Wednesday, July 04, 2012

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.