I travelled to Bath yesterday evening for a public debate on the Same Sex Marriage Bill organised by Don Foster, MP for Bath – who voted for the Bill in its second reading.
The evening was chaired by Lynne Fernquest, Editor of the Bath Chronicle. Rev Kieren Bourne of the Living Springs Metropolitan Community Church joined Don Foster presenting arguments in support of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. Stewart Keiller, leader of Bath City Church and Edward Mason, Rector of Bath Abbey, put the case for voting against the Bill.
Each of the four panelists gave a brief(ish) statement of their position and questions were then invited from the floor. The questions were long(ish) and the answers expansive. The majority of the audience were Christians and the whole debate was wearily predictable.
Conservatives flagged up the dangers posed to the Churches because they would be take to the European Court of Human Rights and terrible things would happen there. And of course, opening the door to same-sex marriage is going to open the door to all sorts of terrible things like polygamy and incest and other taboo relationships. The implication by association is that lesbian and gay relationships are also taboo and consist of terrible activities which are going to undermine and destroy society.
And it’s all too rushed by the Government. They should give us time to have the conversations and explore what this means and come to terms with it. Let’s delay the whole process for five years so we can sit and talk like this. In the next tranche of questions a pastor began talking about the sin of Sodom and wasn’t going to be denied his moment of glorious prejudice. He was loudly applauded by some and robustly answered by everyone on the panel.
The Rector of Bath, a very amiable man, has the art of introducing extraneous content into his answers to avoid committing himself to anything substantive down to a very fine art. I was impressed. Maybe he’s had media training. He has a CV displaying good credentials and his heart is clearly in the right place. But, same-sex marriage cannot be. The implication was that it is an ontological impossibility, though he never actually said that. At the same time he said that lesbian and gay couples seeking something more than the legal status of civil partnerships need something from the Church, but it couldn’t be marriage.
After the debate, I asked him what the content of this wonderful equal but not the same as marriage alternative for lesbian and gay couples would be. He started off at a tangent so I interrupted and repeated the question. He had no idea what the content would be. He is among thousands who happily proclaim that they have many gay friends and are not homophobic and fully support gay relationships and believe the Church should welcome gay people – but have no idea what the Church is going to offer us in the place of marriage, which God didn’t create for us same-sex loving people.
I can think of a number of different answers to my question.
- The state has already provided same-sex couples with a sufficient answer, called civil partnerships.
- The Church will eventually offer to bless your civil partnership and include communion as part of the service if you really want.
- We are going to dream up a service which will look and feel exactly the same as a heterosexual marriage, except it won’t be a marriage.
- If you wait long enough the Church will eventually come round and then you WILL be able to have same-sex marriage in church.
The whole debate and the Rector’s answer made me realize that the Church of England has no answer to the question, what alternative to marriage are you going to offer same-sex couples, that gives us all the benefits that we seek in marriage without actually being marriage – or being called marriage? There are many theologies of marriage, of course, a number of which are applicable to same-sex relationships.
It’s the name that seems to be the problem. The trouble is, what same-sex couples create in faithful, life long, monogamous relationships looks pretty much identical to marriage. Next question, bishop?