Thursday, July 19, 2012

Parish Notices

Yes, I know that a document entitled "DO NOT POST THIS" was posted for 25 seconds last night. Right wally I feel, I can tell you. Serves you right for using RSS, though.

I did a play review

Part Three of my history of Doctor Who is in the current Sci-Fi Now, available at your favourite newsagents, or, very probably your second favourite. I understand that it is also available on I-Tunes telephone if that's your kind of thing. But not Spotify.

From now on, my music reviews will have their own special blog, over here. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Cameron

The Stolen & Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid; of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank. & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakespeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashonable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live forever; in Jesus our Lord.

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets!

William Blake 1808

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn't more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits. It was a he rabbit and a she rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. Outside the dogs was a-howling. The he rabbit turned to the she rabbit and he said, "What do we do now?" And the she rabbit, she just give him a wink and said "We stay here til we outnumber them."

Monday, July 09, 2012

Bella, ciao

That's why, I think, these "political" lyrics contain so few arguments; why some of them seem almost deliberately naïve. The album; the concert; the act of making music and poems is the argument. The beautiful harmonies and terrible rhymes are offering us a model of a different kind of world.

I don't know if I believe it. I don't know if I believe "that words can save us." I don't know whether one guy spoiling a lot of people's night at the opera really does anything about the concentration camps. But that isn't the point. The little guy with the rattle is doing a small thing to re-assert his human dignity; just like the waitress who spits in the soup of the customer whose been leching at her and the soldiers who carry on singing until they're slaughtered. Maybe that's all we can do. The melody is the message.
     Me, 2010

If anyone asks me to explain my political beliefs at the moment, I tell them to listen to Chumbawamba albums. Not that anyone ever does. (Ask me, I mean.)
     Me, 2010

But I love, adore and respect this side idolatry the fact that Chumbawamba make every show they perform a political "happening", and somehow manage to do so without seeming preachy. Possibly because the songs are so sweet and fine: I imagine they could charm even a died-in-wool liberal democrat.
     Me, 2011

Chumbawamba have walked onto the stage wearing "Bono, Pay Your Taxes" t-shirts. This is why I love them.
    Me, Tweeting from Avalon Tent in Glastonbury, 2011

Catch your breath, 
feel the life in your bones
Enjoy what's to come, 

not the things that we've done.
Save all your prayers, 

take the pain and the hurt
And add your chorus to my verse

A playlist of songs which remind me of the good times. Usual caveats apply.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy Birthday

This song makes me want to be an American. I think it would still be my One Desert Island Disc.

That Would Be an Ecumenical Matter (4)

When Christians talk about marriage, they should make it clear whether they are talking about what is good for society, or about what I am calling, for want of a better word, "magic". 

Are you saying "I believe what Jesus believed about marriage because I think it's what's best for society, always assuming society agrees with Jesus and me about what 'best' means" or "I believe what Jesus believed about marriage, because Jesus believed it, regardless of the effect believing it has on society."

Mr Tolkien correctly called Mr Lewis out for being inconsistent on this point.

Some Americans have been putting stickers on their cars saying that "the Bible" says that marriage is between one man and one woman and that God made Adam and Eve, not Samantha and Eve. The extremely nasty Coalition for Marriage in this country have been using similar logos.

Someone who is wrong on the internet suggested ways in which the bumper sticker could be amended to cover the other kinds of marriage mentioned in the Bible – polygamy, forced marriage between slaves, serial divorce, etc.

But if I am right, this entirely misses the point. The other forms of marriage are talked about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and (as we have seen) Jesus thinks that the two stories of creation in Genesis override what Moses taught in the Torah.

Christians can't have it both ways: they can't make a big song and dance about what Leviticus says about homosexuality if they think that Jesus told us to set the Torah aside. If they don't think we can set the Torah aside they have to explain why they aren't in favour of polygamy and divorce.

"What Jesus said" is the beginning, not the end, of a discussion about Christian ethics: we also have to take into account "what St Paul said about what Jesus said" "what the Church fathers said about what St Paul said about what Jesus said" "what the church has historically said about what the fathers said about what Paul said about what Jesus said" and "what contemporary thinkers think about what the church says about what the fathers said about what Paul said about what the Gospels say that Jesus said." 

If Christianity is a movement rather than a rule book, then tradition counts for something. Only Jehovah's Witnesses and Giles Fraser think that you can invent new forms of Christianity in complete isolation from what Christians have historically believed.


It is hard to see how theories which say gender is irrelevant or non-existent could be made consistent with anything which one would recognise as historical Christianity. (Would one have to say "It would make no difference if the Church were 'the Bridegroom of Christ' " or if the "It would make no difference if the Trinity were 'Mother, Daughter and Holy Spiritrix'"?) 

But it isn't clear that "gender does not exist" or "gender does not matter" is an essential part of the proposition that "a relationship between two men or two women can reasonably be given the name 'marriage'" -- although the discussion has sometimes been co-opted by people with an anti-gender agenda.


All sides ought to take care to understand what all other sides are saying, and why, instead of merely identifying the general tendency of an argument, giving it a label, and then condemning the label. There is just no point in saying "This is liberal and therefore wrong" or "This is homophobic and therefore wrong". 

In particular, we should beware of leaping on unfortunate analogies and comparisons and using them as the basis for ad hominen attacks that rule entire arguments out of court.

Let us suppose someone says "Granted that homosexual acts are tabu: well, if we know anything at all about Jesus, we know that he was welcoming and compassionate to people who broke tabus – prostitutes, women with issues of blood, people who took money from the Romans, lepers, and so on. So before evangelical Christians can even start talking about human sexuality, they need to adopt a Christ-like attitude to homosexuals." It would be most unhelpful to translate this as "Christian says homosexuals are like lepers" or make up a fictitious character called "Gay-leper-priest."

Let us suppose someone says "We take Jesus at his word and say that marriage is something hard-coded into the universe which can't be changed. The government can no more make a law that says that two men can get married than they can make a law saying that Pi =5. But the proposed law presupposes that marriage is whatever the government of the day says that it is. If we accept that the government can, in principle, define marriage as being 'between two men' it is hard to see why they couldn't, in principle, at some future date re-define it as being 'between three men' or 'between a hedgehog and a sofa'." 
It would be most unhelpful to say "Christian says that gay marriage will lead to polygamy and marriage between animate objects."

Let us suppose someone says "If the government proposes to legalise a wrongthing, then it is no justification to say that the wrongthing will not be compulsory. If wife beating is wrong in principle then it is no defence to say that your law will not require anyone to beat his wife who doesn't want to. If fox hunting is wrong in principle then it is no defence to say that your new law will not require anyone to join the hunt who doesn't want to. If gay marriages are wrong in principle, it is no defence to say that your law will not require any priest to conduct a marriage if he doesn't want to it." It would be most unhelpful to say "Christians say that gay marriage just as bad as wife beating and fox hunting."

It would also help a great deal if people on all sides thought a bit harder before they started to use inflammatory analogies. In particular, it would be a good idea not to pick an analogy which is obviously going to anger someone who hasn't been following the argument very closely and then act all surprised when someone who hasn't been following the argument very closely gets angry.


Analogies with Hitler are hardly ever a good idea.


All sides must be extremely careful of who they form alliances with. Christians who take Jesus teachings about divorce literally must be extremely careful of drifting into the language of, or sharing platforms with, believers in the Daily Mail Apocalypse Cult. (Using the word "marriage"to describe relationships between two men will not bring about the end of western civilisation. It just won't.) 

Christians who take Jesus teachings about divorce literally must be especially careful of forming alliances with headbangers who haven't read the book of Leviticus but understand it gives them a great excuse to bash queers.

People who think that gay people's relationships should be called "marriages" out of simple fairness and goodwill should be careful of forming alliances with people who wish to use the issue as a stick with which to beat the churches; or as tactic in their campaign to separate church and state; or as part of an extremist sexual radicalism which claims that gender does not exist.

This will be best achieved by people saying what they actually think and the reasons they actually think it and not marshalling "arguments" which they don't believe but which may bolster their cause. Remember that thing about facts and lampposts?

This applies to arguments in general. People who think that we ought to organize society in such a way that people who believe different things can all live harmoniously together should be careful of forming alliances with people who think that religion is a social evil which needs to be suppressed who should in turn be careful of forming alliances with people who pretend to dislike the religion of brown-skinned people because they have a visceral dislike of anyone with brown skin – even though it might happen that all three groups (secularists, atheists, and Daily Express readers) would rather there were fewer displays of religion in the public sphere. Equally, normal people should be careful of assuming that everyone who doesn't think that Muslim people should be allowed to wear Muslim hats in public is necessarily a Daily Mail reader. He must just be small minded, mean spirited and parochial.

 Christians have, in my opinion, been most seriously guilty of putting forward arguments that they don't believe because they bolster their position: talking in terms of "building blocks of society" "social institutions" and "the imminent end of civilisation as we know it" because if they talked about Jesus' magical thinking they know they wouldn't be taken seriously.

Many of them, of course, don't really have any kind of argument at all: just a general sense that they aren't meant to agree with gays getting married in churches but can't quite remember why. This may be what they mean by "tradition".


My enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend. My enemy's enemy may very well be a twat.


If there is a good argument to made against the proposed change to the law from a simple, rational, social point of view, then you should make it from a simple, rational, social point of view and not bring God into it. You should also make it clear that you are speaking as an individual, not as a churchman. The Archbishop of Canterbury claims to have special inside knowledge about what God thinks, which means that his opinion is of some importance to the people who claim to believe in the same God he does (about four million, at the last count). This is why he gets to talk in the House of Lords and on the Today programme. If he's just talking in simple, rational, social terms then there is no reason to pay any more attention to him than to anyone else.

This also applies to everything Giles Fraser has ever said about anything.

But so far as I can see, it is not possible to argue against the proposed change to law from a simple, rational, social point of view: if you are going to make the argument, it has to be on what I have called "magical" grounds. The Church has been singularly reluctant to do this, presumably because it doesn't actually believe in magic. (Which of course, raises the question of what it's there for.) 

The closest anyone got was that Irish fellow, but he wrapped it up in college buzzwords like "ontological impossibility" and an inflammatory analogy about slavery, so no-one paid any attention to him.


So: the question turns out to be different from the one we thought it was. The question turns out to be "How much attention should a secular government pay to the magical beliefs of its citizens?"

The Dawkinsbots would obviously reply "None whatsoever". But most of us probably think that it is more complicated than that. If a group of aborigines went to the Australian government and requested that a supermarket not be erected on a particular piece of land because it is the home to a great many spirits, then I think that some of us would have at least some sympathy to with the natives.

James Cameron made a film based on this kind of conundrum. It wasn't very good. 

The secular state would not need to commit itself to whether there really are spirits living on the land that Tescos wants to put a car-park on: but the fact that four million of its citizens believe that there are, and will be made unhappy by the land's desecration, would have some relevance to their decision

This is not the same as saying "Anyone can demand anything if he claims that it will upset his magical friend" although some of you are already typing a comment to that effect.

In any case, Britain is not a secular state. Some people, including some members of the Church of England, think it ought to be, but you shouldn't get "is" mixed up with "ought". England is ceremonially and constitutionally protestant. The Queen formally appoints the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister has a say in who she chooses as Archbishop of Canterbury and changes to the church's prayer book require an act of parliament. The national anthem is a prayer to set to a music. The teachings of the Church of England do, in fact, have some baring on British law-making.

David Cameron is woefully inconsistent about this. It does not seem to me that the Prime Minister can logically wave around deluxe souvenir anniversary editions of the Authorized Version of the Bible and talk about how England is fundamentally and essentially Christian (although the brown people are quite welcome to follow their own quaint customs, of course, provided they don't frighten the horses) and at the same time say that he is free to make laws which, according to the Bishops appointed by the Queen, contradict the Church of England’s beliefs.

This is not the same as saying "I want to live in a theocracy where the Church of England has an absolute veto on everything the governments does" although some of of you are presumably already typing a comment to that effect.


I myself do not know whether the Church should marry homosexuals or not. I wouldn't mind one bit if it did. 

I think that the Jesus of Matthew's Gospel draws a distinction between "how things will be in the Kingdom of Heaven" and "how things may have to be until then in this complicated world." Otherwise, we would have to say that he frequently commands the impossible or that the only way of practising Christianity is desert fathers monasticism. The Sermon on the Mount presents a picture of a world no-one feels anger, no-one feels lust, everyone lives in the present moment, a world divided into the majority whose vocation is celibacy and the minority who chose the more arduous path of marriage. This isn't a basis for lawmaking in society, and the rest of the New Testament represents a stepping back into a world in which Christians get married, have children who are sometimes naughty, own slaves who sometimes run away, go out to dinner with pagans, serve in the army, have legal disputes and generally live in the real world.

In that same real world in which some people are gay. Get over it.

I am also quite sure that no denomination should be forced to marry two homosexuals if their understanding of the Bible says that the relationship between two homosexuals cannot be called "marriage".

I am also quite sure that homosexuals and heterosexuals should be treated exactly the same by the secular law: whether Archbishop Senmatu thinks that we can use the word "marriage" to describe two "friends" shouldn't make any difference at all about whether those two friends can use each others bus pass or visit each other in hospital or share each other's hotel room.

I am quite sure that Cameron's proposals are a complete mess: he appears to propose that instead of two categories ("Civil Partnership" and "Marriage") there should now be three: "Civil Marriage"(two men, two women, or a woman and man) "Civil Partnership"(two men or two women only) "Religious Marriage" (a man and a woman only).

The only virtue of these proposals seems to be that they annoy everybody just about equally: the radicals and liberal Christians who can't see why gays shouldn't have religions weddings and the conservative Christians who can't see how two men can be married.

The "civil partnership" set up has been in force for barely ten years, and we are already talking about changing it: it is most unlikely that this dogs dinner of an arrangement will survive even that long.


Tolkien was correct to call out C.S Lewis for inconsistency. But he didn't seem to have taken on board the social question which Lewis raised. Is it the duty of the civil state to legislate to make people good? Are there some sins which are not the states business? What happens if not everybody (not even everybody of the same religion) can agree about what counts as a sin? Does anyone think that divorce should be legally prohibited and adultery punishable by law? (Anyone apart from Christian Voice, I mean: anyone sane.)

The simple and obvious solution is to create a single legal category called "Civil Partnership" which is open to anyone, gay or straight; and for the concept of "Marriage" to be placed outside of the law, governed by social convention or religious tradition. 

Some people would have a big ceremony at the Registry office where their Civil Partnership is celebrated, as at present. Some people would just sign the legal papers in front of a Registrar and then have a big party with their friends when they get home, as at present. Some people would get legal but not bother about the party, as at present. Some people would go and have a ceremony in a church, synagogue, mosque and temple, and it would be purely up to the church, synagogue, mosque or temple who they would and would not perform that ceremony for, as at present. Some people would regard these as very serious religious ceremonies, as at present; some would regard them as important only because they represent the traditional rites of the tribe, as at present; some would regard them merely as an excuse for some nice photographs, as it present. 

The only difference would be that the church, temple, mosque or synagogue ceremony would have no legal standing unless the couple had first become Civil Partners. There is no reason why some clergymen could not be inducted as Registrars (as at present) and perform both the marriage and the civil partnership at the same time. At present, the couple generally leave the church to "sign the register"; presumably under my scheme they would leave the church to conduct a quick "civil partnership" ceremony in the vicar's pantry. But it might be that, before a Church Wedding, you had to go and get civil partnered in front of a secular registrar, like "getting a marriage licence" in one of those cowboy movies.

This seems to be a sensible, secular compromise, since it recognises that there are genuine differences in belief and proposes a way for people with different beliefs to co-exist. 

But it is hard to see how it could come about while Britain remains formally and ceremonially a protestant nation.

Most non-religious people would presumably be happy for Britain to cease to be a formally and ceremonially protestant nation; indeed the majority of them would presumably be unable to tell the difference one way or the other. A substantial proportion of the Church of England would support the change. 

However, such a change would be politically impossible. The Daily Mail Apocalypse Cult, which owns the government, would undoubtedly portray any attempt to disestablish the church as anti-monarchist and therefore unpatriotic or even treasonous.

Which gets us back where we started: Church and State see marriage in different ways; and Church and State are hopelessly tangled up.

To be honest, we might just as well get back to yelling at parodies of each others positions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (3)

You see, this is where I get completely stuck. Is the Party line.

1: That plebs are not allowed to have certain Thoughts.

2: That plebs are allowed to Think whatever they like, but they are not allowed to speak those thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

3: That they are allowed to speak whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to write certain thoughts down in case they corrupt other plebs?

4: That they are allowed to write down whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to publish these writings in case they corrupt other plebs?

5: That they are allowed to publish, in books or newspapers, whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising to promote those Thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

6: That they are allowed to take out paid advertising on billboards or newspapers to promote whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising on the sides of buses, because advertising on the sides of buses is a special case.

People have been putting up posters with quotations from the Good Book on them since the year dot. In 1956 Mr C.S. Lewis expressed his impatience with people who "plastered the landscape with quotations about the Blood of the Lamb." But he was clear headed enough to note that this was an aesthetic, not a religious, objection: the beliefs of the people putting up the posters were presumably much the same as his own.

The Christian attitude to the Bible is in this respect almost completely unlike the Muslim attitude to the Koran: devout Christians are happy to hurl cheaply printed excerpts from the scriptures at all and sundry in the hope that one or two of them may read it. Muslims treat the Koran with great respect and on the whole prefer that it wasn't touched by unbelievers. There is a reason that you find Bibles but not Korans in hotel rooms.

Back in 2008 the Dawkinsbots became overheated because someone had paid to display a verse from Marks Gospel on the sides of London buses. Granted the Scripture Gift Mission - the people whose posters C.S Lewis had presumably seen on railway stations - is pretty non-denominational: all they want to do is put the word of God into people's hands. The Very Notorious Bus Advert, on the other hand, directed inquirers to a website which told you that if you had read and enjoyed Mark's Gospel, the next step was to find a church which practised believer's baptism. That is, they advert was in a strict sense, sectarian, although over a point which the Dawkinsbots would have at least pretended not to understand.

Had we been aiming for a quid pro quo, the sensible thing would have been for the Atheists to have paid to have had a quote from Origin of Species displayed on buses. Instead, they chose to up the stakes and stuck the never to be forgotten words "There's Probably No God" on the sides of the Routemasters. At this point, the more excitable Christians should have either matched them with "Oh Yes There Probably Is" or upped the stakes, say with something along the lines of "Richard Dawkins is a Tosser" or to be completely even-handed "Richard Dawkins is probably a Tosser." Instead, they went to law and attempted to argue that the advert was probably illegal, indecent, dishonest and untruthful because

a: believers shouldn't have to see their faith badmouthed on the way to work or

b: it wasn't true: lots of clever people thought there probably was a God.

The advertising standards people said there was probably no law against religious advertising and that it certainly wasn't their job to decide whether or not God existed. (They said the same thing when the excitable Christians took out counter-counter adverts saying “There definitely is a God”.) The atheist poster campaign lasted for a few months. The Scripture Gift Mission continued to put quotes from the books of Isaiah on railway stations. Civilization endured.

Back in April, we had to through the same thing all over again. Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, has been running adverts with the slogan "Some people are gay: get over it" for several years. (Readers with long memories may recall that I described the adverts as having an "admirably clear message, in admirably clear anglo-saxon words" but wondered if they "took the puritans and theocrats too much on their own terms.")

However when a longer, thinner version of the slogan was placed on the sides of London buses, a group of militant Anglicans (if such a thing can be imagined) decided that civilisation was imperilled. So they took out their own adverts, which were, I have to say, completely impenetrable, but which people who know about these things assure me insinuated that homosexuals could be ungayed. The Gay obviously found this highly offensive, but, once again, instead of responding in kind (with posters saying "You Can Be Cured of God") or raising the stakes ("John Sentamu Is Probably A Tosser”) they also sought legal redress . It turned out that the Church Militant had been fiendishly clever and run the posters by the advertising standards people in advance. They’d been assured that they weren’t against the Law of the Land.

And now my tale grows farcical, as a great man once said. For the past ten years, London has had a Mayor. (For the past thousand years, the city of London has had a Lord Mayor, but this is a purely symbolic role, generally given to pauper children with cats. The Mayor of London is a political role with actual power. This is a perfectly sensible arrangement. It also makes perfect sense for private schools to be universally referred to as “Public Schools.” If you are very good, I will explain the laws of cricket.) The then incumbent, game-show host and national embarrassment Borris Johnson, stepped in and unilaterally abolished the posters on the grounds that he was standing for re-election against Ken Livingtone, England's third most popular comedy communist, and needed all the votes he can get.

Even if we accept the Party Line that it can be offencive to display words on the sides of buses that it would be quite okay to display elsewhere, then I still doubt that arbitrary fiat by a single elected official is the best way of handling it. In 2000, it looked like a good idea to invent a new job called Mayor of London and give it to Ken Livingstone, mainly because it infuriated both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. It also looked like a good idea that the powers of the Mayor of London should pretty much be limited to running the capital's transport system. This was a kind of consolation prize to Ken Livingstone for having been abolished in 1986. Transport is his favourite thing in the world, after newts and sci-fi movies. But was it ever implicit in the idea that one elected person should have overall control of all the cars and buses and trains in London that that person should also have the power to censor advertising on the sides of buses?

This kind of thing is never a good way of getting things done. It may seem very attractive to invoke the powers of the Lord Chamberlin to censor a play which might cause prols to have Non Party Approved Thoughts, but in the the end, the Right has far more reason to fear the free exchange ideas than the Left does. Including ideas which are wrong and silly. Especially ideas which are wrong and silly.

What would happen if I decided to put up posters on the sides of buses saying "The Earth is Flat" or "We Never Went to the Moon" or "Stan Lee created the Avengers"? It seems to me that we can be far more certain that the earth is round, that we did go to the moon and that Jack Kirby created the Avengers than we can be about sexual essentialism. But either we say that you can't use advertising to say stuff which is probably not true, which would make it impossible for the Liberal Democrats to ever run an election campaign again (no bad thing in itself, admittedly) or else we say that sexuality is a special case; or that buses are a special case; or that Boris Johnson is a special case. And special cases make bad laws.

Apparently, this has something to do with the debate that we are currently failing to have about gay marriage or equal marriage or whatever the party thinks I ought to call it this week. I understood the Stonewall Poster ("Some people are gay - get over it") to have been saying "Some people prefer to sleep with people whose genitals are the same shape as their genitals and this is none of your business". But apparently I have been caught out by their use of the verb "to be". It turns out that the "are" bit meant something like "are irreducibly, unchangeably gay due to genetic determinism and this is non-negotiable."

Which may, for all I know, be true. It certainly looks to me as if there are quite a lot of men who sleep with men at some times in their lives and with women at other times, but that may be a false impression. I imagine Stonewall know about this stuff. Certainly its very nasty for Christian psychiatrists to try to use therapy to make men who fancy men fancy women and women who fancy women fancy man, particularly if the light bulb doesn't really want to change. But I am very unclear how this relates to the semantic question about re-branding "civil partnerships" as "marriages", or inventing a third category called "equal civil marriage" or simply allowing prayers to be said at civil partnerships ceremonies one way or the other.

I believe we can prove this by means of a simple counterfactual. If very good evidence came to light that same sex attraction was purely a matter of nurture and environment (not something you were born with) then I don’t think that one person would say "Well, in that case gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married after all." And if equally good evidence came to light that proved that blokes fancying blokes and girls fancying girls was something written on their jeans the day they were born, then I don’t think one single person would say "Oh, well in that case I’ll change me mind — of course gay people should be allowed to get married in church." I don't think the question of why people are gay (whatever "why" means) and whether you can change you mind about it, can possibly be relevant to the question one way or the other. The discussion can only ever be between those who say "If a group of people want to apply the word 'marriage' to their relationship, then it is certainly no business of the state's to tell them that they can't" and those people who say "Two women can't be married any more than two men can be sisters or a lamb casserole can be "vegetarian" because that's not. what. the. word. means."

It does appear that we are thinking about changing the definition of marriage. And it does appear that, outside of the pages of the Guardian, there is no unanimity about whether this is a good idea or not. I’m not sure if the two sides even agree about what they disagree about it. According to some people, we are talking about hugely fundamental questions including “Is there any such thing as gender to begin with?” According to others, its not about much more than a bureaucratic nicety, a pen stroke that will clear up a minor but symbolically important injustice.

I think we should have the discussion. I think that before we have the discussion we should have the discussion about what the discussion is about. I am tempted to say that we should have a discussion about what the discussion about the discussion should be about, but only because I have an unhealthy addiction to those kinds of sentences. But it is somewhat bothersome to me that we may be having it in an environment where some people think that some people should not be allowed to say some things through some channels. Even if those channels turn out to be the sides of double decker buses.

Monday, July 02, 2012


That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (2)

The Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason - (except the Common People).
2. That everyone should be free - (except the Common People).
3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm - (except the Common People).
4. That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King's Person all over the country.
5. That 'no person should be fined to his utter ruin' - (except the King's Person).
6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
                                    1066 And All That

What would Jesus have said about gay marriage?

I don't know, and neither does anybody else.

What did Jesus say about marriage?

Jesus said that marriage was absolute and irrevocable; divorce not so much forbidden as logically impossible.

It is (almost inevitably) more complicated than that. What follows is very boring indeed.


A story is told about what happened when a group of Jewish legal experts asked for Jesus’ opinions about marriage. The story can be found (in slightly different forms) in Mark and Matthew's gospels. Most scholars think that Matthew learned it directly from Mark. This is how Mark tells it:

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” tempting him.

And he answered and said unto them, “What did Moses command you?” 

And they said, “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.” 

And Jesus answered and said unto them, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife’ ‘And they twain shall be one flesh’. So then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

The lawyers are referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which states that if a man is unhappy with his wife he can dissolve the marriage provided he gives her a written certificate to that effect. She is then free to remarry; but if her original husband changes his mind again, he can’t have her back. It’s this (relatively rare) question about divorcees getting back together that Moses seems to be ruling on. The passage doesn't so much permit divorce as take divorce for granted but forbid men from marrying the same woman twice.

But under what circumstances can the original husband dissolve the marriage? The Deuteronomy text sounds fairly specific: "if it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand...." What does "some uncleanliness" mean? This seems to be the question that the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus out with. Matthew's version, indeed, says that they asked him “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?

"Can a man divorce his wife just because he feels like it, or only under certain very specific circumstances?" Faced with a choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, Jesus naturally chooses the third one. There are no circumstances under which divorce is lawful. Set aside what Deuteronomy says; go right back to the creation of the universe and have a look at how God originally set things up.

Some people talk as if Jesus was a kosher rabbi who just wanted Jews to be better at being Jewish, and that it was nastybad St Paul who invented the idea of Jesus the iconoclast overturning the Jewish Law. But here is Jesus talking about the Torah as if it was a contingent thing which Moses thought up, and appealing to an earlier, divine law against which Moses' teaching could be judged.

As everyone knows, the book of Genesis contains two quite different stories about God making the first humans. In the first story we are told that "God created Man in his own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them". The second version contains a funny story about how, when "Adam" was found to be inadequate by himself, Yahweh "grew" "Eve" out of part of his body. The point is that both versions say that men and women were originally a single creature that somehow got split in two. In the first version, "Adam" is both male and female — either a hermaphrodite, or else a composite being made up of a male half and female half. It's this male-plus-female entity which is said to be the image of God. In the second version, "Eve" was originally part of "Adam's" body -- his rib. When two people fall in love, it's like the two halves getting back together. "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." Jesus wanted this to be taken at face value. "Can't you read?"  he seems to say: "they are no longer two people, but one person. So of course they can't be split apart."

I have in front of me a Christian Union book called "The Message of The Sermon on the Mount". It was written by John Stott, who was much cleverer than me and had studied the Bible for much longer and in much more detail. Talking about this passage, he writes:

"Thus marriage, according to our Lord's exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then 'become one flesh'."

But that seems to me like a bland, social-worker-ish gloss on the passage; as if he's trying to translate it into prose before we've understood the poetry. Harold Bloom's speculative reconstruction of the story's source (the lost, hypothetical "book of J") seems to get the point across much better:

Starting with the part taken out of the man, Yahweh shaped the rib into a woman, returned her to the side of the man.

"This one is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone" said the man. "Woman I call her, out of man she was parted". So a man parts from his mother and father, clings to his wife: they were one flesh.

And look: they are naked, man and woman, untouched by shame, not knowing it. 

So once you are married, you can't be unmarried. A piece of paper saying "I'm no longer married" doesn't make you not married, any more than a piece of paper saying "I don't have a head" means you don't have a head. I don’t see any other way of reading this.

Before moving on, we should probably cast a glance in the direction of the dog which didn't bark. Obviously, we shouldn't attach too much importance to what the text doesn't say. Just because Jesus didn't mention something, that doesn't mean he didn't think it mattered. He might have thought it was so obvious that everyone would take it for granted. But we should at least record in our notebooks then while he is talking about marriage, the one thing that Jesus doesn't refer to, at all, even in passing, is, er, babies 

So: what about the plain passage from Deuteronomy which permits divorce? Ah, says Jesus: Moses only said that as a concession "for the hardness of your hearts" ("because you are so hard to teach"). The more I think about this, the less confident I am that I know what it means. Marriage after divorce is adultery; but Moses (reluctantly, because of the poor raw material he had to work with) permitted remarriage after divorce; so did Moses permit adultery? Are we to imagine him sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai says "Well, the Ten Commandments is more guidelines than rules"? This isn’t the usual Christian line: the usual Christian line is that the Torah added to basic moral laws which everyone agrees with (don't murder, don't steal, don't cheat) a whole lot of extra rules about washing after you’ve eaten shellfish and chopping bits off little boys which only applied to Jews, and which Jesus subsequently lifted. It isn’t usual to say that Moses permitted certain sins but that Jesus revoked the concession. 

I can’t parse it any other way than to say "Jesus seems to acknowledge that there are two kinds of marriage: the really really real marriage in which two human beings merge into a single creature; and a lessor state of living together which can be dissolved through a legal process, but which may be the best that we hard-hearted humans can marriage." It seems to be clear that he is saying that in his kingdom, only really really real marriage is going to be allowed.

According to Matthew, this is what Jesus' disciples took him to mean. "If that's how you understand marriage" they seem to say "Then celibacy is the easier option". ("If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is good not to marry.") Jesus agrees, rather cryptically, that “there be eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake” but adds "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given….He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." This has usually been taken to mean something like "Yes, celibacy is better, but I am only advising it, not commanding it." But again, that seems to weaken the force of the original passage. In context, it almost seems to mean the reverse: "Yes, marriage is very difficult: most people will have to take the easier path of celibacy". But isn't it interesting that having said that getting married is like two people becoming one flesh (irrevocably) he says that being celibate is like physically maiming yourself (also irrevocably). You either add a bit to your flesh, or cut a bit of it off. Hermaphrodite or eunuch; your choice.

If I were going to press the text in directions that it probably doesn't want to go, I would wonder out loud whether it was of any significance at all that the this incredibly difficult story, in which Jesus says that Christian marriage is almost impossible and that some of his followers may have to deny or remove the sexual part of their natures altogether, is immediately followed in both Mattew and Mark by the story in which he tells his disciples that if they want to be part of his kingdom they are going to have to become exactly like children.

And now we come to the difficult bit.

The core of the passage is clearly the verse about divorce and adultery. It is quoted in Mark, where it is not part of the discussion with the Pharisees, but an additional teaching Jesus gave the disciples in private. It is buried in a group of miscellaneous sayings towards the end of Luke's gospel, without any surrounding narrative at all. And it is quoted by Matthew twice: once in the Pharisee story, and again in the famous Sermon on the Mount. But where Mark thinks Jesus said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Matthew thinks he said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

"Except it be for fornication". "Except for marital unfaithfulness" says the New International Version of the Bible. The Good News Bible goes out of its way to be confusing, as usual: "even though she has not been unfaithful", it says. Either way, it's a pretty substantial get-out clause. It almost turns Christian marriage into one of those wild west gunfights where you have to wait for the other fellow to draw first so you can shoot him and claim self-defence. Both man and woman are committed to a life long relationship, but when one sleeps with someone else (a sin) the other becomes free to marry again sinlessly. Which is very hard to reconcile with the rest of the passage. The disciples don’t say “Whew! What common sense and pragmatism: Jesus' version of marriage isn’t so arduous after all.” They say "Jesus is making marriage so hard that spiritual self-castration sounds like a preferable option."

Now, Miss Walker taught me that any differences between the four Gospels came about because, although the four writers were honestly writing what they remembered, different people naturally remember slightly different things. You wouldn't expect my essay about the school trip to St Albans to be exactly the same as Helen's essay about the school trip to St Albans. If we accept this theory, we would have to say that we simply don’t know what Jesus thought about marriage Mark and Luke think he said one thing; Matthew thinks he said something completely different.

Which is why it is easier to accept the view of the majority of scholars that the synoptic gospels are the result of a holy cut-and-paste job. We have to imagine Matthew copying the story of Jesus' discussion with the Pharisees more or less word for word out of Mark's Gospel, coming to the part which says that married people can never be divorced, thinking "Jesus can’t possibly have meant that: he wouldn't have commanded the impossible" and adding a few words of his own so it reflected what Jesus must have really meant. (*)

The existence of this inconsistency — the fact that Matthew is different from Mark and Luke — seems to me to be very nearly the most interesting thing about the whole passage. God makes an absolute rule: no divorce, ever — that's just not how the Universe works. Moses comes along and says "When He said 'no divorce', He meant 'no divorce without the proper paperwork.'" Later, Jesus says "Moses exceeded his authority. In my Kingdom, 'no divorce' is going to mean 'no divorce'." And Matthew writes this down as "'No divorce' means 'no divorce unless your partner is already cheating on you'."

"But Andrew: surely you must mean 'Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote this down as…' Because obviously, every editorial or scribal change to the text of the Bible up to May 2nd 1611 was directly and infallibly inspired by God, and any change made after May 3rd of that year is the work of PC new agers watering down the Word of God at the behest of the Frankfurt Group...."

Well, yes: obviously that must be what I mean.

But either way, we have to say that someone incorporated lines into the Bible which softened or granted exceptions to what seems to have originally been an absolute rule. Someone thought that there could be, and had to be, some gap between Jesus' concept of eternal marriage and how people could actually live. We have an exception to an absolute rule being introduced into a text which is about Jesus removing an exception which had been introduced into an absolute rule. 

And that's pretty odd.


Astute readers will have spotted several pages ago where I am going with this. The various Druids, Archdruids and former Archdruids who have recently been holding forth about marriage take Jesus at his word when he says that a marriage is something which takes place between a man and a woman, and say that it can't be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman because that's just not how the universe works. But they interpret Jesus with some liberty when he says that marriage is indissoluble -- even though it was the impossibility of divorce that he was actually talking about.

If we take Jesus at his word, we would have to say that we do not have any such institution as marriage in modern Britain. If marriage is the voluntary union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others for life then then mere possibility of divorce means that what you are signing up to isn't marriage. It certainly isn't marriage if you get a lawyer to draw up in advance a legal document about who gets the furniture if you decide to break the solemn unbreakable promise you haven't made yet.

This seems to me to be true even if you don't think that it matters one way or the other what Jesus taught about marriage. If you think that that human beings are basically fornicating chimpanzees you might still want to bestow legal and financial advantages, as well as a certain amount of status and respectability, on those chimpanzees who solemnly promise to stay together, come what may, for their whole lives. (In fact, the more strongly you believe that human beings are fornicating chimpanzees, the more reasonable it might be to want social structures in place to encourage life long coupling.) But I don't understand how you can add "But of course, you are completely free to break this solemn promise if you both agree, and then you'll be free to gain the same legal and moral advantages from entering into another promise of life-long fidelity that you don't intended to keep."

According to the Church of England's website Senmatu (current Archbishop of York and next Archbishop of Canterbury) as saying that we shouldn't redefine "marriage" as something which can happen between two men, because:

1: Thats not what the word currently means ("we must not torture language")

2: That's not how it was done years ago ("it's set in tradition and history")

3: That's not how it was done years ago ("very clear social structures that have been in place for a long time")

4: Sometimes bad people have tried to make big changes which haven't worked out too well ("that's what dictator's do")

But surely language, tradition, history and social structures are very much the kind of thing that you would expect governments to make laws about? It's only if you believe that marriage is not a social structure, but something hard-coded into the universe on Day 1 (or at any rate Day 6) that making changes to it becomes an issue. 

If we have accepted that life-long-but-not-really relationships between men and women can, in a manner of speaking, be described as "marriages", it is hard for me to understand why, for some of the Druids, extending the word "marriage" to cover life-long-but-not-really relationships between two men or two women is such a deal-breaker. Particularly when the whole content of the Gospels seems to point to a tension between what is ideal and real and what is possible in practice. "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.... For the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this precept."

I don't know if Jesus literally believed in an hermaphrodite Adam living in a middle eastern oasis about four thousand years in the past. He certainly didn't think that when a man goes to bed with a lady, they literally merge into an hermaphrodite. (And he really, really didn't intend even a small minority of his followers to lop off their own genitals.) But he seems to have taught that human marriage has a magical element to it. Something supernatural happens. It isn't about how we organize society; its about what is really really real. If this is what the various Bishops believe, I wish they would come out and say so in so many words. If it isn't, then I wish they would shut the hell up. 

(*) Scholars think that Matthew and Mark both had access to a lost fifth Gospel called "The Bumper Book of Jesus' Best One-Liners" or "Q" is you are German and humourless. They incorporated the "sayings" of Jesus from "Q" into their re-writes of Mark in different ways. The fact that the "adultery" saying crops up by itself in different contexts in Matthew and Luke suggests that they found it in Q. This is interesting, because it suggests that "If a divorced man remarries, he's committing adultery...." was originally a saying in its own right .... possibly an unexpurgated quote from our Old Friend The Historical Jesus. Is it, indeed possible that the conversation with the Pharisees and the speech about eunuchs were commentaries on the "divorce" saying, made up by first-generation Christians and put into Jesus' mouth in an attempt to clarify what they thought he meant.