Gay marriage, culture wars and a church that needs to return to its roots

Same sex marriage wedding cakeAs a resident south of the border, I’ve been observing the progress of the same-sex Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill from a distance and not taking in quite the same volume of information as I did with the equivalent bill that passed through Westminster. Judging by what I have read and heard though, there is a good deal of similarity in the way the arguments and defences that both sides have delivered in London and Holyrood as the respective bills have progressed. The end result has unsurprisingly been pretty much the same too.

Campaigners have come out in force, large numbers of church leaders have appealed for safeguards for those who oppose the changes, those who opposed changes were belittled by some ministers, others supporting amendments ensuring no-one could be “compelled by any means” to solemnise gay marriage were heavily defeated, politicians displayed an inability to define marriage, even though they were voting to redefine it, a whole range of measures were put in place to give some protection to religious institutions allowing them to opt out of same-sex ceremonies, the Church of Scotland failed to provide a coherent stance, and at the end of the day the legislation sailed through with an overwhelming majority.

This has been another triumph for equalities campaigners and a moment for those who have fought a battle to maintain the status quo to reflect on the implications of the outcome. And there is plenty of disappointment. Dave Robertson, a church minister in Scotland, on his Wee Flea blog has made 15 pertinent points that criticises both MSPs and church leaders for shallow thinking and failure to give it the scrutiny it deserved.

The Evangelical Alliance has given a very negative reaction to the 105 – 18 vote in favour legalising same-sex marriage:

‘The passing of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill today is a blow for society as we know it, as it will result in inevitable consequences that will forever change the landscape of the Scottish society in the years to come.

‘“Marriage and the family are the bedrock of society and we should be celebrating and encouraging them, but this legislation does neither. It has redefined marriage into a fluid, gender-neutral institution defined by consumer demands and political expediency, and destroys the God-ordained nucleus for a well functioning society,” said Fred Drummond, director of Evangelical Alliance Scotland.

‘“Marriage has now been effectively privatised to privilege adult choice and the changes have stripped husband and wife of their obvious meaning.  At a time in Scotland when we are considering what kind of nation we want to live in, this legislation sends all the wrong signals about the place of marriage and family in modern day Scotland.

‘“As Christians working in communities across Scotland we will continue to support the true meaning of marriage, as the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life, and the fundamental building block that is for the good of the whole of Scottish society,” he added.’

Whatever we think about the way marriage has been fundamentally altered, we have to face up to the new reality that will be presenting itself later this year when the first same-sex marriages take place. The time for arguing whether it should happen is finally over (except in Northern Ireland) and the dawn of a new era awaits us. Throughout this process, just like society at large, Christians have demonstrated a range of deeply held views on the matter, but many will be thinking the thoughts that the Evangelical Alliance have voiced. I like others had major misgivings about the introduction of equal marriage. In my case it was not out of a belief that same-sex monogamous relationships should not be given equal status in the eyes of the state – which I am in agreement with – but rather that the inherent differences between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships have now mostly been swept under the carpet. A one-size -fits-all approach to marriage does not destroy its meaning, but it does change its very nature and purpose. Too many politicians were so caught up in a utopian vision of equality that they failed to consider that not all reservations were due to bigotry.

Looking back with hindsight the outcome was entirely predictable as soon as the legislation was proposed. The sizable minority who made their feelings known were fighting a battle that was already lost. The tide of support for same-sex marriage continues to gain strength day after day and has youth on its side. It was going to take a miracle to alter the course of trajectory and that miracle never came. It was a painful ride with much aggravation and insult and I for one am glad it has reached a conclusion.

There is no point harbouring grudges and continuing to stir up ill feeling. What is done is done. I very much hope that words such as those of the Evangelical Alliance are seen as parting shots, rather than a call to continue engaging in an unresolved conflict. Time and experience will tell us in due course whether there was anything to fear or not. This episode has been a reminder that the Church has a role in questioning and challenging the culture of the present, but that it cannot hold sway over it through arguments or the weight of Christian history.

Peter Ould, over on his blog posted a challenging article covering much of this last week. In it he said this:

‘Why are we still fighting this culture war? In most of Western Europe it is pretty well over – the majority of countries have implemented marriage reform recognising same-sex unions and even historically deeply conservative nations like Spain have gay weddings recognised by the State. The vast majority of citizens take a laissez-faire approach to sexual morals, pretty well agreeing that what people choose to consent to in their bed is their own business. Even a majority in the UK now think gay marriage is a good thing.

‘Yet despite this some Christians want the world to be like it was 100 years ago, when Christendom ruled and sexual morals (and the laws around them) were largely based on the Bible. They want the right to turn down people in their businesses just because they have different choices of sexual activity than they do (but they happily buy their shopping from the sinners down the road). They want to be able to refuse to officiate at same-sex unions even when they are employed by the State as a registrar, but at the same time they fight tooth and nail in court if an employer refuses to allow them to wear a sign of their faith.’

If the last two or so years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s no good trying to change the minds of those who have little interest in listening no matter how valid your views might be unless you can change their hearts first.

The church for too long has repeatedly voiced its opinions on a range of issues, berating a society that refuses to take much notice and increasingly rejects its voice, but has done little to win hearts though a Gospel that was never meant to be promoted through force of argument alone. In fact much of what the churches are known for is not even centred on the Gospel of grace, repentance, forgiveness and salvation; it is known for an obsession with secondary issues that are mostly more of a distraction and hindrance to sharing the Church’s first calling.  Returning to Peter Ould’s piece:

‘This evening I read through the whole of the Acts of the Apostles. In a 1st Century environment that had (several) cultural morals opposed to the revelation of God to his people as to how he wanted them to live, the task of evangelism never saw the Apostles telling the pagans that their sex lives were obscene and dangerous, or that they should be locked up. Neither did the first martyrs complain bitterly about their rights being taken away by a vociferous lobbying minority. No, instead the early Church preached Jesus crucified, dead, risen and ascended as Lord of the Universe and saviour to all. They weren’t concerned by telling the heathens about their individual sins, instead they were concentrating on the far wider issue of how all sin (not just again and again going on only about the ones they found particularly offensive) alienates us from God and means that we are destined for hell without a Saviour.

‘That’s what they did in a world that had turned its back against God and it worked wonders. When the emphasis was Jesus, not groins, the Church grew exponentially as the transforming power of Christ at work in his people turned the world’s biggest empire upside down. The only time the Apostles dealt with sexual sin was when they were talking to the converted, telling them how to live a life of holiness worthy of the one who had redeemed them.’

When we look at the agenda of the Church of England’s General Synod meeting this week there are discussions and motions on same-sex relationships, women bishops, gender based violence, financial investment, the environment (which I covered last week) and even the Girl Guides promise and clergy dress. Almost all of these are worthy of serious thought and discussion, but where is the discussion on the recent substantial paper on church growth or talk of mission and evangelism? If these were given at least as much time and attention as a plethora of other matters, might not the Church look and sound very different and for the better?

Sometimes I think that too many Christians are a bit like a good proportion of my school students doing their coursework. Left to their own devices they quite happily will spend time on the bits they feel comfortable with; nice pictures with plenty of colouring in and talking off the top of their heads about areas that they have a basic understanding of in a fairly superficial manner, all the while failing to pay much attention to the exam board’s course specifications. They won’t bother doing research that requires more than a bit of effort, failing to analyse properly what they do find. They will avoid the parts they find challenging and generally do little to increase their depth of understanding.

It’s too easy for Christians and the church to get bogged down in matters that distract from Jesus’ Great Commission. Pet concerns and causes are often a perfectly legitimate calling, but when they become more important than our relationship with Jesus, then they can soon become idols that distort our faith rather than amplify it.

Bringing a Christian perspective into the national debate on same-sex marriage was always necessary. Marriage is too big to be owned by politicians alone, but until the Church is known for its visible love of Jesus and servant heart more than its views on sex or gender then there is still work to do. There are some things that the Church has been made guardian over that are too precious to keep to itself and these are the ones that will cause cultures to be changed.

Categories: Church, Equality, Government, Homosexuality, Marriage

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23 replies

  1. A great blog Gillan, sadly we are not good at thinking strategically and reading the signs of the times. This is not limited to issues of human sexuality and gender politics which of course have hot buttons for many of us – in these areas we show our lack by what we do and say, but we also fail to fully engage with issues that are not hot buttons such as spatial planning, political activity by extreme groups and a range of other issues where we should be contributing to debates.

    • It is sad that so many of us don’t get as passionate about issues that have more impact on the lives of those in this country and further afield. Maybe because sexuality and gender issues are easier to get our heads around and resonate at a personal level. The media also feeds on this and sometimes this blog does have a habit of falling into this too.

  2. “The only time the Apostles dealt with sexual sin was when they were talking to the converted, telling them how to live a life of holiness worthy of the one who had redeemed them.”

    This really says everything which needs to be said on the issue.

  3. Interesting. Peter O’s observations seem to largely echo the sentiments expressed by Peter Kirk back in 2011: Why Christians should accept gay marriage — well worth a read by anyone getting their knickers in a twist over this situation.

    Not sure that final paragraph you quote from the Scottish EA sounds like a ‘parting shot’: reads more like a “we’re going to carry on fighting this”. Sad.

    Glad you said, “a Christian perspective…” because, of course, there’s more than one Christian perspective on this. Many of us are wholly in favour of equal marriage and would welcome it in the church; and if I may, I’ll take hold of one of your sentences and turn it around:

    “Too many politicians were so caught up in a utopian vision of equality that they failed to consider that not all reservations were due to bigotry.” Quite; and too many conservative Christians are so caught up in a utopian vision of the male/female relationship that they fail to consider that not all those who wish to see equal marriage are driven by liberal values: on the contrary, in fact, it is precisely because we value marriage and the commitment that it represents that I and many others wish to see it made available to same-sex couples.

    Does opening up marriage to same-sex couples “change its very nature and purpose”? I think not; unless, of course, you define marriage as being primarily about procreation, the legitimation of heirs and the protection of inheritance rights — but that is no biblical definition; for the story of Adam and Eve presents Adam’s need for a mate as primarily about companionship, and that remains unchanged.

    It is the church which declares that sex outside of marriage is sinful; and it is the self-same church which denies marriage to same-sex couples, thus putting them in a Catch-22 situation: they can’t have sex because they’re not married, and they can’t get married because the church refuses to marry them. This is perverse and abrogates any sense of good news that the church might otherwise offer to LGBT people: something at the very core of their being is declared sinful, and so the church, like the Pharisees of old, strains at a gnat whilst swallowing a camel. Which is worse: to encourage faithful, loving, monogamous relationships; or to drive people away from Christ by endlessly berating them with a message of judgement and condemnation? When did Christ call his followers to be society’s judges or moral gatekeepers? You are right to remind us of the Great Commission: to call our neighbours in love to follow Jesus; if there is sin to be set right, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, not ours; and thus far, the conviction for many of us seems to be running the other way — that God does not condemn faithful same-sex relationships.

    • I know we don’t agree on much of this Phil, but I think Peter’s post on gay marriage had a lot of sense. If society decides to go down the gay marriage route, which it has, then the church isn’t in a position to stop it nor should it be. My main gripe has been the method it has been passed.

      Now of course the churches need to work out how they respond to the change in law and this is already causing a big headache no matter where your theology lies.

  4. Great post, a lot of wisdom.

    One thing I would say though is that we should be careful about over-generalising the gay marriage issue and taking it as typical of the relationship between church and modern society. First, because Christian public engagement is sometimes very much welcomed, as with Justin Welby’s recent interventions about payday lending, and the positive foodbank related coverage last year. Sexuality is a particularly fraught issue for modern society and perhaps not the best lens through which to view church-society relations.

    A second reason for caution is that for many same sex marriage is an expression of Christian principles, not a challenge to them. Indeed, the very idea of establishing a framework of committed monogamy for homosexual relationships could be argued to be a moral endeavour with a distinctly Christian flavour. I believe this is the kind of thing that David Cameron had in mind when he declared “I support gay marriage because I am a conservative”. I myself have major reservations about gay marriage from a Christian perspective, but I can see why many regard it as perfectly consistent with their Christian principles.

    Having said this though, your points about the pleas for special protection for conscientious objectors falling on unsympathetic ears do suggest a certain hostility towards conservative religious sensibilities, at least among the current political elite, a hostility in line with the similar treatment for Catholic adoption agencies a few years back. Society is fast moving to a place where any suggestion that there is anything objectionable or unusual about homosexual attraction is simply unacceptable, and given that substantial parts of the church are likely to continue in such views this does present a challenge for future church-society relations. A careful consideration of how to thrive in the emerging social world is, as you suggest, now a pressing issue for churches if our wider mission is not to be sacrificed to what is after all a single secondary issue.

    • Will: I believe this is the kind of thing that David Cameron had in mind when he declared “I support gay marriage because I am a conservative”

      I’m not claiming to read Cameron’s mind but I suspect he said this because he belongs to the first generation that had fully absorbed the lessons of the sexual revolution and he consequently believes that “love and commitment” are the minimum requirements for any marriage. His conservatism has no deeper roots than the romantic aspirations of someone who was born in 1960s.

      I’m a year older than Cameron and if he had paid attention to LGBT debates in the 1980/90s, he would have heard voices like mine – gay men who took the existence of a segregated gay scene for granted and were just starting to complain about exclusion from public life. Marriage was one of those debates (although Stonewall, who were largely unaccountable to the community they claimed to represent, pressed ahead with giving us civil partnerships) which my generation of LGBT activists also understood in terms of “love and commitment”. Our sense of exclusion from ‘marriage’ rested on a growing awareness that the definition had already shifted in the popular imagination of our age group. Gay rights groups had to make a formal appeal to the 98% straight majority to get the law changed but convincing them to make the change was just a matter of waiting until Cameron’s generation took over.

      That’s where we are today and “marriage equality” will keep it’s current form until there is another sexual revolution away from one one based on consent (plural marriage will probably be held at bay because our feminist influenced generation will argue that polygyny – the most common form of plural marriage – doesn’t sit comfortably in a moral framework based on consent)

      • Thanks Joe, very interesting.

        I suspect the next developments in the sexual revolution will be, first, the continued normalisation of porn and sexualisation of popular culture, and with that the driving down of the age of consent (for which prominent voices have already been raised) as the law catches up with the reality of teen sexuality.

        I myself would be surprised to see the principle of consent abandoned in a liberal society, though unlike you I would foresee a movement toward greater recognition of polyamory (i.e. relationships involving more than two persons as equals) as pressure comes to be placed on the inherent “twoness” of committed sexual relationships.

  5. I am sure the Evangelical Alliance’s reaction will be regarded as negative. However, it happens to be true. It is in accord with how mankind was created and whenever society departs from this, in whatever sphere of life, there will inevitably be adverse consequences long term.

    In this whole sorry saga of debate against predetermined legislation, the church’s response at large has been toothless and divided. I see this as a problem, way upstream of gay issues, and agree with Peter Ould’s concluding quote, that we have taken our eyes off the essential thrust of the gospel and the genuine “good news” that Jesus announced, lived out and willingly died for. The miracle power of that, in individual lives, needs to be rediscovered by a lost church big-time.

    Impossible, in a modern society that sees God as no longer necessary and increasingly turns its back on Christianity? I don’t believe so. Problems inherent in the human heart are essentially the same as they were in New Testament times, although modern living does much to conceal our innermost needs from ourselves.

    But, whatever else, God has not changed. Neither will He, to conform to wherever our society is determined to go. Yet, at the end of the day, life is an individual walk for each one of us, and God’s ear remains finely tuned to the anguished cry from the depth of any heart. Real salvation, when it comes, is a rescue act from heaven, pure and simple.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to think through and write this piece. I found it both reassuring and challenging.

  7. Gillian, you wrote that too many politicians were so caught up in a utopian vision of equality that they failed to consider that not all reservations were due to bigotry, but that is throwing stones again. These people are not particularly stupid, nor are they on other matters particularly hostile to Christianity. Many have had Christian upbringings, so why did they fail to listen to the churches, especially evangelical churches, on matters of equality. Could it be that they have been opposing any development on the matter for the last forty years, including gender equality? and that for no other reason than a rather literal reading of what they consider to be the revealed will of God? I’m now 45yo and I have never heard the church speak any differently. After a while, people stop listening to whining.

  8. Marriage has not been “redefined” or even “fundamentally altered” as you so clumsily put it.

    When full suffrage for women as well as men was legislated we didn’t say that democracy had been redefined or even altered so the case for saying that including more people within what has been biblically, historically, and legally a fluid concept for thousands of years needs at least some argument made rather than accepting it a priori as you seemed to do in this article.

    Widen your context, widen your compassion, and then get over yourself.

    • Surely the need for new government legislation is a sign of redefinition. I appreciate that not everyone will agree with my point of view, but I’m not sure your points are any less simplistic than those you say I am making.

    • Keith, as frequently happens in this debate, your parallel is flawed. When women got the vote, nothing was removed from men’s voting. This is not the case with ‘gay marriage.’ A whole raft of issues need stripping out of marriage to make it ‘gay’, mostly around the notion of consummation and parenting biological offspring. It has been conservatively estimated that 3,400 other pieces of legislation will now have to be re-written, and marriage must now be legally understood as a contractual voluntary friendship. This removes much.

  9. That’s quite right in relation to those outside: but of course the debate in the C of E is precisely about those on the inside, and what is right for disciples. Are you suggesting we should go with the flow on this?

    • The Church, methinks, should never go with the flow: it should be leading the way. Unfortunately, in this instance, it seems to be running the opposite way…

      • leading the way seems to mean going with the flow before the flow gets going. Seems a bit different from Jesus…!

        • Leading the way means going with the Spirit’s flow, no matter the cost: God is moving on and we must follow where God leads — just like Jesus!

          I find it fascinating that evangelicals such as yourself have led the way over the last decade or so in biblical studies by emphasising the importance of looking at the big picture, of standing back to take in a panoramic view of scripture rather than nit-picking over proof texts — except in this one issue, where the big picture of faithfulness, one of the overarching themes of scripture, is overlooked and set aside in favour of proof texts. Strange, is it not?

        • You might need to listen more carefully to the view you disagree with Phil. I and many others are not interested in proof-texting, but in looking at that big picture. The faithfulness set out in scripture is expressed, not exclusively, but distinctively in the relation between men and women created in the image of God and coming together as different but equal partners in marriage. This picture of differentiated equality starts in Genesis, continues through the OT and into the New, is reinforced by Jesus and Paul and other NT writers, and continues to find its place in the final chapters of Revelation. That is quite a big picture, and means you have to cut out a lot of the Bible to ignore it!

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