LETTER: Bishops’ letter in response to the gay marriage debate
The letter written by the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Alan Winton, Bishop of Thetford, and the Rt Rev Jonathan Meyrick, Bishop of Lynn, in response to the government's gay marriage consultation.
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The current Government consultation on the introduction of same sex marriage presupposes the desirability of a change in the law. Marriage would be redefined as a union of two persons rather than being confined to a man and a woman. This letter considers some issues arising from the consultation.
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The Government consultation document is available on line at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/equal-civil-marriage The closing date for the consultation is 14th June and religious organisations are among those specifically invited to respond. There is likely to be an official response from the Church of England through the Archbishops' Council but individuals and local churches may well wish to respond separately.
The consultation document says very little about marriage itself and does not seek to define it. Nevertheless, it does speak of civil marriage and religious marriage as if these were two entirely separate concepts. The Government has made it clear that the only option for same sex marriage will be in a civil ceremony whether at a Register Office or on approved premises. There is no provision for the Church of England (or any other church or religious denomination for that matter) to solemnise marriage for same sex couples in church. While this is intended to protect the conscience of those unable to celebrate a same-sex marriage, it may create an unhealthy and damaging division between civil marriage and marriages solemnized on religious premises.
The Christian Church has never regarded marriage as its invention or possession. We affirm at the beginning of our marriage liturgy that 'marriage is a gift of God in creation'. It is deeply rooted in our social instincts and a longstanding human institution. An agreed understanding of marriage across many different societies and cultures creates coherence and stability between peoples and nations.
We believe this consultation is too narrowly focused and too predetermined to animate the sort of public debate about the nature of marriage which our society needs. The incidence of cohabitation and the frequency of divorce suggests that our society is an unlikely one in which a new and universal understanding of marriage has been discovered. It is noticeable that most of the countries which have already introduced same sex marriage have a similar pattern of marital instability. There seems a good deal of confusion surrounding marriage itself.
The New Testament shows that the first Christians quickly developed a fresh understanding of marriage but one which did not create a new institution. They reinterpreted what they had already experienced. In Ephesians 5.21-33 the mutual love expected of married Christians is grounded in the unbreakable relationship between Christ and his Church. St. Paul says himself that this is a 'great mystery' for it elevates the marital relationship into one in which the couple experience their mutual love for each other and also deepen their communion with God. Over time different traditions in the Christian Church have expressed this in different ways. In the Catholic tradition marriage is a sacrament. For Reformed Christians it is a covenant binding the couple together but also uniting them with God. Martin Luther saw marriage as a 'school of character' and a social estate. Anglican thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed an understanding of marriage as a little commonwealth, a source of divine grace, a social unit and a binding and solemn covenant between the spouses. All these traditions were interpretations of marriage within life in Christ rather than a new invention called 'religious marriage'. The danger of the government's proposals is that what is intended to be an inclusive development based on fairness and justice may create a substantial range of new minorities with competing definitions of marriage.
The most recent teaching document on marriage from the House of Bishops of the Church of England was published in September 1999. It can be found on line at www.churchofengland.org/media/45645/marriage.pdf While this was produced when the further marriage of the divorced in church was under discussion and makes no mention of same sex marriage its fundamental teaching is expressed succinctly and usefully. What this teaching document also illustrates is that our present understanding of marriage is grounded in the mutual love of the couple themselves and their commitment to each other, which Christians believe to be one means of experiencing the love of God and the power of his grace. Such teaching contains little which is gender specific. It seems clear there is further work to be done to articulate an understanding of marriage grounded in scripture and tradition and which engages clearly with the questions being raised by significant changes in our society.
A much more substantial study on same sex relationships is found in Some Issues in Human Sexuality (Church House Publishing 2003). It does not discuss same sex marriage, an indication of how recently this debate has emerged.
We believe it important to avoid ill-considered and bellicose reactions to the Government's proposals and to think through how such reactions are heard by gay people themselves. It is surely to the benefit of the whole of our society if gay people live in faithful, stable and publicly recognised relationships. Indeed, some gay relationships are a model of faithfulness compared with the serial monogamy so prevalent among heterosexual people. Civil partnerships were introduced less than six years ago and seem to have won rapid acceptance in wider society. They are frequently referred to as 'marriage' but there is a significant distinction since the registration of a civil partnership is not accompanied by any formal promises as in marriage. The Government proposes retaining civil partnerships (but not extending them beyond same sex relationships) as well as introducing same sex marriage. The rapidity of these developments makes us wonder how well considered they are.
We are sympathetic to the full inclusion of gay people in our society and the provision of appropriate means to enable them to maintain stable and lasting relationships. We believe, however, that the redefinition of marriage itself in the law of the land raises other important issues about the nature of marriage itself. The way in which the Government is going about it appears to create a new and ill-defined phenomenon called religious marriage, a novelty liable to generate more problems than the present legislation will solve.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
+Graham Norvic: +Alan Thetford +Jonathan Lynn
The Rt Revd Graham James The Rt Revd Dr Alan Winton The Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick
Lord Bishop of Norwich Bishop of Thetford Bishop of Lynn