Gay rights group Stonewall has awarded Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien the 'Bigot of the Year' prize after he made some imprudent words against gay people. That's a bit like Burger King Executives creating a 'Most Unhealthy Junk Food' category and awarding it to McDonald's. Now, one disclaimer; even if you had an electron microscope you couldn't detect my feelings of credibility for any of Stonewall's awards. But I hear that politician Ruth Davidson was subjected to jeers and boos at the ceremony after she suggested that awards like 'Bigot of the Year' hardly sound any more tolerant than the people they seek to indict, and that "The case for equality is far better made by demonstrating the sort of generosity, tolerance and love we would wish to see more of in this world." Quite why she would give two hoots about receiving an award from Stonewall is beyond me (she won Politician of the Year) - but well said anyway.
But here, I think, is the important point; there are good and bad people in the Catholic Church and in Stonewall, and they are being let down by the mudslingers who do no real good, and help very little in furthering the progression of debates like these. Evidently this debate about gay marriage is not going to be helped by intolerance from either side, and it isn't going to be resolved without bringing some intelligent suggestions to the table - ones that are accompanied by acceptance, tolerance, compassion, generosity and kindness.
The first thing that is clear to me is that liberty of free expression is vital, so I defend anyone's right to hold whatever views they like about gay people, about the church, or whatever (providing they are held or expressed with acceptance, tolerance, compassion, generosity and kindness). For that reason, we must be careful not to discriminate against any group (which is really collections of individuals) that holds views different to ours. Let me try to suggest a solution that cuts out all the mudslinging.
It seems to me that something obvious is being missed in the continuing debate about whether gay couples should or should not be allowed to get married in church. You see, the question must be asked; in the case of the majority of people affected by this (the majority being unbelievers), why would they want to get married in a church? One might even ask the same question of atheists too.
Let me explain; I have absolutely no objection to any couple being together, gay or straight – their business is none of my business, and I think it unfortunate that so many people in the church wish to make it their business with such pugnacity.
But here’s what I think is being missed. When the Christian church performs a wedding for couples who do not share the central beliefs of Christianity they are engaging in ceremonies for couples for whom the central tenets have no intrinsic religious value (it seems these numbers are increasing all the time too). Of course, non-religious couples should be allowed to get married in a church – but that’s not the point. The point is, I can only wonder why they would want to if they don't have any beliefs that would naturally affiliate them to the church's ethos. That people still do is, I should imagine, a mere historical legacy of habit that is slowly dying out in Britain as we gradually become more secular, and the Church of England gradually erodes into an even tinier minority.
This might be somewhat too prescient for today, but fast forward to, say, 150 years henceforward, and my guess is you'll find church weddings being almost exclusively chosen by Christians, and the majority of other lifetime commitments being non-religious civil commitments. The point is, this moves the debate away from issues about which group is the most discriminated against, or whose rules are the most reasonable, onto a much more enriching enquiry about how we can escape the historical legacies of anti-church discord and well-worn religious clichés, and live in a society in which chosen rites of passage match people’s tastes and beliefs.
If an engaged couple do not believe in the central Christian tenets, there is no reason why they should have any desire to get married in a church, mosque or wherever - just as if they were vegetarians they would have no desire to go to a butcher's shop for their evening meal. In changing long-standing traditions and not seeking refuge in the sometimes unreliable legacy of the status quo, we are likely to have a society in which people choose things because they match their views and beliefs, not because history dictates that ‘This is always how it has been done’.
When gay people or unbelievers seek to defend people’s right to not be discriminated against by any sectarian faction of the church, I think they are right to do so. But I think they are arguing in the wrong direction. They act like vegetarians trying to defend the vegetarians’ right to go into butchers’ shops, when what they would be better doing is trying to convince more vegetarians to give up butchers’ shops altogether and seek food stores that better cater their tastes.
Society isn’t so polarised anymore, and it will be much less so in the future; just as we now have supermarkets in which meat-eaters and vegetarians can happily shop together choosing only the products that match their tastes, we probably will eventually evolve a cultural system in which people pick their ceremonial rites of passage in accordance with their views and beliefs. I understand non-religious funerals are rising in numbers; in 150 years (maybe sooner) they probably will outnumber church funerals.
I think that numerous people are still getting married in churches simply because 'marriage' in a church happens to be the oldest ceremonial legacy in this country, or because society says a church wedding is somehow more exalted than a civil ceremony, or because of pressure from family, and other similar reasons. My point is not that they shouldn't. It is; why would they want to unless they have emotional, spiritual or analytical affiliation to the church's ethos? Realising this probably is the best the best way to forward the debate and culturally progress too.
Many say it might work out best if, in the future, a Christian marriage is a marriage between Christians, and other kinds of union are unions that are recognised henceforth as being of a non-Christian kind, but treated as equally special. The problem here is with the word ‘marriage’ – no party likes to cede any ground to another by allowing them to claim sole custody of the word. Hence the term ‘civil partnership’ is thought to be less established than ‘marriage’. This might be an accurate reflection of people’s perception, but it doesn’t escape the observation that it is only our cultural legacy that has us thinking this way. To show what I mean, imagine for the sake of argument if instead of the terms ‘civil partnership’ and ‘marriage’ we evolved culturally to refer to them as Union A and Union B, I don’t think many would be complaining that one was less established than the other.
This article is not an expression that conveys any sense of my personal wishes for the future. The reason being, I think that opinions are so divided on this, even within the church, that one cannot hope to please everyone or offer a solution with which everyone agrees. I have said all this only as a forecast concerning what I think the situation probably will be like in the future, not as a comment on what I hope happens. All I know is, given what I’ve said about how social protocols are changing in accordance with changing tastes and views in the secular parts of society, I think the church is going to have plenty more things to consider if it wants to get its house in order on the issue of gay marriage.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.