Gay marriage: a war of words that obscures the Church’s message

The Tablet Blog

Fr Ceirion Gilbert, guest contributor

13 March 2012, 9:00

Language, we know, is far from objective; the languages with which we speak and learn, worship and love, are rich expressions of a cultural identity sedimented, as it were, in each word, over and through the vital experience of countless generations.

The intense, heated and far from over debate taking place within the Church and in British society over the legal definition of marriage, and whether or not this should be extended to include same-sex couples, is about language, and a powerful example of how much is, in fact “in a name”.

“Marriage” is a word, and yet its content is heavily determined by factors of culture and belonging, faith and history. The Catholic hierarchy believe that however there is an essential “core” to the meaning of that word that is inalienable and non-negotiable; others (including other Christian communities and, interestingly, many members of the Catholic laity) disagree.

As a priest who deals daily with young people, teachers and catechists, I fear that yet again the Catholic Church is aligning herself with the wrong side, portraying herself as the “defender” of a position and an interpretation of society and humanity at odds with that of younger generations and almost incomprehensible to them in its rigidity and – to use an admittedly “loaded” term, bigotry.

I sense that once again, as so often on issues of sexual morality, that there is a gulf between the diktats of the institution and the “sensus fidelium”, that concept that seems to have almost disappeared in recent years for some reason from the ecclesiastical vocabulary.

The comments of Cardinal Keith O’Brien last week left me saddened and angry; as a priest with among my friends more than one gay couple who still attend church (people with more courage and commitment than I might have in their position) I wondered how they are supposed to feel “welcomed and loved” by those unacceptable and absurd remarks; adjectives which, by the way, have been used by other (straight and not-so-young) Catholics when discussing the issue with me over recent days.

Fortunately the letter read out in many Catholic churches over the weekend written by Archbishops Nichols and Smith was far more balanced and conciliatory in tone, although the arguments presented in it in defence of the status quo are not above logical and theological questioning.

I welcome the debate on the meaning of marriage and its role and purpose in a liberal diverse society. But growing ever stronger in my mind is the fear that while as a Church we worry about language and words – Welsh or English or Latin; rock or plainsong; marriage or civil partnership – the message and meaning that we are here to proclaim is passing us by.

Surely if there is one constant and common theme throughout the scriptures it is in the gradual discovery and recognition of the reality of God as a God of an inclusive and all-embracing Love whose ultimate expression is found in the Paschal Mystery of Death and Resurrection of his “Word” incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

The purpose and mission of the Church, surely, is to be an effective and coherent witness to and expression of that love in our world and our time – however we do it, and in whatever language, for everyone.

I saw little of that, sadly, in the words of the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh last week. Society sees little of that, sadly, when it sees a church hierarchy that all too willingly goes into convulsions when moral issues are called into question but remains silent when faced with the real social scandals of our time.

But I do see it in the people, young and old, who still come faithfully to fill the pews and celebrate the mystery of a love that defies all our definitions and the limits we place on it. I see it in their acts of sacrifice and solidarity, in their innate sense of dignity, justice and a shared and sacred humanity. Perhaps when as a Church we begin to speak about that a bit more, the world will once again sit up and listen.

Fr Ceirion Gilbert is the director of youth services in the diocese of Menevia in south Wales, and editor of the diocesan magazine.


A Roman Catholic parish priest here speaks of his difficulty in his parish situation in trying to reconcile the Church’s attitude to sexuality – especially with the experience of young Gay people in his parish, who are questioning the Church’s attitudes towards what they (young people) see as supportive, faithful and loving partnerships. These are the young of the Church who want the leaders of the faith communities to identify with the needs that are currently being expressed in the modern world – to meet up with the gospel ethic of the unconditional LOVE of God in Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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