What is wrong with gay ‘marriage’?

There continues to be very active debate about whether the historic term ‘marriage’ should be redefined to include covenanted relationships between two people of the same sex, and not just ‘a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman’. The latest comment on this has come from the newly appointed Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison.

When I commented on Facebook that I had signed up to the Coalition for Marriage petition (supported by former Archbishop George Carey, who conducted our college Quiet Day this week), I received a range of comments, including the following:

I also don’t see how gay marriage would or could lead to legal polygamy. (I just think a redefinition of marriage – as between one man and one woman – would be incorrect and unnecessary)

I think that if a gay person got married my own marriage would be in jeopardy. Obviously. Because marriage will be shaken to its core. FANCY giving homosexuals the change for a covenant relationship. Whatever next? Sliced bread? [this was written as a sarcastic comment, in case you are wondering]

The slippery slope argument is always the last resort when you’ve not get a better case to make. I’m yet to be persuaded that having gay marriage in any way undermines the notion of heterosexual marriage as being the typical context for the raising of children. Can anyone explain that? Keith O’Brien certainly hasn’t!

Judicial decisions based on the 2010 Equal Opportunities Act suggest that my being obliged in law to conduct gay marriages on demand is less than a decade away

Why do people think that marriage is in any way superior in God’s eyes?

I replied with the following points. These are not beyond debate, and no doubt any one of them could be expanded considerably. But I think this shows that the petition of Coalition for Marriage need not be seen as either a knee-jerk reaction, or a weak ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument, but that it has some substantial reasons behind it.

  1. Thin end of the wedge arguments are not a ‘last resort’ but a warning that we have now moved into different territory, and there will be unintended consequences. This is really clear from both the implementation of the abortion act of 1967, and the fate of palliative care in Holland following the acceptance of euthanasia.
  2. Richard [one of the commentators above] is quite right: once marriage is redefined, it will be a very short matter of time till all registrars, including C of E clergy, will be obliged to marry all who come forward under this new definition. This is part of the prioritisation of rights of sexual orientation over rights of religious groups reported in Clearing the Ground and comes at a time when Government is seeking to reduce structured Church involvement in Parliament.
  3. It moves marriage away from its foundation in biblical theology as the partnership of those who are both equal and different in Gen 2. I have written about this in another context (focussing on the ‘equal’ bit) on my blog and Grove booklet, though the key thing in this debate is the significant of the ‘difference’.
  4. Similarly it detaches marriage from procreation. There is a long debate about this, and theology has struggled with this a bit: I don’t think that biblical theology says that procreation is a necessary part of marriage, but it does say the two are intimately related.
  5. It would also separate questions of value from question of form: ‘the pattern does not matter; what matters only are the qualities of faithfulness and love.’ Similar arguments could easily support polygamy (which is a live question in African contexts) and given recent research would in turn argue for cross-species relationships.
  6. The converse of 4 is that it would eliminate the normative understanding of parenting as being undertaken by a man and a woman. I think this does have serious implications for the development of healthy psychological development for children.
  7. The issue underlying all these is: what is the source for Christians of the normative understandings of healthy human relationships? The answer for the C of E needs to continue to be: the pattern of faith set forth in the Scriptures, as our authority in all matters of faith and worship. This is what C of E clergy sign up to at ordination.

I think it is also interesting to note that, in the wider LGBT community outside the church, although there is a wide variety of views (from my conversations and reading) in general there is not the desire for gay ‘marriage.’ Marriage is widely seen as a flawed institution.

A first survey of public opinion also suggests that a change in the definition of marriage does not command wide public support, with 70% saying that it should not be changed, and only 22% wanting change.

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13 thoughts on “What is wrong with gay ‘marriage’?”

  1. Afternoon Ian!

    What I like about questions like these (especially the ones in the middle bullets) is that they demand a reasoned response. The problem with too much of the emotion being exhibited by those who want to maintain the current definition of marriage is that it allows the other side to just emote back. By asking serious questions (for example the issue of pattern versus form) we move into the territory of challenging not just the raw feelings on the opposite side but their philosophical and political understandings, demanding explanations of not just where they are coming from but what their proposals will achieve in many different spheres of our social life as a nation.

    Of course, such a discussion is nuanced and complicated and many on both sides will seek to avoid it, either because they are not capable of entering such a debate OR because they realise that once their pre-conceptions and paradigms are challenged their position becomes less firm. Regardless, we need to do this standard of debate and demand it others of all sides because otherwise we will just have rushed legislation with little thought about the myriad consequences thereof.

  2. Peter, thanks very much for your comment. These were responses ‘off the top of my head’ as it were, but I have always been surprised at the lack of engagement–on both sides, it has to be said, with these foundational issues.

    I wonder if they have been avoided on one side because the answers are challenging–but avoided on the other side because the simple answer is ‘The Bible says so’ and not much reflection has happened beyond that.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Thank you for this. It deserves wide readership. Reflecting on Lynne Featherstone’s recent comments outlining her determination to press ahead with gay “marriage”, and the myth of “neutral” secularism.

    If a government does not “do God”, this is not simply a private matter but has enormous public consequences. If there is no God, then there is no “given” in the created order. Instead, the final authority rests with “the will of the people” as Ms Featherstone states. The government minister sees himself/herself as representative of the will of the people, so in his/her mind there is no higher authority than him/herself. It is therefore a short step for a secular government believing in democracy to enthrone itself as god. This is why atheist governments always become totalitarian. The church struggle to save marriage then is not about preserving quaint customs but about resisting this tendency of senior politicians, governments and the Powers behind them to demand total allegiance and even worship. Will the church resist, or meekly act as compliant Chaplain to the culture?

  4. Thanks Andrew; do pass it on, though I am conscious I have really just jotted down the headlines.

    Yes, I think you are right that our culture is often pushing against the ‘givens’, though of course one of the areas of debate is how you discern what is ‘given’ and what is cultural, particularly in the area of sex and gender. I think your observation about accountability is crucial too: if there is nothing higher, what sense does it make to talk about the ‘morality’ of government?

    It is really interesting that the survey I mention shows little popular support for the change, contrary to what many have said.

  5. There is something quaint, but tragic, about those people who deny this is the ‘thin end of the wedge’.

    If you can, like me, cast your mind back fifty years to the debate about decriminalizing homosexual acts, you will know that if anyone had suggested this would lead to same-sex marriages they would have been dismissed as not merely alarmist, but insane. And the proposal that the Church might have been forced to go along with this, let alone willing, would have got you locked up in any asylum.

    The point is that the ‘thin end’ of the wedge was passed years ago – some time around the efforts to ‘normalize’ same-sex attraction. When it comes to the wedge, we are well and truly at the thick end already.

  6. Given the sadly high level of divorce, also within marriages between Christians, are those in favour of Gay marriage any more optomistic aout something that is largely still an unknown in the long term? If a same sex couple “adopt” a child, that child has no choice at finding itself being raised in a unconventional environment that may later from some sides lead to stigmatisation. Is any research able to tell us about the effects upon such chidren? If for them, same sex marriage is the norm for a family, then inevitably it becomes one of at least two norms (models for family)and probably more. Society lose it’s grip increasingly on marriage and family. And does society percieve this as a problem or an enrichment? We’re slipping the anchor and drifting into the unknown, however you look at it.

  7. I want here to pick up your comment that one reason there has not been much engagement with the issues is that for many it just boils down to “the Bible says…”.

    Although I’m reasonably well-informed theologically, I’m probably not up to speed on this issue. My perception, however, is that while the evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage is well-grounded in exegesis of biblical texts, it is deficient at the level of systematic theology. Put simply, for far too many of us it seems that we know what we are against (adultery and homosexuality) but we don’t really know why because we aren’t really sure what sex is for – ie. we lack “a theology of sexual bliss”.

    In that respect, I think we need to engage with Anglo-Catholic thinkers like John Milbank and Rowan Williams, whose “The Body’s Grace” I find hugely influential in its premise that the experience of finding oneself the object of another’s desire and joy is meant to help us understand what it means to be the object of God’s desire and joy. Williams’ essay was of course originally an address to the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement, and I hope we have people who are engaging with this and similar ways of understanding sexuality so as elaborate a biblical, evangelical understanding.

    I’ll be grateful if you can reply, but I know I’m responding to a blog pasted some time ago. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter too much…..I use writing to help me clarify my thinking!

  8. David, thanks for your comments. I have not in fact posted at length about this subject, since it is such a large area.

    But my thinking has been significantly shaped in the last few months by conversation with Sean Doherty. He self-describes as someone with same sex attractions, who was very involved in the gay Christian scene at university. But his realisation was that God did not make him straight of gay, but male, and he needed to live out of this identity. He is now married with children.

    This is an important insight for several reasons. Firstly, Sean appears to believe that evangelical language of ‘healing’ or reorientation makes the same mistake as the language of gay marriage–that it treats ‘orientation’ as ontological, and of the essence of human identity, which he believes it is not. Contrary to this, all reliable research shows that ‘orientation’ is not a stable category, so it is quite false to claim, as eg Desmond Tutu does, that differentiating between people of different ‘orientations’ is just the same as discriminating against a racial group. (To my knowledge, no-one has spontaneously changed from black to white within a culture, whereas people have reported a change in orientation from ‘exclusively same sex attraction’ to ‘exclusively other sex attraction.’

    This also demonstrates the importance of the issue. The same-sex marriage lobby is in effect arguing that God created four (or perhaps five) genders: male straight, male gay, female straight, female gay, and possibly bisexual. But Scripture says this is not the case.

    This has led me to rethink the question of how Scripture relates to culture. The gay lobby accusation is that Scripture does not know same-sex orientation as we now ‘understand’ it, and my response used to be ‘Oh yes it does.’ However, I now wonder if they are right. Scripture does not ‘know’ modern forms of same-sex union, not from social ignorance, but because it rejects the premise that orientation is ‘essential’ to human existence, which lies behind any proposal of same-sex unions.

    Long reply which probably should be a post in its own right!

  9. Now that is a fascinating angle…..I shall have to file that away in the list of “Issues to be further examined” (I’m afraid I’m also engaged in study for a degree, so the requirements of that dictate what time I have for other issues1)

  10. The Church of England officially separated procreation from marriage in proclaiming that contraception is permissible for married couples.

    It’s fascinating to read T. S. Eliot’s justification (that’s probably too strong a word) of this stance; it’s tantamount to a sort of racist superiority of the modern, intellectually and of course, aesthetically more developed English (whoever they are).

    The battle is already over, culturally speaking, from that point on; musical deckchairs on the Titanic, anyone?

    You’re absolutely right here:

    “I think it is also interesting to note that, in the wider LGBT community outside the church, although there is a wide variety of views (from my conversations and reading) in general there is not the desire for gay ‘marriage.’ Marriage is widely seen as a flawed institution.”

    Marriage as such has been crippled by the last decades of neglect and abuse, including but not limited to support for contraception.

    To return to the key point, which you ably summarised:

    “Similarly it detaches marriage from procreation. There is a long debate about this, and theology has struggled with this a bit: I don’t think that biblical theology says that procreation is a necessary part of marriage, but it does say the two are intimately related.”

    Theology is either a way of understanding the pre-existing Apostolic Tradition (which includes the Bible) or it is an interesting academic excercise (popular interest is probably declining).

    Christian theology as practiced has never “struggled with this” in the sense of doubting it was true; there has been a rebalancing but never a moment where marriage did not equal family.

  11. Thanks, Michael. I think the only other comment I would add is that, whilst the Church separated marriage from procreation in response to culture, actually it is there in Gen 2. I am not at all convinced by Vaughan Roberts et al who argue that this is all mechanical and about fruitfulness–Adam’s cry ‘flesh of my flesh…’ is about existential recognition of companionship.

    Having said that, this is a long way from the contemporary idea of sex a leisure activity.

  12. Fruitfulness is “mechanical”?

    This is the underlying problem:

    “I realized that in spite of the obfuscation rendered in typically dense Vaticanese, the church has never really believed that marriage, in and of itself, is holy, that it is a sacrament. The church essentially reduces marriage to a utilitarian purpose – the procreation of the human race.”

    [source: http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=5488#comments – comment no. 26]

    Fruitfulness is anything but mechanical – procreation is not utilitarian.

    Underlying the rejection of “marriage = family” is a basic bitterness and sickness of heart when it comes to the thought of any sort of family.

  13. Prior to Eve being created out of Adam (Gen 2 :21) Adam has no gender (in the original) it is only after that that there is male and female – “for that reason” when male and female are reunited in marriage they become “one flesh” as in the original Adam. That, as I understand it, is the key understanding of marriage and it is thus not true in any sme sex relationship – whatever it is, it is not marriage


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