by John Hayward
It is reported that later this week the government will announce a consultation process on plans to end a ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in places of worship, to extend civil unions to heterosexual partnerships, and to legalise same-sex marriage.
The first proposal
These are three separate issues. The first proposal concerns neither the question of how the Church should reach out in compassion to and demonstrate that it is an inclusive community of redeemed sinners to both heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, nor how the Church should uphold the clear teaching of the Bible that marriage between a man and a woman is God's wise provision for how humans may best flourish. Rather, the first proposal is a question of freedom of conscience, of the Big Society. The government is rightly not telling the Church that it must conduct civil partnership ceremonies: the task of government is limited to creating the conditions under which society might thrive through the direct and most effective action and responsibility of individuals, families and local organisations, not forcing change itself. The proposal simply states that religious venues – including, for instance, mosques and synagogues, not just churches – are permitted to offer such ceremonies but explicitly places no obligation on religious organisations. The change would amend the Civil Partnerships Act 2005 but would not affect marriage law. The established Church has made clear that its venues will not be used to bless same-sex unions, while other Christians and religious groups, such as Methodists and Quakers, already conduct civil partnership ceremonies, but are presently denied the right to do so in their own buildings. As the Archbishop of York told Andrew Marr on Sunday, 'I live in a liberal democracy and I want equality for everybody. I cannot say the Quakers shouldn’t do it. Nor do I want somebody to tell me the Church of England must do.'
The second proposal
The second proposal is one designed to end injustices for cohabiting siblings, carers and other people in non-sexual relationships, such as the case of Joyce and Sybil Burden, which we commented on a couple of years ago. It would extend the choices available to non-religious heterosexual couples who, for whatever reason, are opposed to the institution of marriage. Again, the change would amend the Civil Partnerships Act 2005 but would not affect marriage law. To the extent that it encourages individuals to make a public declaration of long-term commitment to each other and affords them the emotional and practical support of their extended network of family, friends and colleagues, this should be welcome, even though it falls short of what God has revealed as the ideal – what John Piper described in his book 'This Momentary Marriage' as 'a parable of permanence':
'Most foundationally, marriage is the doing of God. And ultimately, marriage is the display of God. It displays the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his people to the world in a way that no other event or institution does. Marriage, therefore, is not mainly about being in love. It’s mainly about telling the truth with our lives. And staying married is not about staying in love. It is about keeping covenant and putting the glory of Christ’s covenant-keeping love on display.'
The third proposal
Unlike the first two proposals, the third would require an amendment to marriage law. However, as Jonathan Burnside noted in Consent versus Community, there is nothing immutable about society’s present sexual ethic. So, redefining marriage would then invite the question of what other sexual diversity should next be sanctioned. Evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that there may be pressure to treat polygamous and bestial unions (or ‘zoo couples’) as ‘equal’ and thus non-criminal (see Burnside pp.11f). The first civil union between three partners, in which a man ‘married’ two women, took place in the Netherlands in September 2005 and there are probably already up to 1,000 polygamous marriages in existence in the United Kingdom (arising from immigration and British recognition of such marriages that were legal in the individuals’ countries of origin). In Canada the courts are expected to issue a ruling later this year on whether an anti-polygamy law dating to 1892 violates Canada's guarantee of freedom of religion. No doubt it wouldn't take long for the pro-consensual incest lobby to voice their interests either.
The question, then, is not whether gay couples should wed in church (or whether the church should get upset at the opportunity to officiate civil partnerships) but whether the church and society is ready to see moral relativism worked out to its logical conclusions.