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?
- Minnesota Catholics Still Split by Vote on Gay Marriage (queerchurchnews.wordpress.com)
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- Archbishop attacks gay marriage (bbc.co.uk)