Leader: In the end, it comes down to a word

01 February 2012

THE Archbishop of York’s extravagant attack on the Prime Minister’s efforts to bring same-sex equality to marriage was accompanied by a declaration that he did not mean to “diminish, condemn, criticise, patronise any same-sex re­lationships”. We presume this to indicate more than a mere nod to the 2005 House of Bishops statement on civil partner­ships, which in turn quotes from the 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality, that “heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.” Opinion in the C of E, in the House of Bishops and else­where, has moved a long way since they could write calmly about “homophile relationships”. We shall find out how far when the two working groups that are considering this issue report later this year and next.

However far Dr Sentamu has travelled, he still has prob­lems with applying the term “marriage” to any part­nership other than a heterosexual one. He resists the idea that the state has the power to change the definition of the word, and he is right: Britain has no Académie Française to govern its language. But neither has the Church any control over a word that has, after all, been used figuratively for cen­turies. As with the word “gay”, the Church has, ultimately, to go along with whatever definition of “marriage” emerges in general parlance.

As for the policy of liberalising marriage, David Cameron is a politician, not a prophet. He would not pursue a policy if it made him less electable; nor would his party allow him to. His politician’s eye shows him that the predominant attitude towards homosexuality in this country is now sympathetic. Dr Sentamu is misguided if he believes this can be reversed.

It is good that the C of E is examining its earlier reserva­tions about civil partnerships. Experience has proved them to be serious affairs, with many qualities — dedication, nurture, love, faithfulness — that look like marriage. Libby Purves has quoted the saying: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . . it probably is a duck. . . People who want to marry and treat one another properly should not be made second-class.” If Dr Sentamu and others wish to argue differently, they need to make a stronger case for discriminating against same-sex couples than merely appealing to “tradition and history”.

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