Nicholas Turner urges us not to react to the media frenzy at the end of the month
There are times when it is important for the Church to speak out and times when it is wiser and more generous to keep quiet and say nothing. A time for quiet is shortly upon us.
On 29th March, the day before Mothering Sunday, the new form of Equal Civil Marriage will come into force and it will, barring war or earthquake, be headline news for several days.
What each radio, television and newspaper editor will be looking for is a ranting, anti-gay bishop or vicar, as the cardboard bigot to be set against the thoroughly nice gay couple, who will be celebrating their wedding with all their friends and family. The media likes to be seen supporting worthy causes, and this offers a perfect opportunity.
I was asked to go on a television programme just before civil partnerships were coming in, some eight years ago; I told them I would be fully supportive of whichever couple they chose. That was the end of the phone call.
The forthcoming event will be hailed as ‘gay marriage’. It is not, of course, gay marriage but equal marriage: it is the same civil contract for any two people, irrespective of their gender. A fairly obvious point, you might think, but not one that the House of Bishops seem fully to have grasped. If Equal Civil Marriage is a deliberate attempt to exclude any sexual element from the formal relationship, it is no more about same-sex couples than it is about opposite-sex couples.
Nor is it marriage. ‘Clause 1.3’ is the helpful mantra. The new Act, on its very first page in its very first clause, makes an unequivocal statement that this new institution is quite distinct from marriage as understood by the Church of England.
The Act, as it says itself, ‘preserves the integrity of the Canon law of the Church of England in relation to marriage’.
So it is not gay and it is not marriage.
What are we worrying about? There are plenty of concerns about the new institution, as I have outlined in earlier issues, but there is absolutely nothing that should stop us rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12.15). The government may be undertaking a concerted assault on matrimony, for political reasons, but individuals are not. Don’t let anyone take it out on them.
What is the House of Bishops Statement (issued on 15th February) all about? It reads as though it seeks to be a studied compromise between the radicals and the fundamentalists, a careful CofE via media. My own first impression is that it has muddled The Pilling Report with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. As already noted, the latter, despite its title, is not about gay marriage.
There is a new institution of Equal Civil Marriage but not of ‘same sex marriage’. Eleven times the Bishops use this phrase, but in no instance is it quite clear what they mean. The issue, after the 29th, will be whether and how a Civil Marriage can be blessed. This is actually a lot more complicated than it seems, but one thing it’s not is picking out gay couples for special treatment, good or bad.
The same advice holds: keep quiet, keep praying, and let it pass. I like to think this is a unfortunate but temporary statement that will in time be improved upon. The fact that the official text wasn’t even proof-read suggests it was hurried. There will be more to come, for unbelievable as it may seem, no one yet knows all the details of the new form of civil marriage. And we still won’t know after the 29th.
Only in September will its core character become clear, when the process for changing an existing civil partnership into a civil marriage comes into force.
This may be an appalling way to introduce parliamentary legislation, but that’s how it is. The debate does not end here.