For better or for worse

I wrote this article in May 2012 in response to a letter published by the Bishop of Buckingham in a national newspaper on marriage and homosexuality.  I have reposted it here in response to continuing requests from people inside and outside the church.  The views are mine and mine alone.

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It was with great dismay that I read of the Bishop of Buckingham’s support for what has been called gay marriage.  It is a very sensitive issue and probably not one that ought to be enjoined through open letters.  That said, I felt it important to respond to explain why so many of us, both inside and outside the church, were disappointed by Bishop Alan’s headline making comments.

It is un-helpful

The challenges of human sexuality; the fundamentally differing natures of marriage and civil partnerships; and the often conflicting roles of the church and state cannot be squeezed into a newspaper headline.  To do so is to invite knee-jerk responses from all sides that only serve to polarise the debate and give offense.  There may be some reasoned thinking on these issues that underlie the headlines, but an open letter like this does not encourage debate on that level.

It is un-equal

I cannot speak for those retired Bishops who signed the letter, but those few in current ministry have spoken of the issue of civil marriage as one of equality.  However, the proposed legislation, that the letter refers to, is far from equal.

What the legislation seeks to do is to privilege same-sex relationships over and against all other relationships.  Two things make this clear.  First, the civil marriage being proposed is only open to same-sex couples.  Under the proposed legislation, same-sex couples will be able to choose between civil partnerships and civil marriage where-as heterosexual couples will only be able to choose marriage.  This is hardly equal.

Second, the proposed legislation idealises same-sex relationships over and above all other loving and committed relationships.  If marriage is not the public union of one man and one woman then why is it not open to the loving and committed relationships often shown in siblings?  Or why limit it to two people?  How can something that benefits only one form of loving and committed relationship be done in the name of equality and justice?

It is un-Anglican

The question of human sexuality has been a live one in the church for many decades.  We are committed to sensitively listening to other voices and there is much for the church to reflect on and to improve on.  However, the Anglican position on marriage has not changed.

Bishop Alan’s letter refers to The Book of Common Prayer preface to marriage which affirms that the nature of marriage is the public union of one man and one woman for life, and that its purpose is for procreation; to avoid fornication; and for the good of both marriage partners.  Whilst we talk less today about avoiding sin, this is still the theological position of the Anglican Church on marriage.   The declarative document for the Church of England on this is Issues in Human Sexuality, which concluded that, “Holy Matrimony is, by intention and Divine purpose, to be a lifelong, monogamous and unconditional commitment between a man and a woman.”

Subsequently, the 1998 Lambeth Conference produced a report that approved Issues in Human Sexuality and stated the theological position of the Anglican Church which “upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”

This is the understanding of marriage that is accepted and practiced by the overwhelming majority of the world-wide Anglican Communion.  It is the definition of marriage that occurs over three thousand times in English law and it is the bedrock of our society and the institution into which more than a quarter of a million people enter every year.

It is un-Biblical

It used to be the case that this goes without saying, but now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to remind ourselves just how consistent and unequivocal the Bible is about Marriage.

There is no evidence anywhere in the Bible in favour of same-sex relationships.  Jesus never said a word in favour of anything other than celibacy or the marriage of one man and one woman.  For example, In Matthew 19, when Jesus was asked about marriage and divorce he said, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”  Jesus was also equally clear that the context for sex is marriage.  Sexual acts between men and women before marriage and outside marriage are condemned as wrong, as are all instances of same-sex sexual contact.

It is un-Christian

Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that Bishop Alan, or any others who might share his views, are not Christians.  What I am saying is that this is not how Christians are supposed to be in society.  Let me explain what I mean by this.

First, Christians are called to stand against injustice – to defend the poor and the marginalised – but this does not mean that we are to be apologists for sin.  Perhaps the woman caught in adultery in John 8 is a model for us in this.  Jesus was not afraid to defy unbiblical social norms when it came to women: he welcomed men and women equally, and argued that gender was no barrier to salvation.  When the woman was brought before Jesus he refused to condemn her, and he would not allow others to condemn her either – he treated her with dignity, acceptance, even forgiveness – yet he still said to her “go now and leave your life of sin.”

In following Jesus we too have this difficult task of defying unbiblical social norms and welcoming others with acceptance and forgiveness, yet at the same time calling everyone to grow in Christ-like holiness.  Condoning same-sex marriage does not do this.

Second, Christians are meant to be out of touch with the world on some things.  In Psalm 1 the psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.  But his delight is in the law of the Lord.”  This is a theme in the Bible.  As Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Christians are not to be tossed about by “every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:4).  Nor are we to preach and teach what society’s itching ears long to hear.  Rather, we are called to faithful obedience to the Word of God.

Writing letters to the press in support of same-sex relationships might get you headlines and favourable news coverage, you might even be seen as being in touch with the spirit of the age, but you are unlikely to be in step with the Spirit of Christ who calls all Christians to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

I believe that this is not how a Christian is called to live, and it is certainly not how a Bishop should behave.  At their consecration all Bishops declare that they are ready “with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same.”

Can I end, then, as I began by expressing my dismay at the actions of our area Bishop, and also by apologising for any offence my long and yet superficial response may have caused.  Open letters are not a healthy way of provoking debate, but hopefully I have put a little more theological meat on the bone.

The institution of marriage is a very special one – as the supplementary text of the current marriage service says, “The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh.”  That is what we celebrate as marriage, what we proclaim as God’s will and purpose for society, and what we defend as a church.

Alistair