Savi Hensman

Parliament’s equal marriage debates reveal churches divided

By Savi Hensman
June 3, 2013

Some Christian MPs strongly support marriage equality while others are strongly against it. In the UK and beyond, parliamentary debates on celebrating same-sex partnerships have revealed that – whatever top clerics or elders say – opinion within the churches is divided.

Many theologians now take the view that committed loving relationships should be valued, though not all regard these as equivalent to heterosexual marriage.

In numerous congregations and among those who identify as Christians in many countries, there is a similar range of opinion, as debates in the House of Common have shown. Lay people whose consciences are developed in the context of their faith – though other factors also influence their choices – can be found in all walks of life. Debates on marriage in Westminster offer insights into the reasons why people who worship together often have conflicting positions on marriage.

Shifting views among Christians on marriage equality

Both Church of England and Roman Catholic church leaders have vigorously campaigned against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which would bring about equal marriage in England and Wales. Separate legislation is planned for Scotland.

Though a few smaller faith groups are in favour or neutral, such active opposition may give the impression that the mainstream church position is strongly against opening up marriage to same-sex couples.

But at grassroots level, the story is very different, though there are congregations in which few would dare to voice their support for marriage equality.

For example, the results of a YouGov poll commissioned for the Westminster Faith Debate were published in April 2013. This found that half of all religious people in Britain were in favour of allowing same-sex marriage, and that those who identified as Anglican and Catholic supported it by a small margin.

Among regular churchgoers, support was slightly lower. 40 per cent of Anglicans were in favour and 47 per cent against, while 42 per cent of Catholics were in favour, 48 per cent against. This mixture of opinions was nevertheless extraordinary, given the negative public stance of the hierarchy of both churches (with a few exceptions).

On this issue, MPs did not simply divide along party lines. For instance opponents included Conservative Edward Leigh and Labour Stephen Timms, supporters Labour David Lammy and Conservative Peter Bottomley. And speeches when the Bill had its second reading and (after Committee stage discussions) third reading, highlighted differences in theological as well as wider ethical reasoning.

Upholding the importance of procreation

Some of the speeches on 5 February and 20 and 21 May 2013 took the view that Christian views on marriage ruled out any possibility of opening this up to same-sex couples.

For instance, according to Gainsborough MP Edward Leigh:

The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church beautifully describes the institution. Anybody of any faith or no faith who supports traditional marriage could echo these words. The catechism says that marriage is a “covenant” in which “a man and a woman establish themselves in a partnership” for “the whole of life”, and that marriage is “by its nature ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring”...

The Bill is not evolution, but revolution. It is true that I am blessed with six children. I realise that not every married couple is able to have the gift of children, and that some married couples may not want it, yet that does not change the fact that the concept of marriage has always been bestowed with a vision of procreation.

East Ham MP Stephen Timms likewise argued that:

[T]he Church of England was the custodian of marriage in Britain for hundreds of years. For many people, it still is...

The 1662 version of the Church of England service, which has been in use for the past 350 years, sets out three reasons for marriage. The first is that it was “ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord”.

The central problem with the Bill is that it introduces a definition of marriage that includes the second and third reasons but drops that first one. The result is something that is a good deal weaker than the original.

This led to an amusing exchange when West Ham MP Lyn Brown commented that “at my wedding. I was not young when I got married, and unless I had been blessed like Elizabeth, it was highly unlikely that I was going to be able to procreate after all that time. Is he telling me that my marriage is less valid than anybody else’s?” (This was a reference to Luke 1.5-25, in which Elizabeth, who was barren and getting on in years, conceived through God’s intervention.)

Removing barriers and loving one’s neighbour as oneself

In contrast, black Tottenham MP David Lammy argued that the Bill:

[C]ommands the support of the country, because it respects religious freedom and tradition by permitting, rather than mandating, religious organisations to conduct the ceremonies, and because it is the end of an organic journey from criminalisation to equality for the gay community that began over half a century ago. This change is right and necessary and the time is now.

There are still those who say it is unnecessary. “Why do we need gay marriage”, they say, “when we already have civil partnerships?” They are, they claim, “Separate but equal.” Let me speak frankly: separate but equal is a fraud... It is the same naivety that led to my dad being granted citizenship when he arrived here in 1956, but being refused by landlords who proclaimed, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”...

Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it... As long as our statute book suggests that love between two men or two women is unworthy of recognition through marriage, we allow the rot of homophobia to fester and we entrench a society where 20,000 homophobic crimes take place each year and where 800,000 people have witnessed homophobic bullying at work in the past five years.

I am a Christian. I go to Mass. I recognise how important this is...

When I married my wife, I understood our marriage to have two important dimensions: the expression of love, fidelity and mutuality over the course of our life together; and a commitment to raise children. Gay men and women can now raise children—this House made that decision—so let us not hear any further discussion about having a family as if gay men and women cannot have that.

The Jesus I know was born a refugee, illegitimate, with a death warrant on his name, and in a barn among animals. He would stand up for minorities. That is why it is right for those of religious conviction to vote for this Bill.

Sir Peter Bottomley, MP for Worthing West, also supported the Bill on faith-related grounds:

The primary commandment is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. I have been reminded by one ordained constituent that that should be used as a way of defining the second great commandment, which is to treat my neighbour as myself. Essentially, we are asking whether we can remove the barriers that stop same-sex couples enjoying the commitment—the “at one” meaning—of marriage. That is what the Bill comes down to. It does not redefine marriage; it just takes away barriers...

A man called Tribe, in a book from 1935 called “The Christian Social Tradition”, stated: “The problem of society is the finding of unity in diversity, and to reconcile freedom with order.”

I think that is loving my neighbour as myself, and that what I have experienced, good or bad, others should have a chance of choosing or avoiding. I have not experienced discrimination. I have watched others who have. I hope that when this matter is concluded those who have spent their time writing messages saying that we are all wrong will realise, as people did with the creation of civil partnerships, that maybe they can see life differently in the future.

Church divisions on sexuality and marriage

In the UK today, there are sizeable numbers of Christians who believe that physically intimate same-sex relationships are always wrong, who support such relationships but regard them as distinct from marriage and who are in favour of equal marriage.

Anglican and Roman Catholic spokespeople strongly opposed to marriage equality by no means represent all members of their churches.

Parliamentary debates have highlighted this diversity of views in church and society on a topic which profoundly affects many people’s lives.

By the same author:

* Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians? - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17245

* Marriage, union or contract? The flawed ResPublica case against equality - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17935

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.