I set down these thoughts with some trepidation, but today I had ‘scribbler’s itch’ and had to get them out my head.
A lot of heat is being generated and a lot of ink is being spilt on the subject of Gay Marriage – this is being written on the day that the Scottish Cabinet is discussing the issue. In time it is expected to endorse GM as a principle while Cardinal O’Brien is saying it would be ‘madness.’ As far as I remember, all contributions to the debate that I have noticed so far have been based on the prior judgement of what one thinks of homosexual relationships (committed or ephemeral). I want to take the question, ‘Should Gay Marriage be allowed in Scotland?’ out of that context and answer it regardless of what I think of gay relationships. First, I ask and answer a question; second, I make an observation.
The question is, ‘Who has the right to decide?’ At the moment there is an argument over whether MSPs should decide (in which case it would be passed overwhelmingly) or should there be a referendum? In that case the result would be more uncertain but opponents of GM think it would be blocked by the majority of voters. Latest polls suggest otherwise but I doubt if a referendum will be agreed to anyway. However, if it were to take place, effectively the denominations of the Church are saying that they do not have the right to impose their beliefs and ethics on others (especially in a multi-faith society) and have conceded that the State, by whatever democratic means, has the right to decide. Neither the College of Cardinals nor the General Assembly is in a position to make this decision however strongly expressed are their religious views.
It seems to me that there is also an irony. Some members of Churches that are more independent and/or Anabaptist (especially in the political sense of that term) support the idea of a referendum. They are thereby (unwittingly?) effectively adopting a Christendom model of Church simply because they think it would be more likely that their anti GM view would prevail. That would be using the machinery of State to sustain their religious belief and impose it on others. On the other hand, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a sense that it would be happier if we returned to the days of the Holy Roman Empire when the Pope had much greater political power to influence and decide on such matters. But those days have gone, probably never to return.
Ministers, Priests and others who are authorised to conduct weddings do so not only on the basis of their position within their faith group, but also under the authority of the State. They are both servants of the Lord and servants of the Law, but it is the Law that says whom we are authorised to marry within any particular jurisdiction. How many times have I said to couples, ‘no schedule, no wedding’? Why? Because to conduct a wedding without the document from the Registrar would be illegal rather than contrary to my religious beliefs.
If it is the State that has the right to decide, then the Church can live with (or die with) whatever the State decides. The Romans weren’t terribly bothered with what the Church wanted and the Body of Christ not only survived but thrived in its first Centuries within that Empire.
My answer to the question, therefore, is that the State has the right to decide these legalities and let’s live with whatever it decides.
Second, the observation is that this is a matter of religious freedom. I’ve been puzzling over the difference between GM and Civil Partnership because all the legal protection necessary for committed couples is contained in CP. Why bother with GM? The answer seems to be that those who have some kind of faith commitment want to be able to express their personal commitment to each other within that faith setting. In which case, within a culture where homosexual relationships are legally recognised, this becomes a matter of religious freedom, whether or not we agree with GM. All couples of all faith groups who endorse GM, who want to live in that way and publicly acknowledge their commitment within a faith context should have the right to do so. That is, as long as there is the equal religious freedom to disagree and not be required, as an agent of the State, to conduct such ceremonies.
I have another, related, issue that this debate has raised for me, and which could do with further exploration as the Church continues to emerge from the Age of Christendom.
Should Ministers and Priests cease to be agents of the State in the conduct of weddings? Should all weddings be Civil Weddings, as in Hungary, and people then be left to arrange any religious celebration of that marriage? I participated in a joint Hungarian-English celebration of a marriage in St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest the day after a Civil Wedding. It was a memorable occasion and the joy and solemnity of the occasion was undiminished. Perhaps this is what the future holds for us – and the world wouldn’t come to an end because of it.
Let me say again, this argument is being put forward without endorsing or opposing homosexual relationships. We are going to have to learn to live with that tension within the Church, or resolve it with ‘Disruption,’ but it seems to me that the argument between Church and State is settled. At least it is in my mind. You have to make up yours.