Having successfully navigated the choppy waters of the House of Commons, on June 3rd the UK bill on same-sex marriage will be debated in the House of Lords. Promises to be an interesting day! The proposed legislation has captured huge media attention whilst tending to polarize the views of the British public, both Christians and others.
It does appear that the legislation is being rushed through without an enormous amount of thought into the long-term implications or finer points of law associated with the bill. Issues such as annulment of marriage in the event of non-consummation or how to define adultery within same-sex marriages remain unanswered. It is also not clear how the government proposes to continue to restrict civil partnerships to same-sex couples when marriage is open to partners of any gender. The unique place of the Church of England in UK law and clergy obligations regarding marriage towards their parishioners, of whatever religious persuasion, have also not been adequately examined. If, as seems likely, the bill is passed, we will no doubt hear more about this in future.
Whilst personally holding to the conviction that marriage is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman, there is a lot more going on here than simply defending a traditional definition of marriage or attempting to stop the erosion of “traditional values” in society. We are witnessing a redefinition not solely of marriage, but of the relationship between legislation and Christian faith.
The Church in Western society has for so long enjoyed a privileged position that we find it hard to imagine life in any other terms. Yet we find ourselves returning to a world which has much more in common with that inhabited by first century Gentile Christians, one where faith inspires counter-cultural convictions and practices not shared by the majority. That may not be such a bad thing.
With very divergent views on display, the current debate amongst Christians centres round the “rightness” of same-sex marriage and the pitfalls of the redefinition of marriage that is being contemplated. These are very real. We are certainly engaging in experiments in social engineering with unforeseen – and largely unresearched – consequences. Future generations will reap the benefits of our wisdom or pay the price of our recklessness and at this stage only time will tell.
In this context, however, the debate is largely polemic and utterly fails to recognize one key dimension: the missional dimension.
As Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that connects meaningfully with society around us and invites personal transformation through faith in Christ. Social transformation is not achieved by the imposition through legislation of moral convictions on people who think differently. On the contrary, such action can effectively alienate us from those we wish to impact and prevent the very influence we hope to exercise. We must allow our convictions to be shaped by the lost “one” rather than the safe “ninety-nine”.
Britain isn’t the same country today that it was 50 years ago. We are no longer a “Christian country”, whatever that might mean. We are a secular multi-cultural society and law cannot be based only on one religious option. Perhaps in the past Christianity could provide the basis for UK law, but that is no longer the case today. Legislation establishes what is lawful and what is criminal, not what is ethically right. I believe that lying is wrong, but would not want legislation to punish liars. I consider sexual relationships outside marriage – a man who chooses to sleep with a woman at work, for example – to be damaging and wrong, but again would not want the UK government to legislate against this.
Ethical choices motivated by religious conviction cannot be imposed on others. The separation of church and state is a reality and UK legislation, whether we like it or not, must cater for all.
Fundamentally, marriage is a public commitment between one man and one woman carried out in a way that is recognised by society. In a religious context, this commitment is also made in the sight of God. The current question is whether this should be extended to same-sex couples. Understandably, most today do not see why not.
Same-sex civil partnerships are already allowed in law so in the end it is a matter of semantics – what we think marriage means – rather than approval or disapproval of same-sex relationships as such. (This is why it is vital to realise that the current debate is not about homosexuality or whether as Christians accept homosexual practice. That is a completely different issue and the two must never be confused.) The important element in such relationships is the socially approved life-long commitment made to each other, not the label used. I realise that there are legal differences, but from an ethical standpoint marriage and civil partnerships essentially amount to the same thing.
Marriage is a social construct, defined and regulated not by divine diktat but by social convention. In Spanish gypsy weddings, for example, though not ‘legal’ in terms of national law, nor carried out in church, the commitment shown to each other in front of their society means the couple are married in their eyes and those of their community, and ultimately the state too.
So please, let’s keep all this in proportion. The institution of marriage is under much more threat from other factors, like casual relationships, extra-marital affairs and the splitting of the family caused by divorce and remarriage (and re-divorce…) than from same-sex legislation. And whatever happens, don’t lose sight of the essentials. Love your neighbour. Your straight neighbour and your LGBT neighbour. Single, married, in civil partnership, or just plain shacked up together. Let them meet in you Jesus, the friend of “sinners”. This, legislation can never redefine…
(Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI part III. Image credits: Daily Telegraph, Reuters, CNN.)