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The Church that says 'No'

14 December 2012

IT HAS been strange monitoring the gay-marriage debate. First, until the Department of Culture, Media and Sport gave more details of the proposed legislation on Tuesday, discussion of the subject was formless and largely unintelligent. It was not helped by a narrowly defined online government questionnaire, and a contrary petition with off-the-peg opinions. Second, throughout, the Church of England has been cited in opposition to the reforms. We are not aware of any reliable opinion polls, but it is reasonable to suppose that there is a range of views among churchgoers, as among the general population.

The chief problem for the C of E is not so much the Government's new understanding of marriage as its understanding of establishment. Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said: "I will never bring in a law that would impinge, in any way, on the Church's power to decide who it marries and who it does not." But the Church does not have the power to decide. It is the right of any couple, provided neither has a living spouse, to marry in their parish church. If the new legislation passes, therefore, it will introduce a new discrimination, and cede power to the Church that it did not have before. Perhaps some might approve of this new autonomy, but it has a significant implication for establishment, and at a personal, not an abstruse constitutional, level.

Marriage is defined neither by the state nor the Church. Couples commit themselves to each other in ways that seem best to them, and, if it conforms to the general understanding of marriage, that is what they call it. The state recognises this aggregate definition and legalises accordingly. Hence the latest move to recognise the desire of many same-sex couples to call their union "marriage".

In a charged atmosphere of reform, the simple restating of the present blanket ban could not be a neutral act, especially when wrapped in the Government's protectionist language, designed, we presume, with its own back-benchers in mind. However mollifying various sections of the Church have been in the past, Tuesday thus established the C of E as a gay-unfriendly institution: the Church that says "No." Religion has been a key part of marriage for many, but this is not a given. The Church has the privilege of blessing the unions that people bring to it. Since the blessing it offers or withholds is God's, it needs to be sure that its interpretation is sound and explicable. Many believe that it is not. The way of testing this in the C of E is through the amending of canons - a long and, on such a divisive issue, tortuous process. The Government proposes to leave Churches to make up their own minds. In the mean time, there are the twin concerns of public perception and mission. A greater enthusiasm for the blessing of same-sex partnerships in church would be one effective way of countering the negative impression given this week.


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