Monday, 14 February 2011

Fear and freedom

I imagine quite a few of you will have heard the debate between Rod Thomas of Reform and Colin Coward of Changing Attitude this morning on the Radio 4 Today programme. I can't imagine two men with more different views and perspectives than Rod Thomas and Colin Coward, the former opposed to the inclusion of women, as well as gay people, and the latter campaigning for the full inclusion of LGBT christians within the Church of England, and I did try to see the issue from both perspectives - although I am certainly far from impartial.

 I very much support the proposed change to the law to allow civil partnerships to be conducted in places of worship, I know that the Quakers, for example, have been wanting to allow conduct such ceremonies for some time and this change in the law will allow this. I would also very much like to see the day when the Church of England officially allows the blessing of same sex relationships (this now happens unofficially in some churches) and also allows individual priests and parishes to choose to celebrate civil partnerships if they so wish. One thing we should be very clear about is that this is not what we seem to be looking at here. The Church of England has said it will not conduct civil partnerships, nor allow its buildings to be used for that purpose - I do not think the change to the law will alter the right for the Church to continue such an embargo.

I would like to see, and will campaign to help bring about, a change in attitude in the Church that allows those priests who are accepting of same sex relationships to bless and conduct civil partnerships. What I do not wish to see is any priest or parish compelled to carry these out against their will or to face litigation if they refuse to do so.  The fear of Rod Thomas and many others is that the law of the land will effectively force change and that there will be no allowances made for freedom of conscience. I do not know how realistic these fears are, the pace of change that we have seen in gay rights over the last decade has been astonishing, ten to fifteen years ago the way that the law has consistently upheld the principle of gay equality, such as in the recent B&B case in Cornwall, would have been unthinkable.

There are also suggestions of the possibility of allowing civil partnerships legally to be called "marriages" - many people I know refer to them that way- or allowing opposite sex partners to enter into civil partnership. That too will seem a wonderful freedom to some, but will stir up fears in others about a change to what we understand marriage to be - but that is the stuff of another blog post!


  1. I can't imagine anything more horrible than being forced to marry Rod Thomas.

  2. Fr Egbert Twinkinson14 February 2011 at 22:42

    I can - what if they made polygamy legal and you had to marry several of the Oulds or the Jensens?

  3. I don't agree with Rod Thomas' central argument that blessing a civil partnership in church automatically changes our view of Christian marriage.

    For me, they are one and the same (and I will believe that tired and worn out argument about one leading to children once the church disallows the marriage between post menopausal couples), but for others they could still be different.

    The church blesses a variety of things: children, pets, houses, ships.... without believing that the blessing of one changes the character of the blessing of the other.

    It shouldn't be impossible for a priest to bless relationships in context.
    In fact, that's just what happened at my blessing - not a word about babies.
    Whether that's because we were 2 people surrounded by our grown up children and a grandchild and unlikely to be able to have another ourselves, or because we were 2 women - who could say....

  4. "There are also suggestions of the possibility of allowing civil partnerships legally to be called "marriages" - many people I know refer to them that way- or allowing opposite sex partners to enter into civil partnership. That too will seem a wonderful freedom to some..."

    You know, the more I think about this the less I understand it.

    My rights and obligations as a civil partnered woman are exactly the same as those of a married couple. The only difference between our two unions is their name.

    I can see that offering marriage to me makes sense as it removes a linguistic discrimination that implies a difference where there isn’t one.

    But unless you also change the legal content of the two and create a genuine difference, what can it possibly mean to offer marriage to me and civil partnership to you?

  5. Hi Erika,
    My view is that two people who love each other and are committed to each other for life are married. I don't think gender or sexual orientation makes a difference. I personally would like to see CPs called marriages and I would like to see them able to be contracted in church.

    But not everyone feels this way and, to some Christians marriage is something that can only happen between a man and a woman. To these people, civil partnerships may carry the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, but it does not have the moral or theological equivalence. So, why I said that some will "fear" such a change- because to them "marriage" is a spiritual, moral, theological concept and so it is not just a case of "what's in a word?" To call CPs "marriages" would make it harder for them to assert those differences and that marriage is (to them - not me, I hasten to add!) a state ordained by God which is specifically between a man and woman.

    Offering CPs to opposite sex couples might, in the Government's eyes, offer equality without the battles and contentions of allowing same sex marriage. That is why they might opt to go down that route instead?

    Is that any clearer?

  6. Sue,
    yes, it's clear. But I still don't get it.
    The fiction that CPs aren't marriages can be retained for as long as they are only open to gay people.
    Once the boundaries break down, the emotional context of the 2 words also breaks down.

    It's like racial segregation. While blacks had to be at the back of the bus there was a real sense that the back and the front were different.
    Now, if blacks had been allowed to the front but whites not to the back that feeling would have continued for a while.
    But the minute all can access all seats there simply IS no longer any distinction.

    Or take aeroplanes. While business clients occupied the first 5 seat and had a separating curtain there was a distinct feeling that the riff-raff sits in the back of the plane.
    When you fly EasyJet everyone sits wherever they can find a seat.
    It doesn’t mean that there aren’t still rich and poorer people on that flight, but there is no longer any emotional context associated with the seating, although there will be with the suitcases, the laptops, smart phones etc – the differences don’t just disappear after all.

    But remove the power created by division and you have removed the context in which those differences can be meaningfully expressed.

  7. Erika, "The fiction that CPs aren't marriages ."
    Well, I'd say there are some people who very much want to hold on to that fiction!!!

    More seriously, I think such people wouldn't agree that it was a "fiction" - they would say that CPs can NEVER be marriages in a theological sense. To them, calling such a CP a marriage would be a "fiction." I don't agree with this AT ALL, but I comprehend the point being made.
    I am going to listen to the moral maze on this at 8pm (I think) by the way.

  8. Sue,
    I don't think I'm expressing myself clearly.
    Yes, I comprehend their point too.
    But I don't know how you can continue to pin that on the civil institutions of marriage and civil partnership when both no longer denote any de-facto difference but are open to both types of people.

    At the moment it's easy - people like me get civil partnered, that's obvious, clear, no quibbles. That I believe myself to be married and they believe me to be in a relationship that has a level of legal protection is neither here nor there. It's the institutions of marriage and civil partnership that cement this difference and make it public.

    What will happen when both are open to everyone?
    If I say "I'm married" no-one will know whether I have a husband or a wife. No judgement will be possible. The word marriage will just have to be taken at face value.
    When another person says "I'm civil partnered" no-one will know whether they are gay or just don't want to be burdened with the patrialistic echoes of the word marriage. The word civil partnership will have to be taken at face value.

    There will, de facto, no longer be a difference.

    I imagine it will be a little like the change from "living in sin" to "living together but just not married" and "are they married? No idea, what does it matter anyway, they've been together for years and have children".

    There are still people to whom it matters, but they will no longer be able to pin this "mattering" on the words marriage and civil partnership.

  9. Isn't it precisely that some people want to continue to have the word marriage to "pin their mattering on to"? If someone has a CONCEPT (that marriage and CP is different) and you have one word for both, they lose the ability to express that concept (easily.)

    I can't see where we disagree?

  10. I note the Christian Institute – an organisation that despite the fact only four or so verses in a Bible of thirty-odd thousand verses may be concerned with same-sex sexual acts, yet these few seem to obsess our devout Evangelical brethren – I note the Christian Institute has really pulled out the stops on this issue, even though there is little concrete evidence that even a change in the law will mean churches have to perform civil partnership.

    As someone who despite many years within the Evangelical fold only found happiness and fulfilment within a same-sex, committed, monogamous relationship, I grow tired of the hatred and malice that is part and parcel of many of the so called ‘Bible Believing Christians’. A vicious example found at present on the Christian Institute concerns the sacking of Dr Hans-Christian Raabe from his post as a government advisor on drugs. The CI runs the story with the leader ‘Christian GP ditched from drugs panel over gay row’ – hence to the casual observer the issue is about those wicked homosexuals. It isn’t – the GP, in a report on child sex abuse noted that 33% of child sex abuse is homosexual in nature. What the CI fails to note is that here ‘homosexual’ is simply an adjective and is describing the sexual nature of the abuse – i.e. it was between a child and adult of the same sex. Is this important – yes, because there is no mention that much of this abuse takes place within the family, most children are abused not by strangers but by someone they know, usually a parent. Hence it is NOT homosexuals (here using the word as a noun) who are responsible for 33% of child sex abuse (see I can’t believe those intelligent souls at the CI don’t know this and therefore I can only conclude that the article has been purposefully written to incite hatred and to mislead. Half truth is a far more vicious weapon than lies and plays on people’s fears and prejudice. These people may feel they are a bulwark again Lev 18:22 – I wonder if they can say the same when it comes to Exodus 23:1?

    Is this important? Yes, the CI and associated organisations spend a hugely disproportionate amount of money, time, effort and resources trying to ensure that homosexuals are seen (and treated) as second class citizens. I cannot express how hurt and angry I feel when read articles on its site and see the sheer delight in malice that is apparent in the way the CI, Reform etc. report such stories as is evident in the present discussion on whether Civil Partnerships can be held in a religious building and have a religious element. There are NO plans for churches in the C of E to be forced to conduct Civil Partnerships. The manner in which the CI etc. are reporting the issue – esp. the likes of Rod Thomas – is just hate filled scare mongering.

    What are we to do about this? Something has to be done and although in my less charitable moments I have thought about assignation or bombing the CI office, I realise this would achieve nothing and go against my own belief in pacifism. But something must be done. Perhaps I should start up my blog again???

    Yours feeling very worried as to what the outcome of all this hate mongering will be:


  11. Thanks S. Yes, it is depressing isn't it?

    You should definitely start up that blog again:)

  12. Sue,
    I’m beginning to see what you’re saying.
    I would agree that there is an emotional difference between marriage and CPs.

    The question is whether what that difference is rooted in.
    At the moment, it’s about gay and straight.

    But the fact that some gay people want marriage means that this arbitrary difference isn’t satisfying to them.
    And the fact that some straight people want to be civil partnered means that they are referring to a completely different set of differences when they reject marriage and favour CP.

    Ultimately, of course, you’re right. Someone will lose the ability to root their favourite thinking in the names “marriage” and “civil partnership”. So the only question is who has to adapt.

    Coming back to my original question, though, and leaving aside what emotional context people associate with the terms: Once both institutions are open to everyone and bearing in mind that the legal content of both is absolutely the same – we really are offering people no more than the same yoghurt in 2 different pots.

    Only until now the government has decided who buys which pot and in future we may be allowed to make our own choice.

    It still seems a lot of faff for different packaging.

  13. I don't think there is an emotional difference between marriages and CPs. I think some people have a different emotional reaction to marriage and CP and that some people believe there is a theological difference between them.

    I think it is unlikely the Government would offer a choice of CPs and marriage to everyone if they become the same institution - there would be little point. You might get a situation where CP are a purely legal/state contract and marriage is purely a religious ritual I suppose. We will have to see how it all pans out,too early to say really.

  14. "I think it is unlikely the Government would offer a choice of CPs and marriage to everyone if they become the same institution - there would be little point."

    It had been my understanding that this was the case, hence my question of the point of it all.

    I like the legal/religious difference... but then we'd be back at square one as far as I'm concerned and I still would not be officially able to call myself married.

  15. I think they will offer both to everyone. Don't quite know why - or how that will work. Again, it is going to be a case of wait and see.

    Surely, when the changes are made you could marry in a Quaker place of worship - or does it have to be CofE?

  16. We did have a service of blessing, we do feel thoroughly "done". And we are civil partnered, so we can't really repeat the whole thing, lovely though another party would be:-)

    I do call myself married without hesitation, but at the moment I'm only appropriating a word the law doesn't apply to me.

    If, as you suggest, the government might eventually offer CPs to everyone and marriages will be left to the church, then we will again have a difference between the two and again, marriage will only be open to straights... or those to pop round to the Quakers.