Church responses to equal marriage legislation

I gave a lecture a few weeks back which, it turned out, was listened to be a serving member of parliament (who I will not name of course), amongst others; during the lecture I sketched quickly – it was not the main theme but it was relevant – an account of the different arguments advanced by British churches around the same-sex/equal (SS/E) marriage bill then before parliaments in Westminster, and the rather different SS/E bill currently before the Holyrood parliament. My point was not to defend, or to demolish, any of the arguments, just to make clear that different positions were in play, and that they led/lead to different attitudes to the bills. I was told by several people, including that parliamentarian, that this was both new and helpful, so thought I would post something similar here.

I see no less than seven different positions concerning the introduction of SS/E marriage that were/are on the table from the churches in the UK. They are as follows:

  1. It is intrinsic to the nature of marriage that it is between a man and a woman; to attempt to change this by legislation is not so much wrong as impossible.
  2. The introduction of SS/E marriage will have damaging social consequences – the weakening of the institution of marriage, for example, and so it should not be done.
  3. British law, and British society, is still largely based on Christian values, which exclude SS/E marriage; whilst the basis of our society remains fundamentally Christian, we should not legislate in this way.
  4. The proposal to introduce SS/E marriage has been introduced and forced through very quickly, with far too little opportunity for debate and discussion; we should pause and think a bit about what we are doing.
  5. The specific proposal in the particular bill (in Westminster/Holyrood) is flawed; it might be appropriate to introduce SS/E marriage, but not like this.
  6. The specific protections for religious liberty in the particular bill (in Westminster/Holyrood) is inadequate; it might be appropriate to introduce SS/E marriage, but we need better protections for those who object on grounds of conscience.
  7. The particular bill (in Westminster/Holyrood) is a good piece of legislation; it should be supported and welcomed.

I am going to look at each of these in more detail; one broad point first, however: the logical result of 1 & 2 is ‘don’t do this, ever’; the logical result of 3 is ‘don’t do this, for the foreseeable future’; the logical result of 4 is ‘this might be OK, but not right now’; the logical result of 5 & 6 is ‘doing this now is fine, but don’t do it in this way’ (and 7 of course leads to ‘do it!’). Different denominations have in fact adopted these different positions – although perhaps not with acute awareness of the logical outcome of their positions – and this should be noticed.

So some detail on how the arguments work and where they come from, together with some basic critical comments (mostly on the level of, ‘what would need to be true for this argument to work?’)

1. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has stressed a ‘natural law’ position in which ‘marriage’ is something reified, an ‘order of creation,’ with quite definite conditions attached – permanent, heterosexual monogamy is ‘marriage’; anything else just is not, whatever majority some parliamentary bill (or indeed national referendum) might achieve. On the basis of this sort of argument, a bill defining a same-sex relationship as marriage is not dissimilar to the – probably apocryphal – tale of an American legislature deciding to pass a law that from henceforth Pi would equal 3.

A number of things might be said about this argument: first, and obviously, the power of it depends entirely on one’s acceptance of the natural law position; given that natural law positions are supposed to be discoverable by the light of human reason alone, the partisans for this position need to demonstrate the truth of their contention in ways that are found convincing by lawmakers. Second, it seems to me that, if the position is right, one might be fairly sanguine about the passage of laws – to continue the analogy, legislating that Pi = 3 might confuse a few children unhelpfully, but is not actually going to change anything of importance. Third, given that permanence is a part of the stable Roman Catholic definition of marriage, the ready availability of divorce – and, in Scotland, the acceptance of pre-nuptial agreements in certain contexts – suggests that, from this perspective, the present bills before parliaments are proposing to change one illegitimate definition of marriage for another, which is rather more illegitimate – a point that did not seem to be generally acknowledged or recognised.

2. Some parachurch groups in particular have pointed to statistics from this or that country that has previously introduced SS/E marriage, suggesting that the introduction coincides with an increase in children born to single parents, or in divorce rates, or in some other statistic, acknowledged (or believed by those advancing the argument) to be a social problem. Proposing, generally without much argument, that correlation implies cause, the argument goes that introducing SS/E marriage harms society in demonstrable ways.

The force of this argument and the problem with it are the same: the data set is presently too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, so far as I can see. There is no doubt that legislative changes to marriage laws can have significant social effects; but it seems reasonable to suppose that these will inevitably be long-term and gradual. SS/E marriage has been introduced in a number (I think fifteen, but do not have data to hand) of nations, and a similar number of US states, all in the past two decades. If there are long-term effects – good or bad – on social cohesion from the introduction of SS/E marriage, it will take us some decades to spot them. Of course, positive effects on social cohesion might not be enough to justify the change, and negative effects might not be enough to justify opposition, but the argument has been made like this, so I report it.

3. The better (in my judgement) comments from the Church of England have taken the form of stressing the significance of the Christian heritage of the UK, and suggesting that SS/E marriage is incompatible with this Christian heritage, so arguing it should not be introduced. Now, some (rather vocal) members of the CoE would want to suggest that the minor premise is a point to be proved, rather than argued from, but assuming it stands, then this argument, coming from the church established in law, has at least prima facie merit.

A similar, but more unstated, argument can be found in some of the more conservative denominational responses, for instance that of the Free Church of Scotland. These responses assert that SS/E marriage is clearly unbiblical; they then assume, often without argument, that society should be conformed to Biblical norms; on this basis, society should not accept SS/E marriage. Again, the minor premise of this argument needs at least some defence – on what basis might it be claimed that Scottish society should conform itself to Biblical norms, particularly given current patterns and trends in church attendance? Various responses to this are available, some of which have prima facie plausibility, but they do need to be clearly offered for the argument to stand.

4. The Church of Scotland’s response to the Holyrood consultation begins by acknowledging that the Kirk is in the middle of a debate over its views on human sexuality, and that any adequate response to the sorts of questions asked would have to follow that debate, not be offered now. This is at least honest; one might want to castigate the Kirk for being so behind the curve of public debate, but on this issue this would be unfair; even Stonewall UK only began to campaign for SS/E marriage in late 2010; the Kirk – and other churches – were asked for a response to a consultation in summer 2012, less that two years later.

A similar argument is the one concerning lack of democratic mandate; in my hearing, this has been deployed more by government backbenchers in Westminster than by any church, but it needs noting. The argument runs that the introduction of SS/E marriage was not in any manifesto, or is of such significance that it needs the backing of a referendum. If these positions are found convincing, they suggest merely a delay, not a reason not to proceed, with the proposals to introduce SS/E marriage in law.

5. A minor theme in the responses of several Christian groups has been the poor drafting of the proposals for equal marriage – the Archbishop of Canterbury majored on this in his speech in the House of Lords, for instance. One strand of this is confusion over the definition of marriage: famously, the Westminster bill contains no requirement for consummation for a same-sex marriage, whilst retaining it for an opposite-sex marriage, and has no provision for a same-sex marriage to be dissolved on grounds of adultery. Two observations seem relevant here: first, this does seem to establish a strangely sexless union to bear the name of ‘marriage’; second, the marriage that is established is visibly not equal: SS marriage and opposite sex marriage carry different requirements and different responsibilities. (The Holyrood bill is better here, but does have some similar problems, particularly around the issue of permanent impotence.)

On the first, to call a relationship which assumes neither sexual activity, nor sexual fidelity, ‘marriage’ does seem to me potentially to raise some genuine difficulties, which at least deserved rather more consideration than they have been given. On the second, two points might be made. The first is that it would be appropriate for a campaigner who genuinely wanted to see equal marriage introduced to be deeply disappointed by the Westminster bill in particular: the bill offers the use of the word, but no true equality. Second, this lack of equality might well render the bill vulnerable to challenge under national and European human rights legislation; I am no lawyer, but to call two things ‘marriage’, and then to differentiate between them on grounds of sexual orientation, would seem to be very obviously discriminatory. Even if the particular issues are judged rare, our parliaments have a duty to pass legislation that will conforms to equality law, and it seems that the Westminster bill, at least, potentially does not.

6. The two bills claim to offer protection for religious liberty, and some churches – including my own denomination – have responded to the effect that, so long as religious liberty is preserved, they have little problem with the passing of the relevant bill. Is religious liberty preserved? There are two areas where churches have suggested it is not.

The first concerns the nature of the ‘quadruple lock’ offered in both bills. It has been found troubling in various particulars. The most significant is that it assumes that every religious tradition in England, Wales, and Scotland has a polity that approximates to that of the Church of England, at least in the existence of a national body that has power to issue instruction to local ministers and congregations. Some religious traditions, however, lack such a body – off-hand, I think of: Baptists; Muslims; Congregationalists; Hindus; most Pentecostals; Sikhs; Independent Evangelical Churches; Jains; Brethren; Buddhists; Pagans; and a few other smaller groups. Between them, these groups make up about half of those attending religious worship regularly in Britain. The mechanisms proposed in the bills currently before the two parliaments effectively disenfranchise all these people in this area, in that they are rendered unable to access the instruments made available by legislation.

(I am sure that the fact that many these groups are majority non-white is a coincidence, but it is not one that looks good, particularly given the repeated protests raised by Muslims, Black Majority Churches, and others that their voices were systematically excluded from the consultations.)

Second, it seems fairly clear that what is protected for religious groups is the right to follow their consciences concerning the conduct of weddings, not the right to follow their consciences concerning their beliefs about marriage (A point the Archbishop of Canterbury also made in the House of Lords). I preached at a church earlier this year that was offering ‘marriage enrichment weekends’ to the local community as part of its service/outreach; I believe that this particular congregation would want to insist that marriage is heterosexual in nature, and so would want to restrict these weekends to opposite sex couples. However, after the introduction of SS/E marriage it seems clear that this practice would be classed as discrimination in the provision of a public service, and so would be illegal.

Now, I have no particular interest in ‘marriage enrichment weekends’, and making them illegal might not be a big deal on one level; it is, however, an illustration of how the present drafting of the bills, along with the present state of equalities law, can combine to have far-reaching – and, I am certain, unforeseen by legislators – effects on the life of religious communities. The bills before the two parliaments will in various ways restrict the religious freedom of congregations to practice their beliefs. I see little evidence that this has been acknowledged, evaluated, and proposed as an unhappy but tolerable consequence of the advance in equality gained by the introduction of SS/E marriage. Instead, government ministers and pro-SS/E marriage campaigners have simply and repeatedly insisted that concerns over religious freedom are illusory. It seems to me obvious that they are not.

7. Some religious traditions – the Society of Friends, the Metropolitan Community Church, and some Liberal Synagogues are the major ones – welcomed the bills uncritically. These are all small enough groups that their internal deliberations tend not to be widely reported; I suppose that the possible objections numbered above – particularly points 4-6 – have been properly considered and dismissed as specious by these various groups; it would be interesting to see the arguments that were deployed in this consideration.

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