Today, equal marriage has become law in England. I want to welcome it and offer congratulations, good wishes and prayers to all who will be getting married today and in the coming weeks. It’s been moving to read stories of the very first ceremonies held in the small hours across the country.
I don’t know what I can
add to the debate we have had in state and church over the past months, or for that
matter, to what I’ve already blogged on the subject. But here are some thoughts
from a Christian perspective as we cross this historic threshold.
First, I recognise how hard this has been for many fellow-Christians,
some in this country, but especially overseas. It is unfair to dub all who
dissent as homophobic: there are many people of integrity for whom equal
marriage is hard to accept. It would have been for me at one time. We need to allow time. Our bishops don't find themselves in an easy position here, so I welcome Justin Welby’s realism about this change and his wish for the church not to campaign against it and pursue hostile agendas but at least to call a truce, and more positively to welcome
and embrace gay couples in Christ’s name as they find their home in the church.
Secondly, we shouldn’t be afraid of how this development enlarges
our understanding of marriage. Some say that equal marriage is an invalid
distortion of marriage as traditionally understood. But if it is, so was the 19th
century change in marriage law to allow men to marry their deceased wife’s
sister (once forbidden as incestuous in the table of kindred and affinity). More
recently, remarriage after divorce and the church’s provision of services of
blessing were equally contentious at the time. My point is that neither of
these changed the nature of marriage: they simply enlarged its scope by
admitting to it people who were once excluded. Equal marriage is another
stage in the long evolution of an institution that has been reshaped at different times down the centuries. But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.
Thirdly, I think we need to be more intelligent about thinking
biblically in relation to equal marriage. It’s not enough to quote texts by
themselves, as if they prove or disprove a particular position: what’s
necessary is to understand the direction
in which scripture is leading us in the way we reflect on human relationships. I
was struck by a conversation the other day with a convinced evangelical who asked:
why does the church come across as so hostile to equal marriage when it’s so
clear from the Bible that covenanted monogamous lifelong commitment is always better
than casual, promiscuous coupling? For the covenanted relationship is precisely
how God marries himself to humanity. Shouldn’t the church positively welcome equal
marriage as affirming this rich biblical insight into God’s nature and ours? And even if we aren't sure, isn’t it better to risk a more generous way of reading biblical writings rather than a narrower, in the spirit of a text I come back to in so many controversial settings: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). This is the kind of hermeneutical risk I see Jesus taking with Torah texts in the gospels.
Fourthly, let me acknowledge the pain and anger of gay people who
continue to feel excluded by the church’s stance on equal marriage. The recent guidance
from the House of Bishops has not reassured them, and it’s now clear that some bishops
were far from comfortable with the advice they had issued. However, I do not
think that this represents a stable position. As equal marriage becomes
accepted by society and, as the indications are showing, by the majority of lay
people in the church, we shall see a shift in the official stance. In time, the
church will accommodate itself to this development, and recognise that by blessing
same-sex marriages and even solemnising them, it is affirming the principle that
covenanted unions are fundamental to the way we see (and more important, the
way God sees) human love. Precisely the same happened with the remarriage of
divorced people in church, and with female bishops. It takes time for change to
be received and its theological significance understood. It’s not much comfort to
those asking the church for recognition now, but in time I believe we shall
And finally. After
today, we shouldn’t talk any more about equal
marriage, or same-sex marriage or gay marriage, just marriage.
I’m glad that one more layer of discrimination and prejudice has been stripped
away. It’s a day to celebrate generosity, justice and love. And while I’m sad that the church won’t officially be part of today’s celebrations, that doesn’t stop us rejoicing with all who rejoice, praying with them and blessing them in our hearts.