After the Act – 50 Years On
My times, I can say, because I remember it well. If you were an adolescent of seventeen, this highly public debate about sex and sexuality couldn’t fail to be of absorbing interest. I hadn’t long come out as a Christian, and without understanding much of the theology (or much of human nature, for that matter), I remember being obscurely relieved that Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, supported decriminalisation.
As we all know, 1967 did not, to strike a Churchillian note, mark the end of a campaign, or even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it was the end of the beginning. Progress, especially in the last quarter of a century, has gained momentum. It has seen the equalisation of the age of consent, the inauguration of civil partnerships, the acceptance that gay couples should be eligible to foster and adopt children, and most recently, legislation to allow same-sex marriage. All the major political parties have strenuously supported equality legislation. Our understanding of homosexuality is vastly more sophisticated than it was fifty years ago. Gay culture has moved into the mainstream and enriched us all. These are all achievements to celebrate today.
But as we know, or ought to know, full equality for our LGBTQ+ friends has yet to be won. This is not only or primarily about legislation. It’s as much about changing attitudes, winning hearts and minds as politicians used to say. And this is the hard part. The extent of discrimination against gay people is deeply worrying. You want to hear gay people tell you about it? Try watching the excellent BBC3 series of documentaries Queer Britain (warning – not always comfortable viewing). You’ll learn about religious prejudice against gay people, the bullying many young gay people experience at school, the mental health problems many face, the staggering proportion who are homeless because they have been thrown out of their homes – you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel for these victims who simply want to be allowed to love in the way that feels natural and right.
The first programme in the series was entitled, “Does God Hate Queers?” And that brings me to what I want to say most of all on this fiftieth anniversary. It is that we people of faith must, absolutely must, purge ourselves of words and actions – yes, and thoughts too – that discriminate against gay people, and assert or imply that religion is against them. And I mean the policies and practices of our faith institutions, not simply our behaviours as individual men and women.
When it comes to legislation, which is what today is celebrating, the glaring statutory anomaly is the Church of England’s continued inability to permit same sex marriages to be solemnised and blessed in church. The website of our national church says, somewhat disingenuously, that the C of E is not allowed by law to conduct equal marriages. But this exemption was specifically asked for by the Church! Parliament agreed to it, no doubt to help expedite the passage of the equal marriage measure through its houses. But politicians are increasingly unhappy about this exceptionalism as we’ve heard in some public utterances on the subject in the past few weeks. And it’s clear from the two most recent meetings of the General Synod that the mood of the governing body of the Church is not very happy with the status quo either.
I’ve argued in a series of blogs (for example, here) for the Church’s full acceptance of same sex marriage. And make no mistake. However tolerant and generous the Church’s discourse about gay people, it’s actions not words that count. Of this, equal marriage is now the acid test of equality. To accept it, not grudgingly but willingly and joyously, would make all the difference. Not to do so perpetuates the message that this is an institution that continues officially to practise discrimination. That can’t be interpreted away (though some try very hard). This untenable position we are now in as the national church in England is a tragedy for its standing and reputation in the nation, especially among the young. To them especially, its stance feels archaic and cruel and wrong.
The Episcopal Church in Scotland has charted the way towards celebrating equal marriages in church. Here in Northumberland we live just south of the Scottish border, a few tiny minutes of latitude. But they make all the difference! In the English Middle March, I’m more than ever aware of our two churches’ varying polity on this point. Actually, I’m not pessimistic about the Church of England’s change of heart in the longer term. I’m as sure as I can be that in a decade or so, maybe less, the English Church will have followed where Scotland has led. Our church has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and it will assuredly act on these God-given instincts. It always has in the past, even if, as with slavery, contraception, the remarriage of divorced people and the ordination of women, the wheels have ground slowly. And equal marriage is, after all, only the law of the land! It’s a good law. We should be heartily glad to catch up with it and embrace it.
But given the pace of change we have seen in our society in the last two decades, I believe we have to demonstrate far more of a sense of urgency. The Bishops intend to bring back to the General Synod a teaching document in sex and sexuality in due course. It’s right that time is taken to do our theology and ethics rigorously and reflectively. But it’s hard to imagine what stones remain unturned when it comes to same-sex relationships and Christianity. We have examined the scriptures exhaustively, we have reflected carefully on the tradition and on our human experience. We have done our best to understand the science. But we can agonise too much, I think. We can be too afraid to be decisive and take the long view. We can put off acting courageously, doing the right thing, by engaging in the displacement activity of endless process. “How long, O Lord?” On this auspicious day, I’d love to think that the Church of England could cross this rubicon and proudly (adverb intended) celebrate the wonderful part gay people play not only in our church but in our society.
Today, 27th July, happens to be my forty-third wedding anniversary. I’ve every reason to be profoundly thankful for the gift of marriage that has so enriched every aspect of my life. (I hope my wife would say the same, but it’s for her to speak for herself.) So my plea for equal marriage in the Church comes out of my own experience as a married man. Marriage is good for us. It should be open to everybody. So on this day of celebration, I urge us all in the Church of England to say yes to equal marriage. Please. With gladness and hope in our hearts. And soon.