On Saturday I made a bit of a hash of things when posting a tweet saying that it would be beneficial if more gay atheists were like David Starkey, the high-profile and outspoken historian. If you’ve seen Starkey in action then you might be inclined to describe his demeanour along the lines of arrogant, pompous, stubborn, acerbic or various other less than complimentary terms. He once was described as the rudest man in Britain according to Wikipedia.
Within moments of sticking the comment on Twitter I’d had a couple of replies suggesting that I might not be entirely correct on that matter. The Vicar’s Wife kindly pointed out that Mr Starkey had rather blotted his copybook (again) by allegedly attacking journalist Laurie Penny on-stage at the Sunday Times Education Festival that very day. As it happens he didn’t but I immediately deleted the tweet to try to avoid upsetting anyone further and put up a new tweet apologising for the previous one.
So do I really think that we need more people like David Starkey? Well no I don’t, at least from one point of view. Starkey is openly gay and an atheist as well as being an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, but the actual problem is the way he presents himself. I really don’t think we need more people going around causing controversy and putting people’s backs up in the way he regularly does irrespective of their sexuality or beliefs. What I was trying to refer to, albeit clumsily, was his article on gay marriage that the Telegraph had just published.
Since David Cameron decided he was going to start a toxic war over same-sex marriage I’ve lost count of the considerable number of newspaper articles and blog posts I’ve digested on the subject. Of that number I would only describe a small proportion as well-balanced and the number of those written by atheists I could probably count on one hand.
David Starkey may be painful to watch or listen to at times but that does not mean he is not capable of producing work of value. After all, he has been awarded the CBE for his for services to history and this time he has written the best piece on gay marriage that I have read in quite a while.
When I said we need more gay atheists like him, this is what I was referring to. His article begins in this way:
“Is the Church of England about to turn full circle? Founded 500 years ago as a result of Henry VIII’s fraught marital history, will it end – or at least sever its relationship with the State, which amounts to the same thing – over the acrimonious dispute about gay marriage?
“There is a neat symmetry about the idea which has seduced both sides of the debate. Bishops mutter darkly that ”same-sex marriage would be one of the biggest threats to the established role of the Church of England since the reign of Henry VIII’’. Not even the Crown, they claim, is safe and George Carey, the outspoken former Archbishop of Canterbury, has invoked the Queen’s Coronation Oath and her role as Supreme Governor of the Church in a passionate defence of the status quo.
“On the other hand, gay activists mock the supposed hypocrisy of the Church. It was founded, they jeer, to enable Henry VIII to marry whomsoever he wished: what therefore is its moral authority for resisting the sincere desire of gay men and women to ratify their union by marrying in the sight of God – or at least in the eyes of the State?
“As it happens, I am torn. As an atheist gay who regards marriage as part of the baggage of heterosexual society which I have come to respect but can never fully share, I am tempted to say a plague on both your houses. As a conservative and a patriot, however, I am aware – and increasingly so – of the value of established institutions and suspicious of the levelling equality which dissolves them and atomises society.”
He then goes on to provide an interesting, detailed and insightful analysis of the Church of England’s position on marriage since Henry VIII fell out with the Pope over his wish to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. At the end, Starkey draws these conclusions:
“Do gays who clamour for church weddings read their Bibles? Do self-proclaimed Christian Conservative politicians, who ”want to strengthen marriage by extending it to gays’’ listen to the words of their marriage services? It seems that, as in a cooling marriage, relations between Church and State have broken down. The gap between the values and practices of the two, which opened up with the legalisation of divorce, is now, thanks to the even more contentious issue of gay marriage, threatening to become a chasm.
“There seems very little appetite for reconciliation… disestablishment is declared, by the Primate of All England [Rowan Williams] of all people, ”not to be the end of the world’’.
“Indeed not. But it would be the end of so much that matters about England. The buildings of the Church, preserved because of its peculiar conservatism, are among our noblest; its music and liturgy are beautiful beyond compare; and, as we have just seen in the Jubilee, its role in providing both the setting and substance of ceremonial dignifies the great moments of our national life in a way which is the admiration and envy of other countries.
“All this began in the high drama, tragedy, nobility and suffering of the Reformation. Is it really to end in a fit of mutual petulance over whether gays can legally call each other Mr and Mrs?”
The Church of England is a far from perfect organisation. I have seen plenty of evidence having attended C of E churches for most of my life and its ties to the state do make it less effective in what it does in many respects. In some ways the disestablishment of the Church of England from the state would allow it to work more freely in the way that most other denominations are able to, but I have a gut feeling that the consequences of the withdrawal of a key religious institution from the heart of our nation’s identity would be considerable with the losses outweighing the benefits.
What Starkey has reminded me is that when ideologies value progress for progress’ sake over the status quo, the likelihood of harm being done to society is high. Going back to my university days I studied the way that modernist 20th century ideologies led to the rehousing of swathes of the population in high-rise blocks in the belief that their lives would be positively transformed. As we know this social experiment was on the whole pretty disastrous destroying well established communities leading to a range of new social problems and upsetting the lives of many individuals and families.
This change in housing was not brought about by the campaigning of the masses but instead by the elite classes who were intent on rejecting the traditional ideas of community and instead attempting to usher in their ideologically driven utopian vision. In their desire to improve society they had failed to value much of what already existed and had been blinded to the failings of their progressive philosophies.
David Starkey may be someone who is hard to like or even get to grips with, but he is able to articulate the flaws in the ideology of equality at all costs better than most and he is also intelligent enough to understand that gay marriage if it comes about will come with a cost for our society and that cost may end up being far bigger than expected.
Starkey has achieved what many other commentators have failed to do and that is to bring a grounded sense of perspective to the gay marriage debate. Despite my reservations I have to commend him for this and hope that others who are more prone to ranting will take note and think a bit harder in future.