Trying to make sense of the Archbishop of York’s speech in the Lord’s Equal Marriage debate

I read the speech the Archbishop of York made in yesterday’s debate in the House of Lords during the Committee Stage of the Same Sex Marriage Bill with an increasingly heavy, sad heart.

My heart felt sad because I have known John for 35 years. We were at in Cambridge at the same time at different theological colleges. Our paths have crossed many times since – we were both priests in Southwark diocese and inevitably, we have met repeatedly in different circumstances in recent years. I like John a lot and value his enthusiasm and passionate Christian witness. If I criticize the contents of his speech in the Lords, I know that he may read my comments. In three weeks time at General Synod, I may have to explain face to face why I think he is wrong.

My heart also felt heavy as I read his speech because John reveals an inability to identify with the real, lived experience of LGB&T people. He pursues arguments which are all too familiar but no longer stand scrutiny.

The Archbishop rests his argument on the idea that equal marriage legislation is an exercise in ideological redefinition.

The Archbishop makes a number of statements about civil partnerships and equal marriage. I have found it helpful to separateh the various statements he makes into a series of bullet points:

  • all the concrete privileges that accompany marriage have already been extended to same-sex couples through the civil partnership legislation
  • the equal marriage legislation does not address the concrete disadvantages from which same sex couples still suffer
  • what is the privilege currently enjoyed by the majority that this legislation claims to extend to an excluded minority?
  • marriage has been defined in law and practice as a relation between one man and one woman and thus as so defined cannot in law be extended to same-sex couples
  • the draft Legislation presupposes an account of marriage which makes the gender of the partners incidental to the institution
  • a new social institution is being created under the aegis of existing marriage law which is, in fact, quite different from it
  • something new is being created which should be given a new name
  • the legislation proposes a radically new ideology aimed at changing the way people think
  • the church shares with the best traditions of this house, a passion for justice, and a deep concern for the particular needs of minorities
  • those concerns have been met in the provision for Civil Partnership legislation

Several of these statements are tendentious. I’d like the Archbishop to explain:

  1. Why secular marriage law cannot be redefined to extend marriage to same-sex couples
  2. The nature of the new social institution that is being create which is quite different from marriage
  3. What this new institution is and what name it should be given that meets expectations from a lesbian and gay perspective
  4. What is wrong with proposing a radically new ideology – that is what Jesus did in proclaiming the primacy on love from his experience of being infinitely loved by God. The seeds of his teaching are there in the Old Testament but his message was radically new
  5. What is wrong in wanting to change the way people think – this is what Christian evangelism sets out to do – and to change people’s feelings as well as their thinking
  6. How he is going to make concrete in Church life and teaching, including across the Anglican Communion, the church’s deep concern for the particular needs of minorities when many parts of the Communion support legislation designed to dehumanize LGB&T people and encourage systemic prejudice and homophobia

Early in his speech he said “it is a deep personal regret to me and sorrow that homosexual people are still diminished, which is anathama to me and the Primates of the Anglican Communion by the 2003 Dromantine Communique – where we said the diminishing of homosexual people is anathama to the Christian faith, but it still happens and that is a deep regret for me. For them, I want to say sorry.”

Saying sorry isn’t enough. Ten years on from Dromantine the Church of England tolerates the most terrible ignorance and abuse of LGB&T people around the world which is actively encouraged in some Anglican Provinces. I know that engaging with other parts of the Communion isn’t easy, but if you are going to quote Dromantine in the Lords and pursue this argument, I’d like to see a more substantive engagement at the Communion level. I know representations are made behind the scenes and the Archbishop has publicly condemned the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill, but Christian attitudes are still terrifyingly ignorant and prejudiced.

The Archbishop then made a number of statements about marriage and binary gender in creation:

  • being a man or a woman is not incidental to the human relations a person may engage in, but formative of them – the male-femaleness of the human race is given to us
  • Christians understand marriage as essentially representative of this good gift of sexual difference
  • This understanding of marriage flows from an undivided and unbroken tradition which has helped to define the unity of the human race, uniting nations, religions, cultural traditions and periods of history
  • The unamended Legislation uses the term ‘marriage’ to describe a new entity, not an equivalent meaning of marriage as hitherto described
  • this undifferentiated use of the term ‘marriage’ will create confusion on the one hand and erode freedom of conscience on the other
  • Civil Partnership legislation was precise in its use of language – it recognised the intrinsic difference between the loving, lifelong commitment of same sex couples and the loving lifelong commitment of male and female couples in marriage

Not all Christians would agree with the Archbishop. There is a far more complex and nuanced theological conversation taking place about the nature of gender and sexuality in the Christian circles. A binary understanding of gender is being questioned. A fluidity of gender identity and sexual experience is being acknowledged as normative. Equal marriage is become normative in many parts of the world. It neither creates confusion nor erodes freedom of conscience.

In the midst of all his confident assertions about marriage and binary gender difference and the legal and ideological implications of equal marriage, Archbishop John made a surprising statement: “As with any aspect of creation our interpretations of marriage are not final.” So is the door open after all to a more radical change in the traditional though always evolving Christian understanding of marriage?

Baroness Howarth of Breckland followed the Archbishop. She asked him the question that is fundamental to me as a gay Christian seeking equality in Christ in the church – the great difficulty with civil partnerships for Christians—for those who love the Lord deeply—is that there is no religious content. Would the Church of England be prepared to marry couples in church, would  the Church of England change its position if the amendment of Lord Mackay was agreed?

The Archbishop said this matter will need to be discussed. He seemed to open a door to the potential for change in the House of Bishops or General Synod. Had civil partnerships been given enough space, the church would not have escaped the possibility of a conversation, he said. (I’m not sure what he meant.)

He asked a question: “What do you do with people in same-sex relationships that are committed, loving and Christian? Would you rather bless a sheep and a tree, and not them?” That is a big question to which we are going to come, he said, again opening a possible door to change.

But now is not the moment. “I am trying to make it slightly easier to work out what that difference is. Give me time, and one day I may come back and speak on this.” I’m not sure what he meant by this either. That’s the problem. What does the House of Bishops, General Synod and the Church of England really think about the presence of LGB&T Christians in the Church and what provision does it want to make for us? Does it really want us to be full members of the Body of Christ? Does it understand what that means? I can answer the last question – it’s a No.


  1. Davis Mac-Iyalla says

    Colin, those old school mates of yours are no friends of mine, I used to think that Archbishop Santamu after receiving the grace of asylum over persecutions from a dictator called Idi Amin, he Santamu will be more generous in his ministry but no, he toes the line of the old and outdated conservatives Christians views. When you see him at Synod, tell me marriage is not been redefined, rather same sex couples will soon enjoy the equal privilege that heterosexuals have been taking for granted many, many years ago. Marriage does not belong to the church only, if the House of Bishops now support Civil Partnership, let them celebrate it and stop playing games with our heads while trying to frustrate the same sex marriage bill, I am so feed up with the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

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