As 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.