Following on from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech in the House of Lords during the debate on same-sex marriage and the subsequent statement by the Bishop of Leicester, there appears to be a certain amount of confusion as to whether the Church of England has capitulated on the matter of marriage. On the same day last week I received email from the Coalition for Marriage asking me to thank Justin Welby for defending marriage and another from Christian Concern asking me to write to him expressing my disappointment with the Church of England’s stance.
This difference of opinion appears to mainly be due to the content of the statement issued after the vote by the Bishop of Leicester who is the Convenor of the Bishops in the House of Lords. The Bishop writes:
“Both Houses of Parliament have now expressed a clear view by large majorities on the principle that there should be legislation to enable same-sex marriages to take place in England and Wales.
“It is now the duty and responsibility of the Bishops who sit in the House of Lords to recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape…
“Our focus during Committee and Report stages in the coming weeks and months will be to address those points in a spirit of constructive engagement.”
This statement could be interpreted as a change in direction in the Church of England’s stance on same-sex marriage, but it is not. Peter Ould on his blog has written a detailed piece that explains why this is the case. The main point is that following the failure to win the vote in the House of Lords, the bishops are left with three options. They either abstain from any future activity on this bill, they kick up a big fuss and try to derail it later in the process or they constructively engage to make sure the bill is fully scrutinised and improvements are made to make sure that it is as fully fit for purpose as possible. The bishops have sensibly decided to go down the third route to do what they can to ensure that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.
For some this has now turned the bishops into guilty accomplices to a bill that is both unbiblical and ungodly. By doing so they have turned their backs on their spiritual calling to serve God. Of course for others, both Christian and non-Christian, the view is that the Church and the Lords Spiritual should never have entered into this battle in the first place. Tim Mongomerie, co-founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and now Comment Editor of The Times wrote an article earlier this week where he expressed the view that churches campaigning against gay marriage was a mistake. His reasoning is that religious traditionalists need to realise that they are not just fighting losing battles, they are fighting the wrong battles. By fighting unwinnable battles — as in the battle against gay marriage — they are appearing authoritarian, losing goodwill and poisoning public attitudes towards their place in society. Instead Montgomerie believes that religious leaders need to abandon their struggle to stop society from becoming increasingly secular. Instead they should be coming together to protect their fundamental right to believe the things that they do and not to be marginalised as a result.
This thinking is flawed for a number of reasons and Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of the Christian think tank, Theos has written an eloquent rebuttal in response that explains why:
‘First, he seems to be saying “stop exercising your religious freedom, you’re threatening religious freedom”. The whole point of not just religious freedom, but freedom of speech more generally, is that it is the freedom to say things which are unpopular. A strategy which seeks to maintain freedom of religion or freedom of speech by never saying or doing anything that makes anyone else uncomfortable is doomed to failure.
‘Secondly, and disappointingly, Montgomerie has bought into the idea that religious people engaging in public debate amounts to “imposing their conception of morality on the rest of the population”. Engaging in our shared democratic life, proposing a vision of human flourishing and the common good as it relates to our personal, social and political existence is not “imposing” but “proposing”. Without citizens engaging, campaigning, voting and contributing to our lawmaking according to their own passions and priorities we have no democracy at all. Labelling religious people as the only ones trying to “impose” their vision of the common good on others is disingenuous.
‘Finally, Montgomerie’s call for religious people to stop focusing on common issues and instead argue only for their own freedom would have the exact opposite effect to the one he hopes for. Already, the churches and other faith groups are often seen as defensive and self-interested. This is usually because when they are fighting and campaigning on more popular social issues (i.e. welfare reform or the environment) they receive no coverage. However, retrenching from both these popular and the obviously unpopular issues is theologically incoherent and a recipe for tribal identity politics.’
These are difficult and challenging times for Christians (as well as those of other faiths), especially if they are attempting to hold on to the traditional views of their faith. Being in the minority and feeling that your beliefs are not being respected is never easy, but the way we deal with these situations reveals a great deal about how we see the place of religion in our society and how we should live out our faith.
Christian Concern is one organisation that appears to be up for a fight to the end. They have said that the Bible is clear that the Church does not exist to exercise the will of the State but the will of God. If there is a discrepancy between the two, the Church must follow the teaching of the Bible. This approach curtails the amount of compromise in the relationship between church and state, but also limits potential engagement through continued opposition You can’t say that there haven’t been plenty of Christians and churches who have made their feelings known and acted accordingly whether it be through the Coalition for Marriage’s petition, writing to MPs or in the case of the Lords Spiritual, speaking up in debate and voting to stop the same-sex marriage bill progressing. However, there is nothing in the Bible though that talks about Christians imposing their will by force and that inevitably means not always getting what you want. Any underhand or guerilla tactics to get your way is not acceptable. Christians should expect to be disagreed with. This is not a theocratic country and Christians don’t have an automatic right to have their views respected and listened to. The Bible talks about God’s wisdom not being the world’s wisdom, that Christians should proclaim God’s word and speak the truth, but it also talks about respecting the authorities we are under. That means aiming to live at peace with those around us whilst at the same time not being afraid to challenge the status quo or those in charge if we believe they are acting improperly, whatever the issue may be. Jesus was the prime example of someone who did this time and again. And this is why Tim Mongomerie’s argument is neither biblical nor sensible. Being popular or alternatively being afraid of being marginalised was not the issue for Jesus. He was more than happy to stir things up and get under people’s skin. But at the same time along with this he talked about the peacemakers being blessed and of a kingdom full of love, grace and forgiveness along with servanthood. To some these different aspects of what Jesus said and did may seem like contradictions, but actually holding them in together simultaneously is one of the things that makes the Christian faith so powerful.
This is how the Bishops in the House of Lord’s are dealing with the situation they find themselves in. They have remained firm in their presentation of the Church of England’s stance, but they have not found sufficient numbers of peers and MPs agreeing with them. It is therefore more important to be gracious in defeat and whilst not changing their views, they will now begin to work to ensure they do what they can to make the same-sex marriage bill as good as it can be in a constructive and positive manner, without ruling out the option of challenging it later if they have serious concerns. This is far more appropriate than outright opposition. In Ecclesiastes it talks about there being a time and a season for everything. There has been a long time of fighting and robust argument, but now there also needs to begin a time of reconciliation and peacemaking and that is why I am convinced the Bishop of Leicester on behalf of the Lords Spiritual has made the right decision.