The Times interview with the Dean of St Albans

On Tuesday 13 March The Times published an interview with the Dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John. Below is the full text of the Jeffrey’s answers to Ruth Gledhill’s questions.

1. Do you agree with what David Ison said about gay marriage?

Yes, and I admire him for saying it.

2. What are your views generally on gay marriage?

I have always believed that the only possible Christian model for a same-sex relationship is monogamy. I wrote a booklet about it in 1991 called ‘Permanent Faithful Stable’ which will be republished later this year. At that time I took the view that it didn’t matter whether we call it a marriage or not – what really matters is the nature of the relationship and the commitment on which it rests. In a sense that is still true. But of course the obvious, natural term for monogamy is marriage, and most people instinctively refer to civil partnerships as marriages anyway. So I think ‘marriage’ probably is the best term to use for same-sex as well as well as heterosexual monogamy, and it also has the great advantage of making clear that both should be given equal respect.

3. Are you willing to chart your theological journey to that point?

I start from the fact that the Church calls marriage a sacrament because the covenant of love between the married couple reflects the covenant of love between Christ and his Church, and so becomes a channel of God’s own love into the world. The secure framework of marriage helps you to keep loving through the bad times, and in the process it teaches you a deeper sort of love – the sort that involves the will and self-sacrifice and not just feelings. Growing in that sort of love means you are growing in the image and likeness of God.

That is the traditional understanding of Christian marriage. But the big point is, exactly the same love and commitment are possible between two people of the same sex as between two people of different sexes, and it is not immediately clear why the Church should regard such a relationship as ethically or spiritually inferior to a heterosexual marriage.

Of course the procreation of children by two same-sex partners is not possible. But the Church has never seen procreation as a necessity for marriage, and so has always married partners past the age of childbearing. Even in Genesis the first reason given why God created Eve is not childbearing but because ‘God saw that it was not good for man to be alone’. While the Prayer Book states that marriage was ordained first for ‘the procreation of children’ the modern marriage service begins by emphasising the quality of relationship between marriage partners ‘that they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind.’ 

So same-sex monogamy seems to me to be spiritually indistinguishable from a marriage between two people who are unable to have children together. Admitting same sex couples to marriage would extend the sacrament, not undermine it. Like the Church’s decision to admit women to the sacrament of ordination, it is a lot less revolutionary than it seems at first sight. The ordination of women has not fundamentally changed the priesthood, but has extended and enriched it. The same would be true of extending the sacrament of marriage to people of the same sex. It is not the physical gender of the people involved that matters, but the quality of their commitment and their response to the call of God.

It is often assumed that scripture rules out same-sex monogamy, but that is not true unless you read scripture in a selectively literal way. In the few places where homosexuality is mentioned in the New Testament the texts show no awareness that some people are homosexual in orientation. When St Paul condemns people who ‘exchange’ heterosexual intercourse for homosexual, he is assuming that this is a perverse choice on the part of naturally heterosexual people who are simply choosing the alternative out of an excess of lust. What is being criticized in these passages is the kind of homosexual activity that was most visible in the Hellenistic society around him – promiscuity, prostitution and paedophilia. The case of two responsible, adult, homosexual Christians wishing to commit to each other in love for life is simply never envisaged.

It is also important to notice that those who choose to interpret the apparently anti-gay passages in Paul literally are usually much less literal when it comes to what Paul has to say about the place of women, or re-marriage, or slavery.

4. What is your opinion of the secular, political debate on the issue?

What really pleases me is that the call for same-sex marriage comes from gay people themselves. In the past gay people were often accused of being inherently promiscuous, uninterested in or incapable of permanent relationships. Civil partnerships have shown that to be the lie that it always was. The truth is that the great majority of people, gay or straight, know that their best chance of happiness and fulfilment lies in finding a partner to love and grow together with, someone who will be there at the end of the day and at the end of their life. That is not a heterosexual hope or a homosexual hope, it is just a human hope.

It is illogical to argue that same-sex marriage somehow undermines heterosexual marriage. On the contrary, it confirms the value of marriage and extends its blessings to many more people. From a purely secular viewpoint it is clearly good for the whole of the society when people commit to each other and care for one another without being reliant on the state – and this will become more important as we all live longer.

I was very struck by David Cameron’s statement that he is in favour of same-sex marriage, not in spite of being a conservative but because of being a conservative. I am not a political animal, but I want to say something very similar as a priest. I am in favour of same-sex marriage not because I am a wild liberal but because I am instinctively a traditional Anglo-Catholic. I believe in the sacrament of marriage; I believe we all need a disciplined framework for faith and love; and I believe we all need God’s grace and blessing to live by it. I think most of the 120 or so priests in the London Diocese who recently petitioned for the right to bless civil partnerships would say the same.

5. What do you think of what George Carey has been saying and his new Coalition 4 Marriage?

They seem to ignore the fact that the ten other countries which have already legalised same sex marriage have not experienced any of the horrors that they keep predicting. Marriage and family life in those countries have not been harmed in any way. The ‘slippery slope’ argument that same-sex marriage will somehow lead to polygamy or incest or increased debauchery is particularly illogical and rather insulting. Nor am I impressed by the argument that we should not use the law to bring about social change. If we had not made changes in the law discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and the disabled would still be firmly in place.

6. What message do you think the church opposition gives long term about the church and Christianity and does this worry you in any way?

It is enormously worrying. In the sixties the Church of England was in the forefront of the movement to decriminalise homosexuality. The fact that fifty years on the Church is seen as Enemy Number One of gay people is a disaster, both for our own morale and for our mission to the country. The Conservative Party realised ten years ago that the equal treatment of gay people had become a litmus test of basic human decency and changed its view; but it is a test the Church now spectacularly fails. We have become the last refuge of prejudice.

It is worse because the Church’s opposition to gay relationships is so patently unprincipled. In the Church of England we readily bless the second and even third marriages of couples who never darken our doors, yet we reject hundreds of our own faithful clergy and laypeople who long to bring their love and commitment before God and ask his blessing. While we dare to preach justice and equality in Christ’s name to the world, we seek exemptions to equality laws when it comes to our own employment and disciplinary practices. While we threaten to demote or debar American and Canadian Anglicans for appointing openly gay bishops and blessing gay unions, we are trying to appease homophobic Anglican churches in Africa which support extreme social and legal measures against homosexuals.

Not only gay people are repelled by all this. Many more people of goodwill who instinctively expect the Church to uphold justice and truth are scandalised when it so obviously does not. If secularism has gained ground in Britain in recent years, along with the demand that the Church of England must be disestablished and surrender its voice in national life, then it is our mishandling of the gay issue more than anything else that has brought it about.

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