Tuesday, March 06, 2012

'Gay marriage' and the blessing of civil partnerships

My latest Courier article

There is much fuss at the moment about the status of marriage, whether the Church of England should be obliged to bless civic partnerships in church, and whether the state should allow something which is described as 'gay marriage'. This is definitely one of those arguments that is generating more heat than light, but I hope I can add a little bit of the latter rather than the former.

The first thing I want to say is that, amongst the very few mentions that Jesus makes about marriage, that we have recorded in the gospels, one of the most important is to say that 'there is no giving and receiving in marriage in the resurrection' – in other words, marriage is principally a this-worldly arrangement, and is not part of our eternal nature. So what is at stake in these arguments is not quite as important as it is sometimes made out to be. Put bluntly, civilisation will not come to an end if our society chooses to redefine how marriage is understood. The Bible records a great many diverse marital arrangements through history, and life-long monogamy is only the most recent form.

From an anthropological perspective it is possible to see that monogamy developed because it provided the most long term peace for a society. In human history 80% of females have succeeded in reproducing and passing on their genes, whereas only 40% of males have achieved the same. That is because in the animal kingdom the 'alpha' has greatest access to mating opportunities, and those males who don't measure up have no chance to reproduce, and get eliminated. This also means that violent conflict is inevitable, as one alpha overthrows the next. What monogamy meant – and it is something that only became possible with the development of agriculture and permanently settled land – is that most men gain a chance to reproduce. Where monogamy is enforced – that is, where female adultery is taken seriously and has consequences like public shaming or being stoned to death, as described in the early part of the Bible – then the great majority of men have a stake in the maintenance of a stable society, and the level of internal violence within a society is greatly reduced. This allows for the establishment of laws and the much more rapid development of culture. Yes, this is completely patriarchal and sexist, but the gains that have come from monogamy have not been trivial, and should not be trivially set aside.

There is a second way in which society has needed to regulate sexuality, and that is because the wider society has a stake in how children are raised. Everyone suffers the consequences if children are raised without the sense of emotional security and trust that is provided by a stable family framework. Until the advent of modern contraceptive technology there was a fairly reliable link between sexual relations and conception – and that meant that the wider society had a significant stake in the regulation of sexual relations, and this was what lay behind the stigma of illegitimate birth. Our technological development means that we are in an unprecedented situation – the link between sexuality and procreation has been made optional, and our theologies and ethics are still catching up with what that means.

For example, the root of the ban on contraception in the Roman Catholic church goes back, via Aquinas, to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that each element of the human body had a particular purpose, and that right behaviour lay in conforming our desires to those purposes. The purpose of the sexual organs was reproduction; therefore, any use of those organs for purposes other than procreation was wrong. If that basic assumption is rejected – if, for example, you believe that the sexual organs may have a role in “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one [partner] ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (1662 Prayer Book) – then a wider understanding of sexuality is acceptable, and so is contraception.

This also means that some aspects of sexuality need not be so tightly regulated by society, and that some sexual expression that was previously forbidden may now become acceptable. Homosexuality is one such. Now there are, of course, a small number of Scriptural texts – often misunderstood – that would seem to argue against the wisdom of this change. I would be quite happy to discuss such texts, their meaning and their applicability, at another time – maybe in another column, if that would be of interest. If sexuality has a place in providing cement for a relationship, however, irrespective of the needs for procreation, why should such a relationship only be allowed for heterosexual couples? The general acceptance of this line of argument is what has led to the development of civil partnerships, and the pressure on the Church of England to allow such civil partnerships to be blessed in church. It is what has led our Prime Minister to lead calls for accepting 'gay marriage'. It seems to me that there is a confusion of thinking here.

In previous times, where there was a direct link between sexuality and procreation, where that understanding guided the ethics of a society, and where society had a great stake in the raising of children, the society established strong boundaries around the expression of sexuality. We no longer live in such a society, and so it seems to me that we need to distinguish between two forms of relationship: one in which the mutual society of the two partners is the central element, and one in which the raising of children is the central element. The first is effectively a civil partnership, the second is what has classically been understood as a marriage.

I believe that society can sit very lightly towards the former, and that we can celebrate human love and affection wherever it can be found. Whilst there are undoubted gains in the quality of a relationship where it is intended to be life-long, should such relationships break down, the pain and suffering is principally restricted to those directly involved. In so far as the church might be able to assist such relationships to flourish, that would seem to me like a worthy Christian endeavour. At the moment blessings of a civil partnership in church are forbidden, but should I ever be in a position to vote on the matter, I would happily endorse them.

The latter form, however, is different. It does still require more profound social involvement, for we all have a stake in the raising of healthy children. I am not convinced that it makes sense to move from what is already available – civil partnerships – to an acceptance of 'gay marriage'. Here is where I have some sympathy with Aristotle, for I would argue for the normativity of a child being raised by both its parents and, at least for now, that means a mother and father, a heterosexual relationship. Biology may not be destiny entire, but a proper respect for our biological inheritance would suggest that the procreation of children is not a core part of a gay relationship. This is why I think the government is confused in its thinking – there is no need to redefine marriage in order to enable a full equality for gay people.


  1. Just because there is no marriage in heaven doesn't mean that it is irrelevant what we do with it in this life. Here is where we work out our salvation "with fear and trembling" as St. Paul says. There will be no sin in heaven either, but we're not there yet, and sin in this life has consequences in the next.
    "The Bible records a great many diverse marital arrangements through history, and life-long monogamy is only the most recent form".
    When Jesus was speaking about Moses allowing divorce, he said that it was not so from the beginning. (Male and female He created them so that a man might leave his father and mother and take a wife and that the two might become one flesh, what God has joined together let no man put asunder). Marriage is as old as Adam and Eve, it is not a recent form.
    Governments, Churches and society do not have the authority to change it. We are back to the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We are still trying to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, when that has already been revealed. Revelation is not something to be improved on it is something to receive and obey. Our society is so mixed up about male/female relationships and sexuality, not everything modern is real progress. Our civilization will not end if we redefine marriage, at least not right away, but it is one more nail in the coffin. You cannot ignore the moral law indefinitely and get away with it.
    Your reasoning is flawed all the way through.

  2. While I agree with you in some ways, Rev. Sam, we have to keep in mind that gay couples adopt children, have their own from previous marriages, or, in the case of lesbian couples, can have their own via artificial insemination (just as infertile heterosexual couples do).

    So "marriage" does indeed fit for them - if the argument is that "marriage" is primarily concerned with the raising of children. Which means that a "civil partnership" would turn into a "marriage" upon the incorporation of children into the household - and this would be as true for heterosexuals as for gay couples.

    And I'm OK with that - but it seems awfully confusing!

  3. Rev. Sam, I really enjoyed this article and find your points to be solidly made. One thing I am curious about - do you have a reference or source of research that supports the sentence "In human history 80% of females have succeeded in reproducing and passing on their genes, whereas only 40% of males have achieved the same."? It is quite plausible and is consistent with my own studies into why we have the social arrangements that we do, I just am interested to see the research to back it up.

  4. Elizabeth, the difference is that Adam and Eve was a prelapsarian situation, and we do not live in such. Jesus' words do not rule out monogamy, they were intended to disallow abusive divorce (ie to protect exploited women).
    bls - this was originally a much longer article, which I chopped in two in order to fit into space. I take up your points (which I have sympathy with) in the next one - available in about 2 weeks!!
    Roy - I'll track down the reference.

  5. Sorry, that should read polygamy not monogamy

  6. So what of different sex couples who do not procreate? There are various reasons why this does not happen..., including age and infertility. Should they have civil partnerships also?

    And I would add a second point that you hint at but do not take up in the same way you do with Scripture....our body parts often may have multiple functions just as scripture may have many meanings. Modernity's interpretation of genitalia are as problematic for sexuality as is its tendency to a singular notion of scriptural texts.


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