Gay Marriage: After the Vote
The process has been farcical, of course, including spurious consultations, unpleasant language and name-calling to silence or marginalise opposition, the avoidance of transparency by leaving the idea out of party manifestos, and some thoroughly bungled attempts to allow for exemptions (as Steve Holmes has pointed out). The American version of the same story pivoted on the most predictable “evolution” in modern political history, and has repeatedly demonstrated a thorough ignorance of the differences between gay marriage and the civil rights struggle, the public (and not merely private) nature of what marriage is and isn’t, and the way religious traditions actually think about it. More risible still than all this procedural and rhetorical manoeuvring has been the concept of redefining marriage itself, and the sheer hubris involved in contemporary governments changing the meaning of a word and an institution which predates them by millennia, and has been central to society since there has been such a thing as society. Messrs Obama, Cameron, Clegg and company may as well pass a law declaring that water can now flow uphill, or that electrons can now be attracted to each other rather than to protons, and in our view the political classes need to take a serious lesson from the experience of King Cnut.
Gay marriage is not about rights, for a start. Gay couples in civil partnerships, as has often been pointed out by opponents of the legislation, have the same rights in law as married couples already, and their legal entitlements will not materially change as a result of the legalisation of gay “marriage”. So unless we have been very misinformed or missed something important (which is always possible), we don’t see that the new law will make much practical difference to any gay couples. There are also the bizarre anomalies that civil partnerships will remain an option only for gay couples and not heterosexual ones; and that there will actually be two classes of marriage: One for heterosexuals that can be annulled if not consummated, and terminated on the grounds of adultery, and one for gays that will have no test of consummation and no possibility of adultery.
At the least, these anomalies demonstrate that language – like law – matters.
Marriage, as we’ve already said, is an institution that the secular state has no right to redefine; it was there before democracy existed, and it will be there long after democracy has gone. So in extending marriage to include same-sex relationships the state is using the word “marriage” to mean something other than what it has meant for centuries, not least in the Christian tradition, and saying there is no value distinction between a gay marriage and a straight one. Why is this a problem? Because to emasculate the definition of marriage in this way will, inevitably, change how future generations understand marriage. Rather than (in Cameron’s words) strengthening marriage by extending it, marriage will be diluted. Already, the ubiquity of contraception and the relative simplicity of divorce have hollowed out the way in which marriage is understood. Increasingly it is viewed simply as a contract with the person to whom you are most closely emotionally attached, rather than an institution of social utility oriented to the generation of children. Gay marriage will only reinforce this ‘romantic’ conception of marriage, and reinforce the existing trend of marriage being temporary rather than permanent and barren rather than fecund. This is a problem for all society. Without the stability of permanent, exclusive marriage being the norm, and the confidence for a common future made solid in the generation of children, our culture stands on very shaky ground.
So, how should we respond?
A frequently voiced concern is the fact that Christians will be forced to approve of gay marriage, once it becomes law: Christian teachers will have to teach that it is equally valid, people who decry it as “not real marriage” will be liable to lose their jobs, and so on. Frankly, that may well be true. People who are employed by the state currently have to abide by all sorts of constraints on their speech, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if objecting to gay “marriage” was not allowed in the brave new world. But again, how different is that from the situation we currently have? Christian teachers are not allowed to preach the gospel, teach that there is only one God, teach that life clearly begins at conception, teach the authority of Scripture, or speak out against abortion, greed (except in very restricted ways), sexual immorality, adultery, divorce, idolatry or gay sex. By and large, Christian teachers have learned to accept these constraints as the price they pay for working for an organisation whose values and commitments are fundamentally different from those of Jesus – and they have learned how to serve people with the love of God in spite of such restrictions on their speech. It is not easy, and it hasn’t been for some time. Legalising gay “marriage” will probably make things more difficult, but working out how to be a faithful citizen of heaven and of the world is difficult already. At most, it will add one more topic to the list of things about which teachers, et. al., need to speak with caution; for the vast majority, whose nursing or teaching or civil service has nothing to do with marital ethics, it won’t even do that.
Of course, for those of us who are employed not by the state but by churches, the difficulties are potentially considerable. The viability of Cameron’s “quadruple lock” remains to be tested, but is unlikely to hold – and does not even begin to deal with the more likely scenario of a gay “married” couple coming to one of our churches and being told that we do not recognize their marriage as valid. Much angst (and many a law suit) lies ahead, for sure.
Our culture is increasingly complex for Christians to navigate, and there are many pitfalls to catch the unwary. This calls for us to teach with increasing clarity and boldness, as well as love and grace, on issues such as sexuality. We will have to demonstrate the validity of our case time and again, even with those who we might have thought would share our assumptions. Today, nothing can be assumed. We may also have to get used to the idea that following Jesus is costly, in a way it simply hasn’t been in the West for the past couple of centuries. Any maybe that is not such a bad lesson to learn.
Changing the definition of marriage is a sad mistake – sociologically and philosophically, never mind theologically – but real marriage will remain. Let us remain true too.