The Church of England's response to the consultation on same-sex marriage caused some waves this week. Given the debates inside the church on homosexuality that the response isn't a heartful endorsement isn't a huge surprise, but it's always a little bit disappointing to be reminded that an organisation still so entwined with the state holds these views.
It's well worth a read though, even if you find their arguments unconvincing it's filled with interesting facts - did you know that you have a right to be wed in your parish church and the vicar has to perform it, regardless of your religious affiliation (or lack thereof)? 'The church will be forced to marry people!' has been out of the bag for a while apparently.
I found a few sections in particular worth pulling out. The response opens claiming that that the church has actually been pretty progressive on same-sex couples in general but marriage is something that needs special consideration:
We have supported various legal changes in recent years to remove unjustified discrimination and create greater legal rights for same sex couples and we welcome that fact that previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships have now been satisfactorily addressed.
As has been pointed out a few times, this is a pretty generous interpretion of the Church's history on the matter. Their contribution to the Civil Partnership Bill in 2004 was notable for six bishops trying to help sink it with a wrecking amendment, it's only fourteen years since the highest figures in the church argued that gay people between 16 and 18 having sex should remain criminalized because dropping the age of consent would send a 'wrong message', and in 2006 they boldly stood up for the rights of the Catholic Church to have more opt-outs allowing discrimination against same-sex couples. The Anglican community is hardly all on the same side on this, but the direction the church has chosen to use its power is a little revealing.
Next up is the claim that that marriage as currently stands is a timeless institution that's existed pretty much forever - trying to put it that arguing against one-man-one-woman marriage is like arguing against gravity - it's just a fact, that's what marriage is.
In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.
Such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history.
Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man.
The intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman.
Marriage affords many benefits to society, which include mutuality, fidelity and biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation.
This is another case where there's quite a substantial clash with reality. Quite a few cultures have accepted definitions of marriage outside of this, same-sex marriage has existed in various forms at various times, and polygamous cultures are hardly rare - awkwardly several of them documented this fact in their holy books and as a result there are eight kinds of marriage sanctioned in the Bible. While none of them are same sex as such, many differ from the "lifelong union of one man with one woman" as has existed "before the advent of either church or state".
Mentioning 'mutuality' is an interesting point, because that's one aspect of marriage that even within the Church's (relatively short) history hasn't been constant. On page 2 they cite a definition of marriage from Common Worship which draws heavily on the marriage vows:
"The Church of Christ understands marriage to be, in the will of God, the union of a man and a woman, for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till parted by death." (Common Worship: Pastoral Services, page 177)
But if we go back tothe Book of Common Prayer cited above we quickly find a departure from this mutuality:
N. WILT thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?
The Man shall answer,
Then shall the Priest say unto the Woman,
N. WILT thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?The Woman shall answer,I will.
In therevised Common Worship this has been ironed out and 'obey' banished to the alternative vows (where 'serve' is nowhere to be found not technically being part of the vows in the original). Now this shift isn't that obscure or hidden knowledge, but that the mutual character of marriage is a somewhat modern institution is something that the church should remember. They haven't been protecting a perfectly Christian conception of marriage while the rest of society muddled and changed it's definitions - they've been right here with us as marriage evolved into what it is today.
This next one is my favourite:
To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals. It also undermines many of the arguments which support the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions on the grounds that a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender.
This is a beautiful argument that same-sex marriage undermines arguments against sexism. After all, if we need women in every boardroom don't we need them in every marriage? This is of course all the less convincing coming from an organisation that is at this very moment fudging the entry of women into its corridors of power.
To round it off the annex plays some interesting games with definitions:
The only kind of marriage which English law recognises is one which is essentially the voluntary union for life of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others.
That institution would be one which was defined as the voluntary union for life of any two persons. English law would, as a result, cease to provide or recognise an institution that represented the traditional understanding of marriage as the voluntary union for life of one man with one woman
the established institution of marriage, as currently defined and recognised in English law, would in effect, have been abolished and replaced by a new statutory concept which the Church – and many outside the Church – would struggle to recognise as amounting to marriage at all. A man and a woman who wished to enter into the traditional institution of marriage would no longer have the opportunity to do so. Only the new, statutory institution, which defined a marriage‘ as the voluntary union of any two persons, would be available.
You see, in the past marriage was between 'a man and a woman' now it'll be between 'two persons' - this will totally ruin it for all those couples that are made up of a man and woman but contain no persons!
It's hard to pin down why but I find this is one of the most distasteful arguments in the whole thing. What they're implying here is that there's harm in some way being done to heterosexual married couples - that the marriage they had no longer existed, its gone, erased with a pen-stroke, replaced by a ghoul that wears its face but isn't the same at all. It crosses the line from inventing history to inventing harm, and there's something ugly in that.