Reading the Church of England’s Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation on “Equal Civil Marriage” the words of T.S. Eliot came to mind:
“We are the hollow men …
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”
It’s that dreadful phrase that keeps being repeated (though it’s not in the Response itself) that the meaning of marriage would be ‘hollowed out’ if the Government were to introduce same-sex civil marriage. ‘Dilute’ is the image used in the Response, as in this quotation from paragraph 13:
‘redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.’
This rings completely hollow. The complementarity of male and female is not a doctrine enshrined in the rites and formularies of the Church of England. Indeed, it is a fairly modern concept and a highly contested one, so it looks as if ‘complementarity’ is a short-hand for ‘the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.’ In other words, what the document sees as distinctive about heterosexual marriage is that the couple might, in the words of the marriage service, be given ‘the gift and care of children.’
Now, as has often been pointed, many same-sex couples today are also parents with the care of children, so this is not necessarily a point of difference between heterosexual and same-sex couples. Had the Church of England’s objection to the Consultation document been simply that it had omitted to stress that family life is likely to be an important feature of a same-sex couple’s marriage that would a reasonable point to make, but the Response goes further than that, as above and again in Para 25:
‘if one of the significant elements of the commitment that a man and a woman generally make to each other in marriage is to be open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment, then the commitment of same-sex couples (whatever its virtues) cannot be acknowledged as identical.’
But, of course, this commitment is entirely possible for same-sex couples, even though the means are likely to be different, so here again the Response rings hollow. Indeed, this imagery of hollowing out or diluting the meaning of marriage is actually quite offensive, not just to same-sex couples but to those whose marriages are childless. In fact, the gift and care of children is just that, a gift, and not all marriages are blessed with that gift, yet that in no way diminishes the meaning of those marriages or of ‘marriage’, which in Christian theology is not so much about procreation but about the union of the couple as a sign of the spiritual marriage and unity between Christ and the Church. The hollowness of this Response is theological and spiritual. It is also pastoral for it affirms, in paragraph 9:
‘Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.’
Given the way some of the Bishops have campaigned against every piece of progressive legislation for LGB&T people, and the way it treats its LGB&T clergy, this statement is the most hollow-sounding of all.
What this ‘Response’ amounts to, therefore, is a similar circular argument to the one that appeared in the House of Bishops 2005 Statement on Civil Partnerships, which was:
- The Church’s teaching is that sexual intercourse belongs to marriage exclusively
- Civil Partnerships – which may be sexual or non-sexual and thus ambiguous in character – are not, in any case, marriage
- Therefore clergy must not bless couples who have entered into a Civil Partnership
Here the argument seems to be that:
- Marriage has always been contracted between a man and a woman. That is what marriage is.
- Same-sex couples cannot produce babies in the same way that heterosexual couples can.
- To permit same-sex couples to marry would hollow out or dilute the meaning of marriage
It’s the sort of circuitous logic that, for me, inevitably calls to mind Eliot’s lines:
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.”