Catholic, CoE Bishops Diverge in Response to Gay Marriage Proposals.

In their submissions to the UK government consultation on equal marriage, Catholic and Anglican bishops both agreed – they were opposed. But now that the government has announced its firm intention to proceed, including provision for same- sex weddings in church, for those denominations that want it,  there is a subtle but important divergence in their responses. For the Catholics, Archbishop Vincent Nichols in his Christmas address has accused the government of “shallow thinking”, and the Bishop of Shrewsbury accuses the government of proceeding without a mandate, and without meaningful consultation.

“Basically the Prime Minister has said: ‘Where there is love and commitment, then that’s all that you need for marriage’ … But I think that’s very shallow thinking, and it’s a shame that these matters have not been given much, much more thought.”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols

“This Christmas we are also conscious of new shadows cast by a Government that pledged at its election to support the institution of marriage … the Prime Minister has decided without mandate, without any serious consultation to redefine the identity of marriage itself, the foundation of the family for all generations to come.”

The Rt Rev Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury

(both as quoted in the Independent)

For the Anglicans, Justin Welby (who is presently the Bishop of Durham, but will soon be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and the most senior religious leader in the country) has a response which is subtle in its implications, and illustrates what can result from thinking which avoids easy generalisations, and is genuinely very far from “shallow”.

For Welby, the church is a second career. Before training for the priesthood, he had a successful career in business, where he developed particular expertise in conflict resolution – a skill which is widely credited as part of the reason for his selection to the see of Canterbury. He has previously made it clear that  he is personally opposed to the principle of same – sex marriage – but promised to think, study and pray deeply on the matter. In his response, this shows.

He has avoided making easy assertions about the nature of marriage, and acknowledged the deep divisions and disagreements that this issue has exposed. Instead, he points to a deeper issue that lies behind the marriage debate – to what extent is it reasonable for any one group to impose its own understanding of marriage, on all others:

“There are profound differences of opinion about the nature of Christian truth and its place in society, about the right of an ancient tradition to dictate or even to advocate ethical values around the end of life, around marriage, around the nature of human relationships, inequality, our duty to each other.”

The Rt Rev Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham

This goes to the heart of the matter. The leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches may believe that Christian marriage should be reserved to opposite – sex couples, but not all religious denominations agree. There are some Christian and Jewish groups that have formally lobbied on religious grounds in favour of equal marriage, including marriage equality in church. In the Church of England, some individual bishops and numerous other prominent clergy have publicly disagreed with their Church’s opposition, and argued in favour.  In addition to the views of the religious groups, government should also consider those of everybody else – atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated. For some of these people, marriage has nothing to do with religion, and is primarily a publicly acknowledged declaration and legal contract between two people. They too, need to be accommodated.

Bishop Davies protests that the government has no mandate, and failed to consult “seriously”. He is wrong. The consultation process was well – publicised, wide and deep, and this shows in the thoughtful, reasoned government response in its published report. The original terms of reference specified that the proposals did not include any provision for same – sex  marriage in church, but it was precisely because of strong pleading in the submissions by some religious groups, that such provision is now being made. Other religious groups argued strongly against – and it is in response to their firmly held convictions, that government has proposed a “quadruple lock” to ensure that no church will be forced to conduct gay weddings (or even be permitted to, unless their own governing bodies have explicitly declared their willingness to do so).

But the consultation also showed that a clear majority of the British public do believe that legal recognition of marriage should be available to all – and that is the view adopted by the government. The opposition have complained that the consultation ignored the hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions or mailed in pre – printed postcards against: but of those who took the trouble to respond personally to the questions on the consultation website, there was a clear majority in favour. This result is corroborated by external public opinion polling – every reputable survey that has put a direct question about same-sex marriage and the law, has found majority support, by a wide margin.

So Justin Welby’s thoughtful response provides an important question to those Catholic and other bishops who really do want to avoid simplistic, shallow thinking on marriage equality: moving beyond one’s own denominations beliefs about the nature of marriage – how far is it reasonable to impose those beliefs on others, while maintaining respect for genuine freedom of religion?


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5 comments for “Catholic, CoE Bishops Diverge in Response to Gay Marriage Proposals.

  1. December 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Terry, thank you for this valuable analysis, which helps those of us living outside the U.K. to follow the discussion there. I’m interested in the counterfactual assertion of some leading RC prelates in the U.K. that the government has no mandate to implement marriage equality. In his “Morning Briefing” column at NCR today, Dennis Coday links to an article citing Archbishop Nichols to say something of the sort.

    I’m struck by how close this counterfactual assertion is to an argument pushed strongly the religious right in the U.S. that 1) there is not a popular mandate for marriage equality, and 2) there should be no movement in the direction of marriage equality without a popular vote on the matter.

    This has been something of a mantra for NOM as long as polls showed a majority of Americans rejecting marriage equality.

    I have long found this proposal to determine the human rights of a minority by popular vote of the majority disturbing at a number of levels. If the way in which the majority deals with the rights of a minority is not a barometer of the humanity of a society, then what on earth is such a barometer?

    I chose to become Catholic in the 1960s precisely because Catholic leaders were courageous in that period about defending the rights of a despised and embattled minority, and in rejecting the argument that the rights of that minority group should be put to a popular vote.

    The leaders of the Catholic church have now come full circle in the other direction, when the rights of LGBT human beings are at stake. This is disconcerting in the extreme. One wonders what, in the thinking of the hierarchy, sets LGBT persons apart as a minority group whose rights should uniquely be combated and uniquely determined by popular referendum.

    • Bee
      January 2, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      What about the rights of children to their mother and father?

      • January 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm

        See my response to your earlier contribution.

    • January 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      Thanks, Bill for this thoughtful response.

      I’ve written before that I would far rather NOT be going on endlessly about equal marriage, but there has been so much nonsense spewed by some bishops, and in press commentary on these pronouncements, that I feel I simply have no choice. I have a number of additional post on this topic in preparation, concluding with one on the silver linings in the whole hoo-ha (and yes, the silver linings are there, and important). Problem is, I now have my hands full responding to the even greater nonsense being spewed about the supposed “closure” of the Soho Masses – which would more accurately be described as an overdue change of description, and possibly mark the start of a greatly expanded ministry for London’s LGBT Catholics.

      I’ll get to all of this in time – but for now, it’s more than keeping me on the hop.

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