Love Equality

The Combination, reflecting the range of progressives in our society, includes people who identify with a faith and people who do not.  This post by Tanya Jones addresses the issue of equal marriage from a Christian perspective.

The Love Equality March in Belfast

Three events in the past few weeks: the Tory-DUP pact, the amendment of the German Civil Code by the Bundestag, and the LoveEquality march in Belfast on 1 July, have brought the issue of same-sex marriage back into full focus.  In a swathe of Europe which includes the rest of the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Spain and Portugal, Northern Ireland stands alone in refusing to authorise or recognise the marriages of two women or of two men.  Notoriously, public opinion here is now clearly in favour of changes in the law, and, in the last Assembly, so were a majority of MLAs, with the DUP using (or misusing) the petition of concern to prevent its passing.

For me, it is deeply sad, perverse and even ironic that the main force behind this resistance consists of those who identify as fellow Christians.  While there are a few groups, lay people and members of the clergy who have spoken bravely and generously in favour of marriage equality, the majority of churches and their members have been either vociferously opposed or awkwardly silent.  Most of the latter are not bigoted puritans, but well-meaning people torn between their own best instincts and a shaky but strident conservative social teaching.

This is no longer a matter of internal debate, open to believers only.  The anti-gay religious tradition, homophobic in effect if not in intention, and shared across many denominations, is the sole justification for the DUP’s stubborn stance.  If they use theology to stand in the way of democratically mandated progress, I believe that all of us have the right to interrogate it, whatever our beliefs or background.

The ‘Christian’ denial of equal marriage rights takes three principal forms:

1. The Bible condemns same-gender sexual relationships.

It is, of course, quite odd to speak of ‘the Bible’ taking a single view on any subject, consisting as it does of a range of different types of literature, exploring often contradictory conceptions of God and society.  There are no true fundamentalists, for each of us choose which books and passages to privilege, which to disregard and how to attribute incompatible statements.  But even if every reference to same-sex attraction throughout the Old and New Testaments (and there are not nearly as many as you might think) is interpreted in an evangelical mode as the ‘Word of God’, the result is still not a remotely anti-gay Creator.  We know, because a brilliant young American called Matthew Vines has done just that, and his video here bridges the perceived gap between progressives and evangelicals on this issue as nothing else I’ve ever seen.

2. The Catholic church teaches that such relationships are wrong.

It does, yes, even under everyone’s favourite eco-pope.  But, as the referendum in the Republic of Ireland showed, the most devout Catholics are quite capable of making up their own minds in a different direction to their bishops’.  Conscience is paramount, as generations of priests have reassured their contraception-using parishioners in the confessional.  What is more, the condemnation doesn’t go quite so far back as we tend to believe. As the historian John Boswell meticulously uncovered in The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, over twenty years ago, liturgical ceremonies almost indistinguishable from heterosexual weddings were presided over by priests across Europe for many centuries.   The beautifully worded, and directly translated offices in Boswell’s appendix would need little or no amendment to be used by same-sex couples today, ‘not bound by nature but by faith’ in ‘unashamed fidelity’ and ‘true love’.

3. It would be a ‘redefinition of marriage’.

This is the favourite version at the moment.  It sounds so reasonable, so non-judgemental, so regretful.  But when you look at it properly, it only means the same as the others.  There is an interesting question as to when the expansion of a category becomes a ‘redefinition’, but I don’t think it has much to do with whether or not my gay friends should be able to get married.  And even if it is sufficient to be a ‘redefinition’, then those making this argument have to explain why it matters.  Words are constantly being redefined, to the relief of lexicographers, and civilisation doesn’t necessarily collapse. Five years ago the ‘Christian Institute’ produced a document entitled Redefining Marriage.  I don’t recommend that you read it, unless you are particularly in need of an urgent emetic. It is full of circular arguments, non-sequiturs, random historical and sociological assertions and extremely offensive allegations, of the kind that even DUP ministers have since learned not to make.  But at the core of all this unpleasant tangle is the claim that sex between people of the same gender is ‘morally wrong’.  For all the pseudo-psychology, the faux-linguistic analysis, that’s all it comes down to in the end.

Those are the negatives, the asserted ‘Christian’ justifications for a repressive stance.  But there are positive reasons why, as  Christians, we would fully support not only equal marriage, but the other vital reforms needed to make life fair and joyful for LGBTQ people.  Reading the Gospels, with their interpolations and interpretations, is not straightforward, but there are characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teaching which are clear and challenging.  He sought out and supported the marginalised, especially women and those perceived as impure.  He rejected the privileging of conventional family structures and responsibilities over the quest for social justice. His own closest emotional bond appears to have been with another man (‘the disciple whom he loved’) and in healing the centurion’s ‘servant’ he probably recognised and implicitly affirmed a same-sex relationship.  The actions which made him angry were those of injustice and exploitation, never of sexual difference. And he asserted and celebrated the infinite worth of each person, without moral or theological precondition.

So where does that leave us? I’d like to see all of us, whether atheist, agnostic or of any faith asking a lot more questions of those who claim a religious basis for their opposition to marriage equality.  I’d like to see more people of faith, and Christians in particular, standing up for the rights of their LGBTQ sisters and brothers, on this and other issues. And I’d like this to be an opportunity to build bridges, to find common ground, instead of watching new fissures grow.

Tanya Jones

14 July 2017