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More than one voice

07 June 2013

THE Archbishop of Canterbury spoke carefully in his Lords speech on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on Monday. Archbishop Welby expressed sadness that "the Church has not often served the LGBT communities in the way that it should." At the same time, there was no doubt about his support for marriage in its traditional manifestation. He criticised the Bill, and lamented the weakening of the idea of marriage as a covenant, and the family as the normative place for procreation.

Having avoided the trap of comparing same-sex marriage with, say, a brother-sister relationship (one of the least bizarre comparisons around), the Archbishop none the less made the error of blaming same-sex relationships for the damage that was done to marriage long before they were ever talked about. One can hold up an ideal, but the institution is very different in practice from the one that has been argued over. For example, by 2011 the figure for births out of wedlock had risen to 47.3 per cent (ONS). The average length of a marriage is now 32 years: one in three ends before its 20th anniversary. Thus, marriage is regarded neither as permanent nor essential for the foundation of a family. And, without a marriage ceremony, the possibility of applying God's blessing to a relationship, and of formalising some sort of covenant, is lost. The pass was not so much sold as abandoned without anybody really noticing. The Church, as it is generally perceived, is now making the same mistake of distancing God's blessing from gay couples as from straight ones. And how convenient to have a scapegoat on which to blame past lapses.

No legislation framed at such a juncture is going to be perfect. But, whatever the flaws of this Bill, it is important that the present debate is seen for what it is: a test of the Church's ability to address people who are, by and large, more compassionate and accepting than the Church is currently perceived to be. The general population sees marriages that do not look like marriages, cohabitations that do, and same-sex relationships that can look like either. For their part, many in the Church see only an ideal - which is odd, given the pastoral encounters that churchpeople have, and the range of relationships that exist in most congregations.

Once the legislation is passed, as we assume it will be, there will not be an opportunity for a clearer, more nuanced debate. This is it. Hereafter, the Church's pronouncements on marriage will be coloured by the reputation it gains now. At present, this appears to be censorious, and out of touch with reality. Its criticisms of poor legislation are interpreted as simple prejudice. In reality, the Church is divided on this issue, and it is vital that those who have a more confident view of marriage, and a more open view of sexuality, make their voices heard.

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