Equal marriage: time for full acceptance from all churches

By John Gillibrand
July 24, 2020

Within the Church of England and the Church in Wales, the arguments for accepting equal marriage, and for a commitment to the full equality of LGBT people within the body of Christ, are well known. Within the Church of England it is to be hoped that the publication of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ document in early November 2020 will see some new thinking, though there is obviously no certainty that this will be so. I want to address the situation in these two churches particularly, recognising that others have made more and different levels of progress. But we each need to speak from our own experience.*

At the heart of the argument is the interpretation of Scripture. Some conservative evangelicals present us with specific verses from which they deduce that the Church should not accept equal marriage. For many of us, Scripture simply does not work like that – there is peril in a single verse taken out of its wider context, which is then used to map the culture and practices of first century people onto twenty-first century church and society. The fascination of Scripture is asking this question: if God’s people responded to their situation in that way, then, how are we as God’s people called to respond to our situation now? And how can the interpretation of one group within the Church be determinative for an entire ecclesial policy, let alone for those on those who approach us from the wider community, seeking marriage rites? An Anglican Church is a coalition of those who take Scripture seriously, and in the formulation of our pastoral policies that needs to be recognised, once and for all.

I am heterosexual, married for almost 30 years. I love Gillian with a passion, and I cannot help loving Gillian. Many of my gay and straight friends would tell similar love stories. This is an imperfect world, with so many broken relationships, but when I hear love stories, I cannot tell the difference between that experience and mine. In this tough world, such love is to be celebrated unconditionally.

As Anglicans, we need to be thinking about our Christian distinctiveness. There are elements of our underlying thinking, our policy, and our pastoral practice which can be seen among the more conservative elements in so many  faith communities. Again, how does our stance differ from that of the typical reader of the tabloid press?

At the heart of Christian distinctiveness (though indebted, as ever and throughout, to Jewish sources) is this: Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

These are the verses of the Bible which determine how we interpret the rest of Bible. That interpretation is always contextual, set in the context of social relationships, our relationship with our neighbour, howsoever we interpret that term – and Jesus interpreted it to mean far more than the person next door. I will always abide by the discipline of the church, and will wait in patience for change, but I cannot see how refusing marriage to gay couples is compatible with my duty of love towards my neighbour. The reason that I am a Christian, and a priest, is that I have experienced, throughout my life, God’s unconditional love: the Church is called to show that same unconditional love to others.  This is the only way of living in faith and love: unconditionally. 

And then there is the urgency in all of this. During the Covid-19 lockdown, there have been major issues about the closure of church buildings, with some arguing that this was sacrificing the church’s position within public life. This represents a highly impoverished view of the place of Christian theology within public discourse. In the coming months we will be dealing with a situation both of continuing stress and post traumatic stress. It has never been more urgent for the church to live up to its Christ-patterned vocation of providing love and care for all, of living not for ourselves but others. We need in this situation to work out what the distinctive voice of the church is, to work out what the church should be saying that no-one else is saying. It is for that purpose that we should be searching the pages of Scripture, allowing Scripture to form our distinctive witness

Our stance on equal marriage discredits that voice, at a time when it is most needed. Younger people – but not just younger people – look in bemusement on a church that adopts such a position for whatever reason. We are perceived as having giving shelter to some of the most reactionary elements in our society. What happens in the church on these issues would be permissible neither legally nor ethically in other institutions. It is not sufficient to say that this is part of the church’s calling to be prophetically different: we are cutting ourselves off from wider society, when the situation is calling us to engage prophetically with that society, calling us to challenge.

So, enough kicking the can down the road. There has been a huge amount of consultation, and difficult listening on all sides. I’m reluctant for other reasons to quote the Prime Minister, but – let’s get this done. Our other tasks – apart from this – are now of huge importance and urgency.

The Church in Wales is disestablished; the Church of England is an established church. The advantage of being a disestablished Church is that our contributions in the public square fall or rise on their own merits. We cannot hide behind our power, or even behind the vestiges of former power. We now have an historic opportunity, not for ourselves, nor for the sake of our power, but for the sake of our service to others. Let us not allow an issue that should have been dealt with and closed some many years ago distract us from fulfilling our calling. 

We now have months rather than years to sort this out, or we will be less than we are called to be. Yes, I know that this is a pressure, but we are living in a society under pressure, to which we are called to make known the power of Christ’s redeeming love. 

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© John Gillibrand is Vicar of Pontarddulais with Penllergaer, in the Church in Wales Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. He is an Ekklesia associate, writer and independent scholar. His other writings for Ekklesia can be found here.

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