and equal marriage: fostering crucial virtues

By Savi Hensman
December 8, 2012

After the Prime Minister’s positive commitment to equal marriage and religious freedom, the official Church of England response was disappointingly negative.

Among other things, it failed to reflect the fact that many of its members, and other Christians, would like to be able to celebrate marriages between same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.

However it is helpful that Church of England officials recognise that “same-sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues”, and hopefully there will soon be progress on blessing civil partnerships and ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) clergy.

David Cameron stated that “I’m a massive supporter of marriage and I don’t want gay people to be excluded from a great institution” but “let me be absolutely 100 per cent clear – if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it.

The Church of of England is reviewing its stance on civil partnerships and, more broadly, sexuality. However, this was not mentioned in its statement, which claimed that “insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not knee-jerk resistance to change” but instead “motivated by a concern for the good of all in society”.

Supposedly “the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.” It is stated that opening up marriage to same-sex couples would “lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged” and result in “a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.”

This marginalises the many heterosexual couples who, for age or medical reasons, cannot conceive together. Also, while the birth of children brings blessings to many (heterosexual and LGBT), it is not clear why adoption and fostering, care of adults and joint work for peace and the preservation of life on earth, on which the survival of so many depends, are ruled out as equally worthy callings.

In addition, in the light of recent debates, there is a risk that anxiety about the distinctiveness of male and female roles might be interpreted as fear of men’s dominance being threatened, unless this is explicitly refuted. Through the ages, hostility to same-sex relationships has sometimes stemmed from the notion that men should be active, women passive. Church of England officials and senior clergy should make it clear that this is not the church’s official position.

It is also regrettable that this view of “the uniqueness of marriage” disregards the centrality of love of God and neighbour in Christianity, and their interconnectedness, for “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4.16). It also, surprisingly, fails to affirm and act on the central Christian assertion that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3.28) but a new community and a New Creation.

It is however helpful that the statement makes it clear that “The proposition that same-sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute.” It is to be hoped that this signals a willingness to develop a liturgy to celebrate civil partnerships and end discrimination against LGBT people in the Church of England.

A century ago, allowing contraception and giving women the vote were hotly debated among Church of Enland members, and brides routinely pledged to obey their husbands. Views of marriage have changed radically since, in church and society, opening the door to a more Gospel-informed emphasis on love, mutuality and justice for all. Church leaders should welcome the opportunities this offers.

* Church of England responds to PM’s same sex marriage statement:

* Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians? -

* What Future For Marriage? (Ekklesia report) -

* Fruitful love: beyond the civil and legal in partnerships -

* Wedding blessings: friendship across boundaries -

* C of E and same-sex marriage: Serving society or protecting privilege?

* Marriage: commitment, creativity and celebration -


(c) Savitri Hensman is a Christian writer and commentator who examines, religion, politics, theology and Anglican affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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