The Church of England has published it’s official response to the consultation on marriage equality in England and Wales. It has come out as strongly and unambiguously opposed to equality, which is something of a surprise given the extent to which it is internally divided on the question. It’s actually quite unusual to see the C of E taking a firm stand on any question whatsoever. This is, after all, the institution that, when asked if there is an afterlife (something that is explicitly affirmed by Christ in the gospels), responded “It’s quite a big question. Not sure if there’s an official answer.” I will never cease to wonder at a church that can be so certain of things that are peripheral to its faith and so vague about things that are central to it.
In making its case in favour of prejudice and discrimination, the C of E has put forward a number of arguments, some of which are incoherent, or incompatible with their wider approach, or both. For example, the Church argues
Such a move [enabling all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony] would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman
This is, quite obviously, a circular argument. To paraphrase: we can’t let gay people get married, because if we did marriage wouldn’t be a straight-only institution, but marriage is a straight-only institution, so we can’t let gay people get married, because if we did marriage wouldn’t be a straight-only institution, but marriage is a straight-only institution, so we can’t let gay people get married, because if we did… This transparently fails to deal with the crux of the matter – that it is wrong, unjust, unfair, discriminatory and wicked to promote and nurture institutional prejudice.
The document goes on to argue
Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.
You will doubtless have already spotted that the Church have undermined their own case here. By acknowledging that procreation is only a ‘possibility’ (not a certainty or duty) and that it is only applicable ‘for many’ marriages (not all), they have explicitly confirmed that neither the capability to procreate nor the intention to do so is essential for a marriage. The Church were, or course, forced into this in order not to contradict their established position on marriages between infertile couples, and marriages involving women who have experienced the menopause, and marriages between fertile people who choose not to have children (which are all fine in Anglican doctrine). This does not alter, however, the fact that the Church have in their own submission refuted one of their key arguments against permitting same-sex marriage: that the non-procreative nature of such relationships means they are unsuited to marriage.
To be honest, I could keep going at this for thousands of words, knocking down one by one the Church’s arguments for bigotry and prejudice, and showing how they ceaselessly contradict themselves on key issues. I might begin by pointing out that the Church’s central concept of ‘biological complementarity’ doesn’t actually mean much outside the single act of impregnation, which is a very small part of child-rearing – itself only a part of the function of marriage. I could draw attention to the inconsistency of the Church emphasising the definition of marriage from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, when that book was drawn up at a time when the Church fully endorsed legislation that made male homosexual acts punishable by death; since the Church now concedes that executing gay people (in accordance with the rules in Leviticus and elsewhere) was wrong, it follows that doctrines formulated in the context of those now-rejected beliefs must also be reformulated. But the truth is this is too important, and the stakes here are too high, for this kind of intellectual game.
The central argument the Church put forward in their response to the consultation is that there is no distinction between religious and civil marriage. They argue that there is a single institution of marriage, and that the separate religious and civil ceremonies are nothing more than different entry routes into the one institution. This is a clear land-grab by the Church. They are trying to make out that all marriages – even marriages between divorced people, which the Church does not recognise as valid; even marriages between non-Christians – are in essence Christian marriages. And they are then taking to themselves the right to claim ownership of this single institution, and to lay down the law about it:
the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teachings 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.
It couldn’t be clearer – even if you are straight, this affects your marriage, or any marriage you may enter into at some point in the future. This isn’t just about denying same-sex couples the right to marry, it’s also about attacking the right of opposite-sex couples to divorce. The Church asserts that all marriages – even marriages not solemnized by the Church; even abusive marriages – are to be ‘lifelong’, and also asserts for itself the supreme authority to regulate all marriages. This isn’t, as some straight people may assume, a storm in a teacup that will have no impact on their lives. This is the Church explicitly and deliberately trying to push back against the secular rights straight people take for granted. This is the Church trying to use the opportunity of the consultation on gay marriage to reassert its authority to regulate the personal lives of a public who no longer attend its rites. The Church are keen for you, if you are straight, to believe that this is something that won’t affect you, but it is the start of a process that, if left unchecked, will affect you directly.
The Church are also keen for you to see this as unnecessary change for change’s sake:
Civil partnerships have […] already provided a framework within which same sex couples can exhibit the social values of fidelity and mutuality. […] it is not clear what additional new rights, opportunities or responsibilities if any the introduction of same-sex marriage would achieve given that the legal inequalities between heterosexual married couples and same-sex partners have already been addressed through the introduction of civil partnerships
This is not true. It’s not true because civil partnerships formed in the UK are not recognised anywhere else in the world, but same-sex marriages would be recognised in any of the growing number of countries that allow same-sex marriage. More importantly, it’s not true for couples in which one partner undergoes a sex change. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think; I know three couples who have either been affected by this, or have had to delay their wedding plans so as not to be affected by it, and it can be devastating for people who find themselves caught up in the middle of it, as this blog makes clear:
I regard my marriage as having been taken from me under duress and feel a great injustice has been done to myself, my wife and those like us. This must not be allowed to continue.
It may be that you agree with the Church. It may be that you agree with them that it is good and right and proper to force loving couples to divorce. It may be that you agree with them that the relationships entered into by gay people – and by extension gay people themselves – are inferior, of lower quality, not worthy of the same recognition and celebration as straight relationships and straight people. It may be that that you are content for the Church to take for itself the right to regulate all marriages, even those entered into via a civil process and understood by their participants to be secular in nature. You may agree with the Church that is for them to insist that all marriages are ‘a lifelong union of one man with one woman’, and to impose that standard on everyone, regardless of whether or not they share that belief.
Or it may be that you disagree. You may disagree because you are gay yourself, or want to express solidarity and sympathy with gay people. You may disagree because you are trans yourself, or because, even though you are not directly affected, you think the consequences of the status quo for trans people and their families are barbaric. You may disagree because you are one of the many committed, faithful Anglicans who reject the official Church stance on this issue. You may disagree because you are not an Anglican and do not think that the Church of England should have the right to dictate to non-Anglicans. You may disagree because you are a secularist and think religious teachings and regulations should apply only to believers.
Whatever your reasons, if you do disagree with the Church’s position and you live in England and Wales, I would urge you to respond to the Home Office’s consultation on marriage equality. In everything they say and do in this consultation, the Church are acting on the presumption that, as the established Church, they speak on behalf of, and in the interests of, everyone in England. This is your opportunity to assert that they do not speak for you, and you have until Thursday, 14th June to do so. Please don’t waste your chance. Thank you.