THE greatest problem for our bishops as they discuss Living in Love and Faith is to avoid reducing the issue of same-sex marriage to a binary choice. There are, of course, strong voices on both sides insisting that they do just that. Some, expecting change, already have plans to leave, while more than 1000 clergy have declared willingness to conduct gay weddings (News, 28 October).
This has provoked the theologian John Milbank to point out on social media that, historically, the Church has recognised various forms of same-sex love and commitment which are perhaps ripe for exploration and development. It is also worth remembering that marriage has not always been popular. The early Christians so admired celibacy that marriage had to be rescued, requiring St Augustine to insist that without heterosexual sex the human race would die out. God must mean it to continue. Even in the 16th century, Cranmer had to declare marriage “an honourable estate”, because in the pre-Reformation Church this was not simply obvious.
Professor Milbank suggests that the current pressure for the Church to accept same-sex marriage is based on a denial of “the mystery of sexual difference”, and that to accept it would be atheistic. He points to the cosmic significance of the two sexes, in scripture, in mythology, in non-Christian religions, and in many languages. Sexual difference structures our lives, our brains, our bones.
Adam, the “earthling” of Genesis, is not complete without Eve; nor is Eve without Adam. Our ancestors contained what would become “us”, and we contain our children’s children. Unless we follow our Christian forebears’ exaltation of celibacy, these facts remain. However many genuine variations, exceptions, and exemptions nature and experience throw up, each human life begins with sperm and ovum. Culture and experience suggest that raw sexual desire is made civilised by marriage. Non-consummation is still grounds for annulment.
Yet homosexuality also persists. Today, most recognise that it is neither inherently sinful nor a kind of sickness. Celibacy may work for some, but many others have proved that faithful same-sex relations can be morally fruitful and lasting.
The Bishops could consider a third way: to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples, while offering an appropriate form of church blessing for same-sex partnerships. It was a grievous misjudgement to oppose civil partnerships in 2005, and it is now time to redeem that. There should be appropriate preparation and sacramental support, with a liturgy that celebrates the sexual likeness of the partners, the gift of their intimacy, and the blessings of their union for the wider community. It is a chance to affirm the good that God means by homosexuality. An unqualified acceptance of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, risks impoverishing everyone.