Leader: In the end, it comes down to a word
|THE Archbishop of York’s extravagant attack on the Prime Minister’s efforts to bring same-sex equality to marriage was accompanied by a declaration that he did not mean to “diminish, condemn, criticise, patronise any same-sex relationships”.We presume this to indicate more than a mere nod to the 2005 House of Bishops statement on civil partnerships, which in turn quotes from the 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality, that “heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.”
Opinion in the C of E, in the House of Bishops and elsewhere, has moved a long way since they could write calmly about “homophile relationships”. We shall find out how far when the two working groups that are considering this issue report later this year and next. However far Dr Sentamu has travelled, he still has problems with applying the term “marriage” to any partnership other than a heterosexual one. He resists the idea that the state has the power to change the definition of the word, and he is right:
Britain has no Académie Française to govern its language. But neither has the Church any control over a word that has, after all, been used figuratively for centuries. As with the word “gay”, the Church has, ultimately, to go along with whatever definition of “marriage” emerges in general parlance.
As for the policy of liberalising marriage, David Cameron is a politician, not a prophet. He would not pursue a policy if it made him less electable; nor would his party allow him to. His politician’s eye shows him that the predominant attitude towards homosexuality in this country is now sympathetic. Dr Sentamu is misguided if he believes this can be reversed.
It is good that the C of E is examining its earlier reservations about civil partnerships. Experience has proved them to be serious affairs, with many qualities — dedication, nurture, love, faithfulness — that look like marriage. Libby Purves has quoted the saying: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . . it probably is a duck. . . People who want to marry and treat one another properly should not be made second-class.” If Dr Sentamu and others wish to argue differently, they need to make a stronger case for discriminating against same-sex couples than merely appealing to “tradition and history”.
As different from the ‘Chuch of England Newspaper’ (not an official organ of the Church of England), the U.K. “CHURCH TIMES‘ (also unofficial) can be guaranteed to offer a reasonable take on the diversity presented on important issues of Church polity.
This particular Editorial – on the subject of the word ‘Marriage’ – whose meaning is now being challenged re the traditional understanding of an official legal situation of the spousal relationship between a male and a female – detects a slight softening on the part of the Church of England, towards faithful, committed and monogamous relationships between same-sex couples (even though the Church officially refuses to bless them and is reluctant to call such relationships by the word ‘Marriage’).
I used, personally, to think in rather the same way myself – believing that the term marriage applied only to faithful heterosexual relationships of people capable of producing children. However, when one consider the fact that older people can contract into a marriage relationshiop – without the prospect of producing children. Also, there is no guarantee that all younger couples are going to be either willing or capable of, producing children, so this factor allows potentially childless couples the privilege of being able to be ‘married’, with the Blessing of the Church, in England.
When the British Government brought in legislation to allow same-sex partners to contract into a legal Civil Partnership, the Church made the decision not to allow such partnerships to be ‘Blessed’ in a Church ceremony. Having made this pronouncement, the Church now finds itself being challenged by the possibility of the Government allowing Same-Sex couples the right to be Married in an appropriate Civil Ceremony – which legally gives them the same legal rights as a married heterosexual couple.
The difficulty for the Church of England, in turning down the right of same-sex couples to have their relationship ‘Blessed’ in the Church (even though they may have the legal right to be married in a Civil Register Office) is that if the Church remains adamant on refusing to ‘marry’ a Same-Sex couple, this will likely engender more pressure on the Church to Bless a Same-Sex Civil Partnership.
As the C.T. Editorial so rightly states, we are dealing here with semantics. If the British government allows gays to marry, then what difference remains between the legal position of heterosexual and homosexual couples? If both are given the option of either a secular Civil Partnership OR a full-scale Marriage Ceremony , there will be equality in the law between both sets of couples in both situations. The distinction now between ‘Marriage’ and ‘Civil Partnership’ – certainly at law – is already virtually indistinguishable.
In the Church, marriage has the added pastoral ministry of contracting a relationship of two faithfully committed people before God, with God’s blessing. What the Church will have to determine is this: Considering that both Marriage and Civil Partnerships can be contracted outside the Church in a Civil Ceremony, and may shortly become fully available to both hetero- and same-sex couples, will the church continue to deny committed and faithful Same-Sex couples, at the very least, a Blessing in the Church? If so, where is the responsibility of the Church to be found in pastoral ministry to such relationships?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand