Things Archbishop Welby believes in: straight-only marriage and feudalism

His Grace The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Portal Welby, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England–

…and breathe…

–has spoken in public twice this week. The two utterances have given a disturbing insight into his thinking.

First up, on Monday, he spoke in the equal marriage debate in the House of Lords, where he had this to say

The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape, with same-gender and different-gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society, as we have already heard, is weakened.

Let’s take this point by point.

1) There is no ‘new marriage’ in the Bill so far as opposite-sex couples are concerned. The rights, privileges and customs of heterosexual marriage are not affected one iota by the Bill. I would describe this as a straw man argument, except that would imply it actually has some slight substance to it. This is a phantom argument, an apparition conjured out of thin air in an effort to horrify, but possessed of no substance at all.

2) It may not be obvious, but in referring to ‘an awkward shape’ the archbishop is talking about sex. You see, under the Bill, an opposite-sex marriage can be annulled on grounds of non-consummation while a same-sex marriage cannot, and adultery will continue to be defined for both straight and gay marriages as one’s spouse having sex with a person of the opposite gender. (This last is sometimes inaccurately reported as meaning that there will be no concept of adultery within same-sex marriages. This is untrue, since the Bill makes clear that sex with a person of the opposite sex will be classed as adultery in all marriages.)

Both difficulties arise because sexual contact has a very precise definition within the meaning of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973: it seems that only penile penetration of a vagina counts. This necessarily excludes sex between people of the same sex (although it also excludes an awful lot of sexual activities between people of the opposite sex, too). The solution – redefining sexual contact – would not seem to have been prohibitively difficult (how about “consensual physical contact pursued with the deliberate intent of achieving sexual satisfaction”?), but apparently the civil service found it impossible.

His nimble footsteps through this lexical and sexual minefield notwithstanding, the archbishop’s complaint has little in the way of actual substance. Straight marriage will fit as comfortably within the law as it always has, since no alteration is being made to the rules governing opposite-sex couples. While same-sex marriages are, it’s true, treated differently, this is an argument to amend the Bill, not to block it. The archbishop, you may be interested to know, has not proposed an amendment designed to rectify this anomaly, and as I understand neither have any of the other MPs and peers who have raised it; strange behaviour indeed for legislators who are so worried about the inability of bisexual and gay people to sue their same-sex spouses for non-consummation and adultery.

3) Let’s move on to the archbishop’s concept of marriage as ‘a normative place for procreation’. Personally, I’d have thought the ‘normative place’ for procreation was a bed (or, for the young and reckless, a late-night alleyway round the back of the shopping centre) not an abstract concept that isn’t in any sense of the word a place at all – but never mind that. The real problem is that it’s incredibly reductive to regard marriage as being about nothing more than baby-making sex. As even the Canon Law of the Church of England states, marriage is

for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

So far as the governing statutes of the institution the archbishop leads are concerned, marriage is not just about baby-making, but also about ‘nurture of children’ and ‘hallowing of natural instincts [i.e., sexual urges]’, as well as mutual ‘affection’, ‘society’, ‘help’ and ‘comfort’. You will, of course, recognise that all of those apply just as much to same- as opposite-sex couples.

You’ll also note that, by separating out the act of procreation from ‘natural instincts’, the statutes also explicitly acknowledge that sex and baby-making are not synonymous: that married, God-endorsed sex is not exclusively about making babies, and that making babies is not only about sex. Of course, if making babies is understood as something beyond the simply sexual that means the definition of procreation can comfortably expand to include the artificial means by which same-sex, as well as infertile opposite-sex couples, have children.

4) With the archbishop’s assertion that ‘the idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished’ we’re back to the phantom arguments that are so entirely lacking in substance they don’t even qualify as straw men. Straight marriages will be completely unaffected by the Bill, and will remain as much covenants as they are now. And if the archbishop is concerned that same-sex marriages will not be regarded as solemn covenants before God, the solution is obvious: he should allow those marriages to be solemnised before God in his own churches.

5) The reference to the ‘normal’ family (taken together with the earlier use of ‘normative’) is an interesting choice of words for a man who earlier in this very speech emphasised his conviction that ‘homophobic language […] is wrong and, more than that, sickening’. After all, homophobia is the generic name for all anti-gay prejudice, so ‘homophobic language’ must include all expressions that denigrate same-sex relationships. And ‘normal’ is a heavily value-laden word: it’s impossible to use the word normal to describe families headed by an opposite-sex couple without implying that families headed by a same-sex couple are abnormal. It would be nice if I could claim to be shocked by such blatant hypocrisy, but sadly long experience has taught me that, for the likes of the archbishop, condemnations of homophobia are never more than lip service, as quickly violated as they are issued.

Turning to the substance of his concern – well, his point is more or less incoherent. To start with, the heterosexually-headed family is not weakened in any way whatsoever by the introduction of same-sex marriage, since only families headed by same-sex couples are affected by the change in the law. Secondly, the insistence that a supposedly unchanging marriage has been the ‘base’ of society since time immemorial is historically illiterate. Marriage has been repeatedly redefined: these days women are allowed a free choice in who they marry; husbands no longer have authority to beat, rape and financially exploit their wives; marriage can be treated as a religious or secular institution, according to preference; it can be regarded as an inviolable lifelong commitment, or as one among many temporary alliances that last only until the next divorce; and so on. Opening marriage to same-sex couples is merely the latest in a long line of alterations to marriage – one that will have much less impact than allowing divorce.

The archbishop of course has the right to uphold what he understands as the teaching of his church, and to defend the traditional form of its rites (even if many of his own priests and congregants loudly and publicly disagree with him on both). He of course has the right to talk about all of this publicly, and to seek to persuade others to his point of view. These are all important rights and freedoms which I would (and do) defend.

But it’s a shame to see him deploying such spurious non-arguments in his desperate, doomed-to-failure attempt to force every person in England to live as though they endorsed his old-fashioned interpretation of the will of God. And it’s a shame that he is so steadfastly opposed to the idea of a live-and-let-live accommodation of the rights of those who disagree with him. If he would only admit that marriage-inclined same-sex couples have the right to marry just as much as he has the right to object, we could all get on with minding our own business. Since he refuses, those of us who support liberty have no option but to fight him.

Sadly, it would appear that battle will be a long and arduous one. The extent of the archbishop’s opposition to liberty was made apparent by his sermon at the service to mark the 60th anniversary of the queen’s coronation on Tuesday. He began by remembering that the queen had, before everything else, knelt in silent prayer

And following her giving of allegiance to God, others […] pledged their allegiance to her.

And here, in the grace and providence of God, is the model of liberty and authority which our country enjoys. Liberty is only real when it exists under authority. Liberty under authority begins, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, with our duty to God, “whose service is perfect freedom”.

We live in a hierarchy of liberty under authority that ascends to God’s limitless love.

I realise that anything to do with the monarchy always involves an unhealthy dose of archaism, but I really didn’t expect to hear someone making the case for feudalism in 2013. That’s essentially what this is: the monarch pledges allegiance to God, aristocrats pledge allegiance to the monarch – and so on down through the ‘hierarchy of authority’ until you reach the serfs at the bottom. It’s an absurdly old-fashioned idea, one that is literally centuries out of date in the Western world, and at complete odds with democracy. These days we understand authority as rising up from the people, not descending from the monarch; you’d think that even an archbishop and member of the House of Lords would have noticed that we hold elections.

That’s not the only bizarre idea in this section of the sermon. The idea that people find “freedom” through “service” is a handy concept for rich people keen to convince themselves that, honestly, the au pair is lucky to be working 100 hours a week for board and lodging. It’s also an oxymoron; no-one is at liberty unless they have the right of self-determination, since freedom consists in the ability to make choices. A free person might choose to serve, but it’s the opportunity to choose, not the nature of the choice they make, which indicates that they’re free.

Equally oxymoronic is the archbishop’s idea of ‘liberty under authority’, which seemed to be the major theme of his sermon (he certainly repeated the phrase often enough). In fact, liberty and authority are in direct opposition to each other: as authority forbids more and more, so the scope for self-determining liberty diminishes. There are legitimate disagreements about the right balance between liberty and authority, with opinions ranging from complete laissez faire libertarianism to outright authoritarianism; most of us situate ourselves at some point between the two polls. But it is absurd to argue that liberty and authority are synonymous: they are not, and can never be so. We don’t have to look far for a demonstration of this, just to the first part of this post – the liberty of same-sex couples to marry will only be won because we have previously wrested from the unwilling archbishop’s hand the authority to forbid it.

In the space of two days at the start of this week, the archbishop set out his stall for what he believes in: bitter, to-the-death opposition to equal marriage, and feudalism. Individual liberty and democracy should, in his view, be replaced with unquestioning subservience to a hierarchy of authority with ordinary folk at its base, priests and monarchs above them, and Welby’s God at its head. God’s will, as interpreted by the Church of England, is to be the final determinant of all laws and liberties – even for those of us who don’t believe in God, or believe in a different God, or interpret Welby’s God differently.

I’m not by nature or inclination an outspoken, fire-breathing atheist – I’m a conciliatory, good-luck-to-you-whatever-you-believe atheist. But dangerous ideas like this must be resisted. It’s not just about same-sex marriage. It’s about the Church of England trying to turn back the clock, and kill live-and-let-live secularism stone dead. It’s about the C of E trying to acquire for itself the ability to control the lives of all of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, bisexual or straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re atheist, agnostic or a believer. If you don’t like the idea of a priest controlling every aspect of your life you need to resist this authoritarian drift in the servants of God. And you should begin by paying attention to what this worryingly extreme man says.

Most people assume that Church of England priests are well-meaning, inoffensive sorts who spend their lives being kind to the unfortunate and mouthing appropriate platitudes at important occasions. Many unquestionably are, but the present archbishop is not amongst them. He comes from the evangelical wing of the church, and as such he is explicitly committed to spreading the power and influence of religion. He believes he has a mission from God that will not be complete until every one of us is a Christian in the archbishop’s own image. Justin Welby is not Rowan Williams – his thoughtful, cautious, good-humoured predecessor – and it it could be a dangerous error to assume that he is.

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