THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 161
The subject of gay marriages
Very few people in this country will have failed to hear about the recent gay ‘marriage’ ceremony held in London last week. To all intents and appearances it was a marriage between two gay men - and they happened to be priests in the Church of England. Naturally there were those - involved in the ceremonies and outside it - who maintain that this was not a marriage. In fact it was a blessing of a previously legally registered partnership between the two men.
The priest who conducted the ceremony was a friend of the men and had been approached by them to perform this blessing - which appeared to many to be in the form of a marriage - and because of his friendship and his own views about gay people being acceptable in church, he agreed. He worked out a form of service with them - not as radical perhaps as the two men would have liked - but sufficiently similar to the marriage service as performed in the Church of England for many people outside to say that this was a marriage.
Let us be quite clear here. There are two grounds on which the priest involved justified his actions. As I understand it, firstly he holds that priests in the Church of England were not under instruction from their seniors not to perform such blessings - there was only ‘guidance’ from the bishops of the church. The final decision, he said, is left to the priest involved. Secondly, he said that he had been instructed not to offer such services of blessing - and that he had not offered such services. Instead he had been approached by old friends who had asked him to perform the ceremony - and he had merely agreed to their suggestion because of their friendship.
So much for the current case. You can argue it either way. You can say that the reasons given were specious. Or you can say that really the priest involved did not contravene any rules or laws - he merely exercised his discretion because he had been approached by friends.
Today’s paper indicates that the Archbishop of Canterbury has registered concern over the ‘gay church wedding’ (media terminology) and that the Bishop of London is investigating. Watch this space!
The ripples from this bold action by the priest who conducted the ceremony - whether it was a blessing or a marriage - have already spread for and wide. One would expect nothing less! Archbishops in Africa have been fulminating against what took place! All conservative evangelicals will see the action as provocative. Many of them will no doubt feel confirmed that there really is no hope of ever rooting out the gay influence in the Churches. It may even precipitate action by those Anglicans attending Gafcon - the conference in Jerusalem that will attempt to chart a path for evangelical churches to concentrate on the gospel and mission without being handicapped by the gay element in the churches.
It is also appropriate here to mention that things are moving at a pace in the USA as regards accepting gay marriages instead of gay partnerships. Worldwide, there has been a general move towards gay partnerships (not gay marriages) - both in America and in many other countries. But some countries are now going further and writing gay marriages into their law. This trend is spreading and California is actively moving towards the legalisation of gay marriages.
So things across the world are humming as regards the status of two gay people who want to be committed to each other and spend the rest of their lives together. While society at large may see little or no difference between partnership and marriage, for some Christians there is a problem! What are we to say to the gay man or woman who wants to be married rather than just linked legally in a partnership?
Before I give my views - with which you may well disagree!- let me make the point that I think it is the reluctance of the church to bless gay Christians who want to have God’s blessing on their partnership that may have precipitated the present unrest and discord about partnerships and marriages for gay people. If the church had accepted that gay Christians wanted to be able to come into a church and have the priest bless their union before the assembled company, this pressure for marriage might have been less. Instead, gay people have been vilified and excluded by churches over and over again. Conservative evangelicals point the finger at them and say that they are sinning. They often say worse things than that! Things like ‘evil’ ‘demonic’ and even ‘bestial’. The church is now reaping the results of this intransigent attitude and it will take some time before gay Christians can feel confidence again in churches.
Now for my opinion on the thorny matter of gay marriages and gay partnerships.
In my opinion, a ‘marriage’ is a term properly used for a union between two people of the opposite sex. If two gay people who want to be committed to each other and to spend the rest of their lives together wish to have legal recognition and a church blessing then I see no reason why they should not have both of these. In fact this country recognises that relationship legally (a ‘partnership’) - the recent Act has already led to many gay couples going through the process and becoming legally linked together This has produced a position for them that is almost identical legally to that achieved in marriage between two people of opposite sex.
The gay couple who have gone through the legal process to be recognised as a partnership should be able to have their union (which I believe is essentially different from marriage) blessed in church. To the gay people involved this would be equivalent to (not the same as) a marriage ceremony. To non Christians it might well appear to be a marriage. The couple would be making their vows to each other before God and the assembled company. It would not be a marriage - because marriage is, in my opinion, the term to be used when the two people involved are of the opposite sex.
The tragedy is that gay couples have not been able to have their union blessed in church - in this regard the church is still living in the past. It is still listening too much to conservative evangelicals who are trading on the dislike we all have of tradition being overturned.
Why do I think that marriage and partnership are so different that they cannot be viewed as interchangeable? Certainly not just because of the passage of many centuries in which marriage has just been for opposite sexes! In essence, it is because it seems to me that, in the eyes of the church and of the New Testament, marriage is between two people who are male and female. This assumption is described in various passages in the bible when marriage is mentioned - for example, in Ephesians. This has led me to understand the relationship between Christ and the Church of Christ as likened to marriage - a bond between man and wife. Both relationships - man and woman and Christ and the Church - lead to new birth. I am no theologian but it seems to me that the New Testament draws the parallel quite clearly, based of course on the original idea from Genesis, that a man and a woman are complementary beings, created for each other, and for progeny. That view seems to me to be clear and it cannot be applicable to two gay people who, being of the same sex, are not complementary. In other words complementarity seems to me to be of the essence of marriage. The model for the gay relationship seems to me to be elsewhere - for example in the story of David and Jonathon.
It is for this reason that I have always believed - and said so in previous articles - that marriage between a man and a woman is different in kind from a union between two people of the same sex. That in no way means that the gay relationship is wrong or perverted or blasphemous in itself.
I think that ‘marriage’ is the term we should use for the distinctive (unique) relationship between a man and a woman who are committed to each other, and the normal result of such a relationship is children. I think ‘partnership’ is the term we should use for two gay people who, in love, commit to each other for life. If they are Christians they will probably wish to do that not only legally but also in church before other people, where they will receive the blessing of God’s priest and people on their union.
I therefore think the church has to get over the scruples it is presently showing and welcome gay couples who want their union blessed. Such gay bonding is very similar to a marriage in many ways but in two essential ways it is different: the two parties are not of different sex and they cannot naturally bear children. For these reasons their union is not a marriage. It is nevertheless a union that will be blessed by God.
I would like to find a better term than ‘partnership’ which sounds dry and businesslike, whereas ‘marriage’ sounds more human. But a more acceptable name will probably come in time - or perhaps we shall soon invest the word ‘partnership’ with a more loving and warm meaning.
I can of course fully understand why some gay people feel they have been short changed if they are only offered a partnership when others (males and females) are offered marriage. Some of these gay people sometimes agitate for marriage - for their ‘full equality’ with non gay people. They say they are being disadvantaged if they cannot have marriage. I do not agree. I believe that here in this physical complementarity we have a basic difference. Instead of agitating for what is not appropriate we should be making the most of Christian acceptance of the partnership for life of two gay people. In time we shall evolve a Christian theology of gay union - in theory and practice.
Let me try to sum up my view - with which no doubt some people will disagree. I believe that the biblical view - a view that I consider still valid and valuable - is that there is a parallel between a man and a woman marrying and producing children with the nature of the link between Christ and the Church of Christ on earth. Both produce new birth. The human union mirrors the spiritual union between Christ and his church.
In the light of this we hold that the type of union that two gay people enter into is different in kind. They are not of different sex and their union does not result in the new birth of children. They have a union and that can and should be blessed by the church. In most if not all other respects it is like marriage between a man and a woman - as regards for example, the love and constancy between them.
There is also the mundane point to be made that authorities across the world are far more willing to accept partnerships between gay people - and have legislated accordingly - while often there is doubt about whether gay partnerships are of the same order as marriages between men and women. Later we might all come to the same conclusion that they are - but not yet!
The tragedy that we have seen played out by the churches these last decades is that the very idea of gay unions has been repelled by the churches - at the very time when the churches should have been welcoming them in and helping those involved. Because the churches have utterly failed to evolve a true theology for gay couples, we now have some gay couples demanding to be ‘married.’
The quicker the churches wake up to the wrongness of the closed thinking and rigidity of the conservative evangelical position, the better. For a Christian a ‘gay union’ is not the same as a ‘gay marriage’ - however much those outside the churches confuse the issue. There is still time to rectify past mistakes.
In today’s Times there is a letter from a minister of the Congregational Federation in which he calls for the Church of England to get over its ‘bickering’ because it is causing the Christian faith to fall into disrepute. I could not agree more. The row over gay marriages is just one expression of that dispute. Important though it is that due consideration and time is accorded to all sides of this disagreement, surely the time has come for resolution, otherwise there may not be much Church of England left.