WHEN I was a teenager, I once plucked up courage to
ask a vicar what he thought about the issue of gay relationships.
After a long pause and a deep breath, he finally replied: "Well,
Jeffrey my boy, I suppose we must try to keep an open mind about
the whole filthy business."
My early wrestling with the "gay issue" brought me to a
conclusion that has never wavered. Unless you are genuinely called
to celibacy, the God-given framework for being homosexual is the
same as for being heterosexual: monogamy. It has always seemed
obvious to me that being in a committed relationship with someone
you love and trust to share your life with is likely to maximise
the health and happiness of both of you. Yes, it is hard; yes, it
can go wrong; but, whether we are gay or straight, most of us know
it is the best bet, and want to live that way. At the purely
practical level, marriage is good for everybody.
Those are the arguments that politicians use in favour of
same-sex marriage, and they are good ones. But Christian theology
has deeper reasons for saying that monogamy is good. When we love
one another in a fully committed way, so that the love does not
depend on eros, but on faithful self-giving to the other,
then marriage reflects Christ's union with the Church, and God's
with his people. Our covenant with each other reflects God's own
kind of covenanting love.
The fact that we are capable of loving as God loves us is the
main reason why we say that we are made in God's image. For most of
us, loving someone in that way - the mystery of losing ourselves in
love, to find a better self in union with another - is the best
inkling we get in this life of the kind of ecstatic union with God
which is what heaven will be.
This covenant theology of marriage does not depend on gender or
childbirth. Even in Genesis, the reason why God makes Eve is
because "God saw that it was not good for man to be alone." When
Paul talks about the theology of marriage, it is never with respect
to childbirth. What matters is that the covenant between the couple
reflects God's covenant with us. That is why the Church has always
married couples even where childbirth is impossible.
Theologically, ethically, and sacramentally, there is no
difference between a gay couple and a heterosexual couple who
cannot have children. So, yes, same-sex marriage can be as holy and
sacramental as heterosexual marriage. Yes, God is in favour of gay
marriage, and so should the Church be.
But, of course, it isn't. In its reply to the Government's
consultation about gay civil marriage, the Church of England's
official spokesmen described same-sex marriage as a "hollowed out"
version of real, heterosexual marriage. The obvious and insulting
implication is that a gay marriage is empty, missing some
all-important ingredient X.
Well, I would like to hear what that ingredient X is. I would
like to know what is absent in my own relationship of 37 years, and
in the relationships of thousands of other similar same-sex
couples, which makes them "hollow" and deficient by comparison with
heterosexual marriages. I have been observing all this for a long
time, and I do not believe that ingredient X exists.
IRONICALLY, the Church knows more about homosexuality than most
institutions. Most of the lifelong gay relationships I know are
between Christians - many of them clerics. My partner and I met at
theological college, where about three-quarters of the students and
staff were gay (and the college was not unique in that
Once the relationship began, I went to own up to the college
principal, expecting to be thrown out. His response was: "Thank God
for that. You're such a bloody miserable academic introvert -
loving somebody will make you a better person and a better priest."
They were the wisest words that I ever heard him utter. But, of
course, they could not be said in public.
This is the real problem. For decades - perhaps centuries - the
Church's leadership has had a public attitude to gayness, and a
private one. I have yet to meet a bishop or archbishop who, in
private, is unsupportive, or seriously believes that such a
relationship is a sin. The only sin is in telling the truth about
it. Twice I have offered my resignation, in exasperation at all the
lies, only to be told: "Don't be naïve. We need honest chaps like
It is obvious that a number of bishops are gay, and some are, or
have been, in gay relationships, yet they constantly refer to gay
people as if they were somebody else. For all the fuss that was
made about Bishop Gene Robinson, there are probably more gay
bishops in the C of E than in the Episcopal Church in the United
States. The difference is that the Americans tell the truth.
Canon Giles Fraser put this nicely in a recent article. Mostly,
he said, people complain that the Church does not practise what it
preaches; but, on this issue, we do not preach what we
THE Church possesses a gospel for gay people, but it cannot
speak it openly to those who most need to hear. It cares too much
about its own institutional politics to care about this large
section of God's people. It wants to keep the privileges of
establishment as a Church for the whole nation, but, in order to
appease its own extremists here and abroad, it demands exemptions
from equality and human-rights legislation that everyone else
accepts as common decency.
By opposing almost every advance that gay people have made since
decriminalisation, and now by opposing same-sex civil marriage, it
has turned itself into the enemy number one of gay people - despite
its being one of the gayest organisations in the country.
This is a disaster for the Church's mission, its integrity, and
its morale. "A lying mouth destroys the soul," Wisdom says. It is
time for the truth that sets us free.
The Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John is the Dean of St Albans and
the author of Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian same-sex
marriage (DLT, new edition 2012).