Equal marriage: churches sharing or burying good news?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
13 Dec 2012

For many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people in England and Wales, their families and friends, it is good news that same-sex partners will be able officially to marry (if Parliament agrees). What is more, they can get married in places of worship if faith groups choose to offer this, though they are not required to do so.

Yet the government announcement focused less on such hopes than on others’ fears, in response to the negativity of some church leaders as well as others opposed to marriage equality. The public image they project is strongly discriminatory, though many congregations, parish clergy and chaplains are welcoming and inclusive, and there are other churches enthusiastic about equal marriage. This makes it harder to proclaim the Good News of God’s love to all.

Religious freedom and marriage equality

There has never been a serious risk that faith-based institutions would be forced by law to carry out same-sex weddings, any more than they have been forced to celebrate civil partnerships, marry divorced persons if they object to this or employ women or gays as clergy. Yet alarmist claims resulted in the government promising numerous “legal locks”, particularly affecting the Church of England and Church in Wales (both Anglican).

Culture secretary Maria Miller said that these churches had "explicitly stated" their opposition to offering same-sex ceremonies, so the government would "explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples". Marriages in these will remain under canon (church) law, which at present means that marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Though only the Church of England is established, both offer weddings to parishioners in most cases, but with exceptions. These could have been extended to cover marriage between partners of the same sex without treating these two churches in a way that some regard as discriminatory with regard to religion.

Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, was unhappy with the decision, calling it a “step too far”. He said that, though the Church in Wales was not currently contemplating offering same-sex marriages, the law had "curtailed" the church's freedom; “It should be left for us to opt in or opt out."

To be fair to the government, it appears to have acted on this church’s official consultation response in June 2012, stating that “The Church in Wales is in an almost identical position to the Church of England with regard to the solemnisation of marriages” and “would seek assurances that the Government would specifically include the Church in Wales in any provisions for the Church of England under the proposed legislation.”

Given the Church of England’s influence and power, including seats in the House of Lords, the government was willing to go to considerable lengths to reduce the risk that the legislation as a whole would be blocked. Church of England official responses to proposals for marriage equality have tended to be highly negative, and to avoid recognising the diversity of views and reviews taking place of its position on civil partnerships and sexuality in general.

In a news release on 11 December after Maria Miller’s announcement, it quoted Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens’ response, which claimed that marriage has always been “a union of one man and one woman” (suggesting a worrying unfamiliarity with the Hebrew Bible), and that resisting marriage equality stemmed from “fundamental concern for stable communities”, as if allowing LGBT people to marry offered a fearsome threat to society.

Though he and others have suggested a more favourable stance towards civil partnerships, and there have been gestures towards greater equality (for instance around clergy pensions), there is not yet any official liturgy for these, nor are priests allowed to offer use of churches for registering such partnerships. Partnered clergy, even if celibate, can face open discrimination.

It is deeply sad that much of the public now views the Church of England primarily as an institution in which discrimination against women and LGBT people is entrenched and which is profoundly insensitive to the moral concerns of many in the wider community. Though this is not entirely fair, if the time and energy devoted by top leaders to resisting equality for LGBT people had been spent instead on resisting militarism, social injustice and environmental destruction, the world would be a better place.

Unlocking positive change

Many members of the public may assume that this opposition is because the bishops and other senior figures are generally strongly opposed to same-sex relationships. Yet, in reality, many do not regard such partnerships as being necessarily wrong, and some are LGBT and partnered themselves, though discreetly.

However one of the top priorities for many church leaders is trying not to offend those churchgoers most passionately opposed to inclusion. This includes members of the Church of England and top leaders in the wider Anglican Communion and other churches, especially Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Sadly, this approach often results in driving away large numbers of worshippers, alienating other ecumenical partners and being associated with bad news for the marginalised and oppressed.

Yet the Holy Spirit is at work in churches and beyond, the urge for love and justice cannot be completely suppressed and wiser bishops and lay leaders are aware that the current situation is unsustainable.

In an explanatory note issued on 12 December 2012 to clarify the culture secretary’s remarks on “legal locks”, Church of England officials seemed to recognise that the current position on same-sex marriage might just change. They also expressed the view that further primary legislation would not be needed (emphasis in original):

This is not a question of the Government and Parliament imposing a prohibition or "ban" on what the Church of England can do. It is instead the Government responding to the Church's wish to see the status quo for the Church of England preserved and accepting, as for other churches and faiths (though the legal framework is different for them), that it is not for the Government and Parliament to determine matters of doctrine...

The effect of what the Government has proposed is to leave decisions about the doctrine and practice of the Church of England with the Church of England. Any change to the Church of England's doctrine and practice of marriage would require legislation by the Church's General Synod...

All Synod Measures require parliamentary consent. The usual process of parliamentary scrutiny for legislation submitted by the Church is that it goes first to the Ecclesiastical Committee and then has a single debate in each House before the Measure goes for Royal Assent. As the General Synod's devolved legislative powers includes the ability to amend Westminster legislation it would not require separate, additional legislation on the part of Parliament to enact any change to the Church's practice on marriage.

Of course, LGBT people face many urgent issues other than marriage equality, from discrimination in jobs and housing and additional insecurity in an era of ‘austerity’ to state-sponsored persecution in certain countries. For those currently outside faith communities, as with their heterosexual neighbours, it can sometimes seem that church efforts at evangelism often fail to engage with the reality of their lives.

There are honourable exceptions, and smaller faith communities sometimes achieve what larger communities do not. However the overall image of Christianity can be tarnished when representatives of major churches get wide media coverage for profoundly hostile (and sometimes factually inaccurate) remarks about equal marriage.

Yet there is good news to share, in words and deeds based on love for all not fear of minorities, of Christ’s healing, nourishing, liberating ministry, conquest of death and promise of new life.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a widely-published writer and commentator on religion, politics, theology, Anglican affairs and the sexuality debate. An Ekklesia associate, she contributed several chapters to Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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