Any ‘biblical’ objection to gay marriage is nonsense. The C of E must admit this
‘Archbishop Justin Welby has made reconciliation and unity a great theme of his primacy.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson
The burden of arguments about gay people being allowed to marry has always been carried disproportionately by them, because it is their relationships that are under the microscope. An ancient quip describes the levels of commitment required for bacon and eggs. The chicken gives all she has, but for the pig it’s personal. He has to give what he is. This disproportionality needs to be borne in mind when the subject is discussed.
Estimates indicate that about one in 10 Church of England bishops could be secretly gay. By definition, these men are outstanding priests who have managed to navigate the complexities of a structurally homophobic institution well enough to become its foremost representatives. They may well have a bigger investment than others in keeping the closet door tightly shut. Their existence sometimes causes resentment and anger among other gay people.
What credibility can partnered gay bishops claim when they discipline partnered gay clergy for making their relationships legal? The Church of England, like other national institutions before it, can only make the transition towards equality and inclusion with compassion and understanding all round. Gay bishops have more on the line than some others. They have greater status and security, and some of them may be among the last people able to understand the need for change. Given the church’s recent history, with its raised stakes and increased polarisation, how should it address the phenomenon of gay people marrying? Respect for the dignity of every human being and the deeply personal nature of the issue mean that the question requires particular thought.
People used to talk in a rather crude and basic way about “sex acts” as though the scope of sexuality was exhausted by a list of behaviours. It regarded sexuality as a kind of “X” factor that kicked in on the way to bed, and could be described using euphemisms such as “homosexual genital acts”. This terminology is vague, stupid and inadequate. It implies that only the particular things that people do have a sexual dimension to them.
It would be far more accurate to see all behaviour as having a sexual dimension to some degree. Euphemisms about homosexuality are often confusing and vague. They break down when expressed in anger. Furious letters are penned to supporters of gay rights, denouncing them for trying to be kind but “encouraging buggery”. The last word is written in large capital letters, underlined with stabbing motions until it goes through the paper.
The evidence is, however, that the majority of gay people do not engage in anal sex, while a significant proportion of straight couples do. Allowing the wrongness of anal sex, those who wish to suppress it would do far better to focus their energies on the 85% of those who practise it who are not gay than to make it the defining characteristic of gay people in order to try and stir up disgust against them.
What is “practising” homosexuality? Holding hands? Sitting on the sofa together watching The Simpsons? Unless people are prepared to be more specific about exactly which sexual behaviours require correction, and to apply their rules equally to gay and straight people, it is hard to see a basis here for decisions that will stand up to judicial review.
Nor is it clear what we should mean by “biblical marriage”. Generally speaking, Old Testament marriage customs and mores reflect the social mores of the people in the story. Adam and Eve sound like the original simple nuclear family, one plus one for life. In a way, that was all they could be, since they were the only two people in the world at the time.
In Genesis 38, Levirate marriage comes on the scene. This is the involuntary marriage of a man to his brother’s widow in order to continue the line. This kind of marriage was still theoretically current enough in Jesus’s day for it to be the basis of a question the Sadducees asked him about a bride, seven brothers and resurrection (Matthew 22:23–32).
Deuteronomy institutes another involuntary form of marriage. A virgin automatically becomes the wife of her rapist, who is then required to pay the victim’s father 50 shekels for the loss of his property rights. Unlike other Old Testament marriages, these are held to be indissoluble.
In Numbers 31:17–18 we find another form of involuntary marriage. A male soldier is entitled to take as many virgins as he likes for his wives from among his booty, but must kill his other prisoners. In Deuteronomy 21:11–14, marriage is made by selecting a beautiful woman from among the spoils of war, shaving her head and paring her nails. These marriages are dissoluble if she fails to please, but the woman is no longer saleable. Throughout much of the Old Testament, marriage does not require sexual exclusivity. Concubines are allowed, alongside wives. Abraham had only two concubines, where Solomon had 300, along with his 700 wives.
The basic principle of these relationships is that if a woman’s father pays a man to take her away, she is his wife. If he pays her father to take her away, she is his concubine.
None of these arrangements, except perhaps that enjoyed by Adam and Eve, would be recognised as marriage today. Pretending that the church’s present stance is biblical is not going to fool anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled, and fewer and fewer people do.
Archbishop Justin Welby has made reconciliation and unity a great theme of his primacy. He has prioritised raising the church’s game about this. The church will witness more powerfully to Jesus Christ if it can manage to lead the way on this issue, rather than letting inertia, evasion, duplicity, mendaciousness and hand-wringing dominate.