What is gay marriage?

I never imagined when I was in my teens and 20s and 30s and 40s that one day, parliament would be debating an equal marriage bill and almost certainly voting in favour. Radical reform of the place of LGB&T people in British society didn’t start until 1997 when I was 52.

I had a dream when I was younger, and gay, and working as an architect, and then training for ordination, that I would be the centre of attention as the new curate arriving after the ordination service for the first service in my new parish. The church was grand and beautiful with an amazing organ and the service was to die for. I served my title in St George’s Camberwell where the Waterloo church had been abandoned for two decades and we worshipped in the 1960’s school hall. You can imagine …!

The dream moved on – I would be appointed to my first parish and that would be a grand building with beautiful music and liturgy. I was appointed to St Faith’s Wandsworth where the church had been demolished and the congregation met in an 1880’s school hall, half the size of Camberwell. You can imagine that too!

I left parish ministry and later met my life partner and dreamed of celebrating our marriage (or at least having a blessing following our civil partnership) in our parish church. That was not to be, not allowed by the rules and sabotaged anyway by my inability to keep quiet.

Why shouldn’t lesbian and gay couples dream of walking up the aisle together to be married in their parish church by their own priest? The scenario might look a tad different from a heterosexual wedding but the service would express the couple’s deepest dreams and hopes, in a service filled with love and affirmation, possibly with a fabulous organ and hymns in an amazing church building.

Many conservative party members find gay marriage a difficult if not impossible concept including a significant proportion of backbenchers, many party chairpersons and many constituency party members. They tend to represent the old guard. Some gay couples don’t believe in marriage. In this gay people are no different from straight people. I’m told that some straight couples don’t want to marry and prefer instead to simply live together. Some would prefer a civil partnership in the option was open for them.

This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio Wiltshire together with a Roman Catholic deacon from Salisbury. He said he knew many gay couples who didn’t want to get married. The implication was that gay couples therefore don’t need marriage equality if some don’t desire to be married. I imagine the couples he knows are Catholics and have internalised the Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality and gay relationships. They will believe their sexuality is intrinsically disordered and that same-sex love is a category impossibility in God’s created order – or perhaps they don’t – perhaps they are confused.

The deacon was articulate and rehearsed some of the usual arguments against gay marriage. He mentioned complementarity and said that desire for someone of the opposite sex is hard-wired into our human nature. Marriage has an identity which is unique in society, he said. It’s about love and mutual support and being open to procreation. Gay marriage changes the whole meaning of what marriage stands for, he said. The teaching of the gospels is that marriage is restricted to a man and a woman.

The Preface to the Common Worship Marriage Service says this:

Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.

Note the brackets around ‘born and’. The theological arguments being rehearsed against gay marriage are based on complementarity, the ability to procreate and the requirement of penile penetration to ensure a marriage is consummated and to provide grounds for divorce.

The complementarity argument was challenged long ago by the women’s movement. Bearing children is clearly not essential as the Common Worship service reveals. No-one demands to know whether penis has entered vagina to know whether a marriage has been consummated and divorce is primarily based on the breakdown of relationship, a state of affairs experienced by both same and opposite sex couples.

The description of marriage in Common Worship describes what it is that lesbian and gay Christian couples seek when we ask for the Church of England to open its doors and welcome same-sex marriage.

Changing Attitude sees a big problem looming for the Church. We have been arguing that the minimum change that we expect the House of Bishops to recommend following their reception of the Pilling report in December is acceptance of civil partnerships and authorisation of a blessing in church following a CP.

However, sometime late this year or next, marriage will be open to lesbian and gay couples and we imagine the majority will chose to marry rather than contract a civil partnership. The Church of England is in danger of revising its teaching to accommodate something that very few couples will wish to take advantage of.

I suspect conversations are taking place in the Pilling Review Group, between bishops and amongst Church House staff as to the minimum change the Church can get away with to demonstrate that it welcomes LGB&T people after all.

Unless the Church does revise its teaching and theology of marriage, it is going to find itself in an even worse place at the end of this year. The country will have moved on and the Church of England will still look like a body beset with institutionalised homophobia.

Meanwhile, lesbian and gay Christian couples dream of the day when the Church welcomes us with open arms and we can walk down to aisle to music from a fabulous organ and make vows in the presence of God, our family and friends, feel special and weep tears of joy.


  1. says

    ‘Note the brackets around ‘born and’. The theological arguments being rehearsed against gay marriage are based on complementarity, the ability to procreate and the requirement of penile penetration to ensure a marriage is consummated and to provide grounds for divorce.’

    No, the theological and rational argument is built upon marriage as a shared conjugal inheritable identity based on a natural biological reality. In this way, it is incontestable and permanent. That identity is formed by sexual union. Even the normal assignment of one surname for the couple and any children born to them demonstrates that this is a legally inheritable identity. It is based on, at the very least, a biological possibility.

    The fact that, in the case of same-sex marriage, the identity can never be presumed to extend paternal rights and for which the tainting by adulterous sex is meaningless (see the bill itself) shows that a fundamental aspect of marriage is missing.

    In place of this, the bill creates a conjugal identity that is contestable and I inheritable because it is not based on a biological reality generated through complementary sexual union, but on a legal document. It makes the shared conjugal identity (upon which a new human identtity is secured) entirely vulnerable to legal contest.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    There are no new arguments against same sex mariage. Those opposed trot out the same tired words. No one has been able to explain why and how the extending of mariage to same sex couples is going to dimish, thaten or undemine their own marriage. All they can do is fall back on the same fears about sex which underlies all the opposition.
    But their battle is lost, it’s all overbar the shouting, and the whole thing will be forgotten in a couple of years or so. The world isn’t going to end and civilisation won’t collapse. ‘Christian’ will go on to worry about other things yet continue to show that are narrow, homophobic, mysogynistic, joyless and sex obsessed. But a lot of other people will carry on with their lives and be happy.

  3. Roger Antell says

    If the arguments against equal marriage boil down to ‘penile penetration’ then the case is well and truly lost. It coarsens the debate and misses the point: marriage is more than having sex, or to put it another way you can have ‘penile penetration’ with or without marriage. In these times, the sexual act does not define marriage. (Sorry to be so blunt about it but it wasn’t me who started the argument.)
    I would start from a completely different point. This is part of what I wrote to my MP to express my support for equal marriage:
    My support for equal marriage is as much affected by my experience as a (now retired) CofE vicar as anything else. At the heart of the marriage service are these vows:
    I [name] take you [name] ….
    to have and to hold from this day forward
    for better for worse
    for richer or poorer
    in sickness and health
    to love and to cherish
    till death us do part …
    In conducting many weddings over the years I have seen mature adults become completely overwhelmed at these words, scarcely able in their emotion to speak them, as the strength of these vows comes home to them. They are no longer words on a page but a life-affirming commitment of love. They speak to something very deep in the spirit.
    I have also, I am sure just like you, encountered gay people who are equally sincere in their religious and moral beliefs as anyone else and who are diminished by the unwarranted assertions that they are lesser people than these others simply because they have a natural affection for someone of the same gender. They, as much as anyone else, have the need to affirm love and commitment in a fulfilling, faithful relationship. A civil partnership is only a legal construction and is not enough. The marriage vows will enable LGBT people to participate in something that the rest of society rightly views as of the highest importance: a marriage of two people in a willing partnership, whose own well-being and stability will prosper in their mutual affirmation of each other, and who will thereby exert a beneficial influence for good with their families and friends and, indeed, wider society.

Join the discussion