Church of England fights gay marriage proposal
Prime Minister David Cameron wants to give gay couples the right to marry but the Anglican Church disagrees. Bishops say the whole institution of marriage is under threat.
In the five hundred years since it was founded by Henry VIII, the Church of England has overcome daunting challenges: persecution, civil war, even an invading Spanish Armada. But this week, say senior clergy, the Church is facing its biggest threat so far: gay marriage.
This week marks the end of a three month public consultation period on changes to Britain’s marriage law. The government wants to change the legal definition of marriage so that any pair of adults can get married, regardless of gender. The Church, in an official message to the government, has now said no: marriage can only be the union of one man and one woman.
The arguments on each side are complicated, and feelings are running high. Supporters of gay marriage think the Church is treating gay relationships as inferior to straight ones – violating the right of all citizens to be treated equally before the law.
But opponents of gay marriage are worried about rights too: if gay marriage is legal, they argue, priests could be forced to hold ceremonies for gay couples, even if they believe such ceremonies are morally wrong. That would violate the right to religious freedom.
Anyway, Church lawyers point out, gay couples can already enter into special ‘civil partnerships’, with all the same legal rights and responsibilities as normal marriages.
The argument continues: marriage is an important and sacred institution, say clerics. To change the definition of the word ‘marriage’ would ‘dilute’ and weaken that institution for everyone.
But supporters of gay marriage think this is nonsense. Whether or not gay people are allowed to marry makes no difference to the marriages of straight people. If anything, they argue, changing the rules would strengthen the institution of marriage by bringing more loving couples into the fold.
This endless back-and-forth debate will not be settled anytime soon. At its root, there is a fundamental question, on which people are deeply split: are gay relationships and straight relationships essentially different, or essentially the same?
Love and biology
The Church says gay and straight relationships are different. Why? Because men and women are spiritually different (and complement each other too). So a relationship between people of opposite genders will always be importantly different from a same-sex relationship – and that difference should be reflected in the institutions of the state.
But many gay marriage supporters say gender is a distraction. A person’s personality is not determined by their sex. Being a man or being a woman does not define who you are. Why then should it define who you are allowed to marry? Marriage should be about love, not biology.
- Are men fundamentally different from women?
- Would you want to get married in a Church or other place of worship? Why?
- Write a script for an imagined confrontation between a gay rights activist and a Church of England priest who opposes gay marriage.
- How important do you think the debate over gay marriage is, one a scale from one to ten? Without discussing it, write down your number, then compare it with others in your class. How much do the numbers vary?
Some People Say...
“Marriage is an outdated and obsolete institution. We should scrap it altogether.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Gay marriage would only affect a small fraction of the UK population. Why is everyone so worked up about it?
- That is a hard question. Opponents of gay marriage say it would affect all married people. Supporters say it’s a matter of human rights – and everyone should care. But there are some who say there are other things at stake.
- Like what?
- Public opinion is moving steadily in favour of gay marriage, both in Britain and around the world. The President of the USA recently came out as a supporter.
- Many people see the gay marriage fight as part of a larger ‘culture war’, which some Christians think they are losing. That makes them determined to fight for every inch of ground.
- Henry VIII
- The Church of England split off from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The King forced the split after the Pope forbade him from divorcing his wife to marry again. The CofE is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes churches from Korea to Kenya and from Uganda to the USA.
- Spanish Armada
- During the reign of Elizabeth I (Henry VIII’s daughter), a fleet of Spanish ships was dispatched to bring England back into the Catholic faith. This ‘Armada’ was defeated by more manoeuvrable ships of the British navy, and destroyed by storms.
- Forced to hold ceremonies
- The UK government says no vicar will be forced to conduct gay wedding ceremonies against his or her will. However, lawyers for the Church say that once gay marriage is legalised, all vicars will have to conduct gay marriage ceremonies because of European human rights law banning discrimination.
- It is useful to make a distinction between gender and sex. A person’s sex is determined by their biological make up. Gender, however, is not biological but sociological – it is to do with social expectations of how men and women behave. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are terms for sex. ‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are terms associated with gender.