Catholic Bishops, Baptist pastors, and same-sex marriage

It seems fairly likely that we in Scotland will see the extension of marriage to same-sex couples before the rest of the UK, probably in the next 2-3 years. The government has proposed this, and a consultation on the proposal has just closed. How should a Christian commentator respond to this idea? The theology here is actually quite interesting, if we can catch enough breath to step back from the polemics.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has gone on the offensive, suggesting that same-sex marriage is, roughly, a logical impossibility. Oddly enough, supporters of the government proposal have found this suggestion both offensive and unhappy, but it was both predictable and inevitable to anyone who understands Roman Catholic theology.

Catholic ethics assume – in part – a ‘natural law’ position. This is the idea that all people, if they are thinking clearly, have been granted enough information to come to right conclusions on certain issues. The over-riding sanctity of human life, including human life in utero, is assumed to be a position demonstrable by natural law, as is the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman in faithful, lifelong, and exclusive sexual companionship.

For the Roman Catholic tradition, natural law also demands the inalienable rights of all human beings, economic justice, and various other things. When the Pope visited Britain last year, his speech in Westminster Hall was entirely predicated on a natural law tradition – as he put it, ‘[t]he Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason…’. On this basis, the Church and a secular state could and should share a commitment to human rights and justice and other things because both were pursuing the same natural law.

A more traditionally Reformed account of ethics is rather less happy with this. Christian life is necessarily gospel-shaped, and so is profoundly and irreconcilably odd, judged by the canons of any secular society. Christian marriage, to take the case in point, is (as Augustine taught) a profoundly ascetic practice, devoted mainly towards the disciplining of ‘natural’ desires in order to direct the lived life in ways that manifest the gospel and not alien values. (I have commented elsewhere on this blog on the possibility of extending such an understanding to gay and lesbian relationships.) In the extreme form of this view (made popular by Barth…) there is no ‘natural law’; there is the gospel, with its peremptory demands, and there are ways of life that are ignorant of the gospel, and so inevitably in some measure inimical to the gospel.

How, then, do we deal with a state proposal to extend the legal definition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples? For someone who is (properly) Roman Catholic, they examine the given definitions and expositions of natural law, and note that they assert, inter alia, that ‘marriage’ is the union of one woman and one man. The idea of gay/lesbian couples ‘marrying,’ therefore, is not so much wrong as incomprehensible and impossible. This is not a denial of the human rights of gay/lesbian couples – as a matter of fact, in British/Scottish law, there is no human right granted by the marriage relationship that is not also granted by being in a civil partnership – so much as a belief that it is intrinsic to the definition of the word ‘marriage’ that those entering into the state are of opposite sex. ‘Same-sex marriage’ on this view is a phrase like ‘four-sided triangle’; not something that should not be done, but something that logically cannot be done. Thus, Archbishop Conti was being faithfully Catholic when he said, ‘Governments do not have the authority to say what marriage is or to change its nature or to decree that people of the same sex can marry.’

(Could a natural law argument that extended the meaning of marriage to embrace same-sex couples be offered? It is certainly not impossible, but the argument needs to be made with, in the case in point, deep attention to the Roman Catholic tradition: how is a position embraced within natural law? Can gay and/or lesbian relationships, under certain limitations (inter alia, presumably, permanence, faithfulness and exclusivity), be adequately and meaningfully narrated within this tradition? I see some major difficulties in constructing the argument, and also some potential ways around them, but, thus far, as far as I know, the argument has not been attempted.)

The Roman Catholic hierarchy of Scotland clearly generally believes that the natural law argument cannot be extended to same-sex relations; we could dismiss this as homophobia, or we could acknowledge that, within the tradition of moral reasoning they inhabit, no plausible argument for this extension has been made; inevitably, then, they are constrained to believe as they do. For Christian interpreters, charity might demand the latter approach, and suggest that anyone who desires to shift the position of the Church needs first to demonstrate philosophically that such an argument is sustainable. (I confess that I do not follow the Roman dogmatic tradition carefully; it may be that this argument has been made, sufficiently quietly that it has not entered into general academic consciousness; if so, it should be promoted assiduously by those who know of it.)

What should a Reformed response look like? Someone who does not believe in a natural law which demonstrates the appropriateness of indissoluble heterosexual monogamy to all right-thinking people can go one of two ways. She could claim special insight from revelation into the best way to order society, and attempt to impose that through gaining and exercising political power. This has been the way of the state churches, generally. Alternatively, she might go a Baptist/free church route: believing that Christian marriage is for Christians, she would ask the government to allow her congregation, and all other people, to follow their consciences, and to protect them in that.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the Protectorate in England declared marriage to be a civil act, conducted by a Justice of the Peace, not a minister. Further, in England and Wales, the oppressive Anglican regime insisted that only marriages conducted by its own clergy were valid up until 1836 (under Hardwicke’s act of 1753, there were exceptions for Jews and, curiously, Quakers) – Baptists (or Muslims…) who wanted to marry had to apply to the local Anglican parish priest. Since that date, English/Welsh law has recognised two forms of marriage: Anglican; and civil (all Scottish marriages are civil in this sense, formalised under the authority of the registrar). Ministers of other denominations were allowed to seek authorisation from the local registrar, and, having received it, to act as agents of the state in officiating at a civil ceremony (and all Scottish ministers formalising marriage act as agents of the state).

States, including the United Kingdom, clearly have assumed that they have the power to define what ‘marriage’ means in the past, and no doubt will do so again in the future; I suspect that – in Baptist terms – it was a mistake to entangle church and state in this area. Perhaps there was a moment of happy accident when the civil definition of marriage was somewhere close to the Christian ideal, but it was only ever going to be a moment; we should have foreseen that, in one direction or another, this closeness would disappear and we would find ourselves uncomfortably implicated in a civil practice of which we could not approve. I  further suspect that, had we been thinking clearly, one or another of the various alterations to the divorce laws should have been the decisive moment of separation for us…

Time was in England, Baptists and others would go to the local parish priest to sort the legal bit out, and then have (what they regarded as) a proper Christian marriage ceremony afterwards. To return to such a practice, substituting civil registrar for Anglican cleric, might be our best witness to our faith – and I suspect that this might be true regardless of the outcome of the current debate. In Scotland, after all, with have a marriage law which regards prenuptial agreements as enforceable (England & Wales have so far avoided this) how can a ‘marriage’ covenant containing the terms of its own possible dissolution be regarded as adequately Christian?

25 Comments

  1. JonB
    Dec 13, 2011

    I’m a Baptist (sort of), but I think the Catholic response is absolutely right!

  2. Catriona
    Dec 13, 2011

    Excellent post Steve, espeically the historical stuff which I seem to spend ridiculous amounts of times reminding people about! Would be interested to know (probably best ‘off blog’) your views on the BUS response to the consultation up here (assuming you know what it looks like)

    • Steve H
      Dec 13, 2011

      Hi Catriona, Thanks. And, umm, see below?

  3. Alan Donaldson
    Dec 13, 2011

    Hi Steve, Really helpful post. Would have drawn a lot of confidence from it a week ago when writing our response to government consultation. In our response to the government both verbally and in written form we have suggested that many of our ministers will respond by no longer remaining on the register of celebrants encouraging Christian couples to seek state recognition for their partnership and then hosting a service of celebration and blessing. However your comments about why we have not done this sooner raises many questions about our true values. We might ask why Christians have campaigned so strongly on this but not on issues relating to financial justice, alcohol abuse in Scotland, health issues etc…

    • Steve H
      Dec 13, 2011

      Hi Alan, thanks for stopping by. You can always trust an academic to give you good advice a week after you needed it!

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      BTW, meant to say, the random avatar generator was particularly cruel to you, Alan – apologies…

  4. James Faddes
    Dec 13, 2011

    Thank you Steve for this insightful contribution to the current debate (I followed it from Alan’s recommendation on FB).

    I find your thinking very helpful, and a necessary reminder of the dangers of state sponsored ‘sacred power’. I like Tony Campolo’s wee saying: “Mixing the church and the state is like mixing horse-manure and ice-cream – it doesn’t really affect the manure but it really messes up the ice-cream!” Perhaps we need to focus on Jesus our Lord and his kingdom rather than trying to resucitate a dying Christendom.

    I also feel Alan’s proposed question regarding prophetic and dissident socio-political engagement: why have Scottish Baptists not been nearly as vocal/active over other more pressing issues – financial justice and nuclear weapons to name two? Perhaps if we do this then we would have a stronger voice speaking to the powers.

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Thanks James; it’s perhaps worth remembering that we were asked for our opinion on this one, so it is perhaps appropriate that we worked hard to give one. Also, I think it is inevitable that we find it easier to make comment on a big proposed change – if we were proposing stationing nuclear subs in Scotland for the first time, the debate would rage more strongly.

  5. David Campton
    Dec 13, 2011

    Your position is one that I have advocated for the Methodist Church in Ireland for over a decade, seeing this and other issues coming over the horizon. It allows for a more flexible and authentic exercise of conscience. Any marriage is constituted in 3 ways: in the eyes of the participants (through sexual intimacy), in the eyes of the state (through appropriate legal registration), and in the eyes of God (through the offices of the church)… We generally keep our noses out of the first, and as far as I can see the government should administer the second… leaving us to deal with the third.

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Thanks for coming by again, David. Are the Methodist Church listening to you?

  6. J Mark Donaldson
    Dec 13, 2011

    Are you advocating a change in the way Scottish Baptist churches conduct marriages because the definition, from church and State, on what constitutes ‘marriage’ is becoming increasingly divergent? That the signing of the register should no longer happens in our churches if at all? I’m a little confused as to what you are actually advocating and what the implication of your viewpoint would be for Christian married couples who do not agree with the definition of marriage that the State may adopt? I would be grateful for clarification on your post.

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Thanks for commenting.
      I’m not sure I’m advocating anything, so much as musing about possibilities. But if we were to move in the sorts of directions I am musing about, there would be no change at all for married couples; for couples getting married, we might go back to the practice – it was once common – of having a brief formal legal solemnization in the registry office, followed by a service of worship and blessing in church which would have no legal standing, but would celebrate and model true Christian marriage.

  7. James Faddes
    Dec 13, 2011

    I wonder what would happen if Christians decided not to seek ‘state recognition’ certificates for their marriages, but just a service of celebration and blessing within their own local churches? Marriage in the sight of God, regardless of the civic powers. Would that be seen as sectarian; or ‘not properly married’ in the eyes of the state; or perhaps even a picture of the covenant between Christ and his Church? Oh, now I am reminded of our baptist forefathers/mothers who preached/baptised/ministered without a ‘proper’ licence…. :|

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Hi James,
      ‘Almost nothing’ I suspect is the answer to your first question – couples living together without being legally married is hardly unusual in Scotland today. (Legal) marriage confers some important privileges concerning (e.g.) inheritance or hospital visiting which are not available elsewhere (this is why the introduction of civil partnerships was genuinely an issue of human rights); I am not sure it would be sensible for us to ask couples to forgo those privileges.
      (The Roman Catholic priesthood in eighteenth-century England accepted the need to seek the formalisation of marriages from Anglicans for similar reasons; some indeed cast it as an issue of women’s rights: if the marriage had no legal standing, then the man could – and in several recorded instances, did – leave his wife destitute; this was unacceptable.)

  8. Rachel
    Dec 13, 2011

    Very interesting – noting that Quakers have, as it were, gone the opposite way on same-sex marriage from the same, or a very similar, position on church-state relations (ie starting to celebrate same-sex marriage, and then asking the state to recognise the freedom of a religious community to do so).
    Looking at James’ comment above – these issues certainly arose for Quaker marriages in the C17th and (I think) early C18th – and looking at the comment about ministers, I wonder whether there’s also a history of Baptist couples suffering legal or social penalties for not being “properly” married, ie “married before the priest”? The main trace of it now is the much-loved Quaker tradition of everyone present at the wedding signing a special marriage certificate – which originated as defiance of state/established-church authority (we the undersigned recognise and bear witness that these people are married, even if the authorities don’t…).

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Hi Rachel,
      Yes, in a sense we agree on the key point: it is none of the state’s business who or what we bless in our assemblies (the question of the ban on civil partnerships being celebrated in religious ways is a total no-brainer for Baptists; we (generally) don’t want to do it, but the government is grossly exceeding its powers when it legislates to prevent us, or anyone, worshipping as we see fit. After that, the question is ‘what do we choose to do in worship?’ and there our traditions diverge, on this, as other points.

      I noted in the OP that Hardwicke’s act in 1753 created an exception for Quakers; when I discovered that I was puzzled as to why you got singled out; on reflection, I suspect it is because you were truer to our shared roots, particularly on issues like oaths and vows. We compromised, and agreed to be married before the priest using forms that we should have objected to; you would not, and so created a problem for the state, which it eventually gave way on.

      It is a fine witness to the Friends of earlier ages that you never apparently suffered the problems of desertion that finally drove the Catholics into the arms of the state!

      • rachelmuers
        Dec 14, 2011

        Quakers and Jews, to be precise. I have never been quite clear about the reasons for this either. It may not be as exciting as “true to our shared roots”; more to do with “Quakers are just too weird and we can’t hope to fit them into the pattern, but they seem to be mostly harmless, so let them carry on” (which seems to sum up many establishment responses to Quakers since we ceased to be illegal). Or it may be an over-correction for previous problems.
        There was, of course, a longish period of Quaker history when people were disowned for “marrying before the priest” (generally = marrying a non-Quaker, and I’m not entirely sure whether the form of the wedding or the person they were marrying was regarded as the key problem). So we did lose people over this; I’m not sure anyone’s done the sums.

  9. Alan Austin
    Dec 13, 2011

    Here in France all marriages and unions – including same-sex – are celebrated at the Mairie. Afterwards any couple so inclined may proceed to a church (RC) or temple (Protestant) or other place of worship for a blessing service. All legalities are completed at the Mairie.
    Seems to work quite well.

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Thanks, Alan. Yes – of course, we don’t have that particular French vision of the secularity of the state, which I suspect underlies that practice?

  10. Patrick Gillan
    Dec 14, 2011

    As a Baptist I am delighted that Gay men and women will eventually have the same rights as everyone else. Whatever the Catholics say it will make no difference they have been wrong indeed so wrong in the past and they are wrong again.But does anyone care what the church thinks? I don’t think so. And can someone please tell me why Baptist Ministers are frightened to speak openly about how they really feel on this issue. There are a number of Baptist Ministers happy to bless Civil Partnerships but regretfully are being gagged by the BU! If the BU is to have any credibility if indeed it has much left at all!, then let the people speak!

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Hi Patrick, thanks for commenting.
      As to your question, ‘does anyone care what the church thinks?’ one of the striking things about the current debate in Scotland is that the answer is, yes, the government does. They specifically asked the churches to contribute to their consultation and I have heard evidence (which I cannot publish, as it relates to ongoing political discussions) that senior government ministers are seriously concerned to understand what the different churches think.
      I see a part of my vocation as a theologian to be the doing of my best to ensure that the different churches actually do think, and think well, and think Christianly…

  11. Wesley Hill
    Dec 14, 2011

    Hi Steve, thanks for this thoughtful post. A while ago on his (now sadly defunct) blog, Paul Griffiths made a similar point with reference to the legal situation in America — and he made the point precisely as a self-conscious Catholic. Here’s a snippet:

    It is a widely accepted norm of moral theology that the Church should not expect the civil law of a secular state to approximate in every particular the content of the moral law, stricto sensu. Prudential judgment about what the Church should advocate is needed in every particular case of divergence between the two. Relevant to such judgment is consideration of the degree to which what the Church teaches on the matter is likely to prove comprehensible to the locals. In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

    If that empirical claim is right…, then the concluson strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

    What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Thanks for stopping by, Wesley.
      Wonderful quotation! (‘…to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.’ – why can’t I write like that?)

      Although – there is a strand of Baptist/anabaptist witness which could be unhappy with the claim: holiness on this telling is not attractive, but confusing and obscure, to the unregenerate mind. I suspect this links in with questions of natural law at a fairly deep level, if we think about it hard enough…

  12. Steve Duby
    Dec 14, 2011

    Hi Steve,

    This ties in less with homosexuality in particular, but I’m wondering if you’ve had much interaction with some of the recent work discussing the place of natural law in the history of Reformed thinking (e.g., David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms) and arguing that it’s more prominent than is often thought.

    Steve

    • Steve H
      Dec 14, 2011

      Hi Steve, thanks for coming by.

      Indeed – I don’t know VanDrunen specifically, but there is no doubt that appeals to natural law were common enough in the Reformed tradition; I hinted at this with the reference to Barth in the OP. (One of the problems I have with teaching the Barth-Brunner debate is that, whilst I want to be very close to Barth on the theological issue, he allowed the debate to be conducted in terms of faithfulness to Calvin, and on that criterion, Brunner had by far the better of the argument; ‘natural law’ type ideas are all over Calvin…)

      My point really is that there are different ways of being Christian on this issue, and if we are going to have a decent debate we need to know that…

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