The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Church and state: Gay marriage

Posted by Ron George on June 13, 2012

Sergius and Bacchus

Sergius and Bacchus: 7th century icon, artist unknown

The Church of England has drawn its sword through the sand. The church opposes a government plan to extend full marriage rights to homosexual couples. It’s a step too far, the church argues in its response to a government consultation on “equal civil marriage.” Anglican bishops in the House of Lords supported 2004 legislation permitting homosexual civil partnerships, which guarantee their standing in matters of law. Marriage, however, is another matter, or so the church argues.

It’s as though the church is claiming, beneath its eloquent prose, that there are limits to decency and fairness. 

“We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage,” the church argues. “It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.”

We’ve heard this argument on this side of the pond, the preposterous idea that the government should be in the business of protecting “the sanctity of marriage,” in the words of former president George W. Bush. We even have a monstrous federal law titled, “Defense of Marriage Act,” the very title of which insults every taxpaying homosexual in America – no fewer than 12.5 million people. Same old fear tactics, same old stampede, even though there is not one shred of evidence anywhere that homosexual marriage threatens “society as a whole.” Examined, the idea is ludicrous, but as long as we continue to elect the Tea Party’s reactionary paranoids to Congress, we’ll have to put up with this kind of crap.

Mike Luckovich cartoon WX Post

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, The Washington Post

In the UK, though, David Cameron’s  coalition government of conservatives and liberal democrats is pressing ahead to do the right thing; and Cameron is opposed by an established church struggling not only within itself but worldwide with whether to stop treating homosexuals as second-class Christians. What a tableau. (No doubt Tea Partiers would sneer at Cameron’s lifelong devotion to conservative principles. Do we really want these people running our country into the ground?)

Lurking between the lines of the CofE response, which ought to be read by every civics class in America (if any remain), is an unintended case for disestablishing the Church of England and, in the United States, for disentangling ordained ministers from the signing of marriage licenses.

The Church of England has a problem with gay marriage because its theological understanding of marriage is codified in British civil law. The reasoning goes like this: If British law permits homosexual marriage (not just civil partnership), then homosexual couples would be entitled by law to marriage in Anglican churches, which do not accept the premise that homosexual marriage is permissible. OK, but the solution is not to oppose gay marriage but to disentangle church and British law.

The CofE itself ought to have such legislation introduced as a matter of principle, because, as history as repeatedly attested, the church has no legitimate business in secular government. It makes one wonder why the CofE’s established status has persisted into the 21st century. It serves no purpose and even hinders the ministry of the church to be a creature of the state; and in this case, the CofE would be under no obligation to condone – if that’s the word – homosexual marriage or conduct such ceremonies within its hallowed precincts. If that’s the issue – and, at root, it seems to be – then disestablishment is the fix.

Gay Marriage photo

Gay marriage: Further appreciation of our humanity

Regarding marriage, church and state are no less entangled in the U.S., though not by statute. Ordained ministers routinely participate in state business when they conduct marriage ceremonies recognized by the state, sign marriage licenses and convey them to state registrars. The church should be about blessing marriages, upholding them by every spiritual means and affirming whatever values its tradition attaches to marriage, including, if deemed necessary, the making of religious vows that go well beyond statutory obligations of the state.

The state, moreover, should not rely on religious institutions to do its business. Its interests in the marriage contract is and ought to be limited to obligations incurred by law regarding protection of children, property rights and financial obligations. It has no right to encroach upon – or protect – the “sanctity of marriage” any more than it has a right to insist that any citizen swear an oath “so help me God.”

It’s unlikely that any of this will change. The CofE’s privileged position in English law no doubt has its advantages, or the church would have had itself disestablished long ago; and heaven knows we Americans would rather wink at the constitutional problems posed by our marriage procedures because, well, it’s convenient – and most of us are offended by rabble-rousing minorities demanding constitutional protection from de facto and de jure discrimination.

And it has come to that. The unholy enmeshment of church and state in the matter of marriage, in the U.S. and the U.K., has produced unseemly outcomes for a distinct minority in both nations, albeit with different outcomes. The U.K. is settling the matter properly by legislating civil marriage rights for homosexuals over the objections of a church that has become irrelevant despite its privileged status. (It acknowledges in its response, for example, that just 25 percent of all marriages in the U.K. are performed in Anglican churches.) The U.S., meanwhile, absurdly passes state and federal laws supposedly protecting the “sanctity of marriage,” an interest driven by centuries of practice regarding marriage – and, ironically, inherited from the Church of England – that clearly violate the U.S. Constitution.

It seems to be ever thus that, given the opportunity to change, Christians tend to resist rather than examine their faith in God’s call to grow into a deeper understanding and appreciation of our common humanity – and to make institutional adjustments that account for that growth.

Once again, Christianity seems to be the problem not the solution – a stumbling block, a scandal indeed.



One Response to “Church and state: Gay marriage”

  1. I found your blog via a review of Cynthia Bourgeault’s _The Wisdom Jesus_ you posted on Amazon. (I actually had to google “The Pelican Papers,” as Amazon had deleted your link.) Thank you for this scintillating post on same-sex marriage. As a gay man, it gives me hope that I’m not despised by every other Christian occupying “the pew.” It’s readily apparent that you are a man of profound thought and deep prayer. Though I have yet to read your three-part series on Bourgeault’s work, I look forward to it. In the meantime, I just wanted to pause and express my gratitude. You really should try to advertise your blog more. It’s definitely worthy of a wider audience.

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