Over the last few months both the Archbishop of Canterbury, episcopal head of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Westminster, as well as Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain, have come out in strong opposition to gay marriage. Keith O’Brien, according to the Daily Mail, went so far as to suggest that “same sex unions were the ‘thin end of the wedge’ and would lead to the ‘further degeneration of society into immorality’.” (I cannot forbear remarking that this always seems to be the Roman Catholic reaction to moral change. Accordiing to its bishops and archbishops and its moral ”experts”, the seem to see every moral change as a decline into immorality and sheer chaos. They seem unable to see that many of the changes they deplore have improved life for many who were once excluded and unjustly victimised by what the religious guardians of morality think of as the moral law.) According to Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, in a letter to be read in every church in the archdiocese:
Changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step. Its consequences should be taken seriously now. The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values.
A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.
This was reported in the Guardian. The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, holding, as he does, a post in the national church, said that the government had no mandate to change the definition of marriage, not having included this in its party manifesto. There were some members of the church, however, who felt it was high time for the church to desist in its opposition to gay marriage: a priest from Derbyshire sent a petition to the archbishops of York and Canterbury, signed by 4,000 church members, objecting to the church’s refusal to endorse same-sex marriage.
I begin with this very brief synopsis of the church’s opposition to gay marriage, because in today’s Guardian, Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge, has an article which claims, in its title, that “The churches’ stance on gay marriage is not homophobic” (though the address line simply includes the words ‘churches-gay marriage-homophobic’ — which comes closer to the truth). Perhaps he has Rowan Williams specifically in mind. However, when one church leader suggests that the legalisation of gay marriage would lead to “the further degeneration of society into immorality,” it is hard to justify such a stance.
Chaplin does so by trying to play the same game that is often played with women who are demanding equal recognition and rights. And so he says that
whatever the shortcomings of individual statements on the question, the churches’ opposition to gay marriage is now facing the undiscriminating charge that it is driven by “homophobia”. In fact, most of their public statements on the matter are only attempts to re-articulate what has long been the most fundamental and enduring principle of Christian (and Jewish) sexual ethics, which is that human beings have been created in such a way that sexual union is appropriately enjoyed in the context of permanent heterosexual commitment. This principle is as much a restraint on heterosexual behaviour as it is on homosexual behaviour (although the churches’ voice on the latter would have been a good deal more compelling had they demonstrated a more consistent track record on the former). [my italics]
But if, as Chaplin says, the letter to the Prime Minister from the organisation Anglican Mainstream misrepresented the church’s record in welcoming gay people into the church, so does this misrepresent the principle “that sexual union is appropriately enjoyed [only] in the context of permanent heterosexual commitment.” If he had included the word ‘only’, as I have done in square brackets, we would be getting a bit closer to the truth, and it is this missing word which makes it very clear that it is not, as Chaplin says, “as much a restraint on heterosexual behaviour as it is on homosexual behaviour.” Nor does the reiteration of this traditional claim about the appropriate uses of sexuality serve to show that the church’s response is not, in fact, homophobic, for that it is precisely what it is.
In response to this likely criticism, Chaplin goes on to say:
But a position that has shaped one of the most formative ethical practices of western culture cannot be presumptively dismissed as driven by mere prejudice. That is an evasion of reasoned debate.
This simply does not follow. Why can it not be dismissed as an expression of mere prejudice, if that is what it is? One of the most formative ethical practices of western culture was that women should remain at home and look after household and children. To suggest that movements towards the ordination of women were not — and are still not – driven largely by prejudice is not at all obvious. Yes, indeed, excuses, or a tenuous rationale, can be given for restricting the priesthood to men, such as that Jesus was a man, and so were all the apostles; but it is hard not to see that the underlying energy behind the opposition to women priests or bishops is principally misogyny plain and simple.
The rest of Chaplin’s article is, it seems to me, simply confused. He records the changes in the understanding of marriage that have occurred over time, including, for example, the acceptance of divorce and remarriage. And then he suggests that perhaps marriage itself should be removed from the purview of the state, which would then be concerned with civil partnerships, whilst the churches, presumably, would govern the practice of marriage. As he says:
A more radical option would be a universal regime of civil partnerships (open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples, and possibly other household relationships) in which “marriage” is withdrawn from the state’s purview, yet with the state remaining fully responsible for the protection of the interests of children or separating partners.
But if he cannot see that this suggestion is governed almost wholly by homophobia, leaving the church in sole possession of marriage, its definition, and limits, then he appears to be morally blind in a way that does not reflect at all well on his purposes in writing the article in the first place. Possibly, as this suggests, the whole complex of human relationships and their relationship to the law, needs to be re-examined, and that, while marriage has served society well until recently, it is now no longer tenable as a way of establishing the kinds of relationships necessary for the protection of children, their education and upbringing, as well as the fostering of flourishing relationships. But to suggest, as he does, that the churches should be left in sole possession of the paradigm of committed relationships, is governed, to a greater extent than Chaplin thinks, by the churches’ inability to recognise the roles that sexuality plays in people’s lives, roles, many of them, which were — and often still are — regarded as perverse and immoral, and are only now beginning to be understood more fully, so that ways of governing relationships, so that people’s lives will flourish, can be changed in ways that accommodate new information and knowledge, and new appreciations of what it is that people are seeking in committed relatioships.
Whenever I think of these matters, my mind turns to people like Alan Turing, a brilliant man who was nothing short of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War, and yet who, because of his homosexuality, was forced to choose between prison and chemical castration. He opted, instead, to die. He should have been given medals, and at least made a knight if not a lord. Can Chaplin not see that this was a senseless death, based on false premises about human sexuality — false premises that the churches still seem unable simply to revise in the light of new information? This is what homophobia looks like, and to suggest that the churches should simply be left to adjust to changing circumstances is not acceptable. Churches must recognise that they are not, and cannot be, the guardians of morality, and that their inability to get beyond the narrow confines of their theological prison houses is not only retrograde, but damaging to too many good people, who seek to live their lives in peace, and without the contempt that ancient taboos impose upon them.