same sex marriage
Church of England

Justine vs Justin: the ‘not yet’ and ‘never’ of same-sex marriage in the Church of England

In an interview for Sky News last week on same-sex marriage and the Church, Justine Greening (the Education Secretary who also happens to hold the Equalities portfolio) told Sophy Ridge: “I think it’s quite important that we recognise that for many churches, including the Church of England actually, that was something that they were not yet willing to have in their own churches…”

In that ‘not yet willing’ lies a ton of teleological expectation: a sense of designed inevitability that it is simply a case of waiting for the jaundiced church to catch up with enlightened progress. “I think it is important that the church in a way keeps up and is part of a modern country,” she added, as though it were the Church’s vocation to conform to the prevailing culture rather than to transform it. She then made her appeal more religiously universal: “I think people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes in our country.”

Some people, certainly. But she ignores the fact that for many more people of “our major faiths”, the very notion of same-sex marriage is a non-sequitur; a contradiction in terms; a category error. If the naturally fertile union of male and female is no longer to be distinguished from the naturally infertile union of man and man or woman and woman, then marriage becomes nothing more than a contract between consenting couples for companionship. Why limit that to couples? Isn’t comfort and love to be found even more abundantly in threesomes, foursomes, or in whole family communities who simply want to support and strengthen one another as they go through life for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health?

Marriage is a gift of God in creation, we are told. It isn’t about personal autonomy, human rights or civil liberties: it is for a man and a woman to be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church (Eph 5:32). This is what the Church of England believes, teaches and expresses in its marriage liturgy. The church’s apprehension of the profound mystery of marital procreation is distinct from the state’s contract of partnership. When Justine Greening talks of the church being “not yet willing” to solemnise same-sex unions, she appears to have no understanding that the male-female union is God’s pattern for creation: the two who come together to create a third reflect something of God’s own triune existence. This is the meaning of marriage.

And in a speech to the House of Lords during the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, Justin Welby made this perfectly clear, so much so that it isn’t clear at all why Justine Greening talks of ‘not yet’ rather than respectfully understanding that ‘never’ is the natural expression of the marriage covenant, and the Christian understanding of the spiritual institution.

“The result is confusion,” the Archbishop declares. “Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories.” And here is Justin’s nexus which Justine ignores:

The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well.

Indeed: it ceases to be dimorphic and becomes essentially genderless.

The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost.

Indeed, it abolishes the only institution which sustains gender complementarity for the primary purpose of procreation (Mt 19:4f). Marriage begins with the attraction of two adults of the opposite-sex and of different parents, followed by the setting up of a home distinct from the parental home, and then the uniting of their lives in a shared life which forms a pattern of fulfilment which serves the wider end of enabling procreation to occur in a context of affection and loyalty.

The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished.

Quite so. God told Hosea (3:1): ‘Go, love a woman‘; not ‘Go, love a partner’. Faithlessness to the marriage covenant and faithlessness to the covenant with God are bracketed together by Malachi (2:10-12): one reflects and symbolises the other. Justine’s apprehension of marriage is that of a state contract of convenience. Justin’s apprehension is that of a sacrament; of holy matrimony in which two become one.

The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened.

It was brave of the Archbishop to talk of normality in this context. So often now, to talk of ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ is to invite allegations of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. This ‘normal’ is heterosexual and procreative: it predates any social contract for it seen to exist in nature. And this leads to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s unequivocal refutation:

For these and many other reasons, those of us in the churches and faith groups who are extremely hesitant about the Bill in many cases hold that view because we think that traditional marriage is a corner stone of society, and rather than adding a new and valued institution alongside it for same gender relationships, which I would personally strongly support to strengthen us all, this Bill weakens what exists and replaces it with a less good option that is neither equal nor effective.

Quite so. Marriage is a gift of creation, common to all humanity irrespective of belief.

This is not a faith issue, although we are grateful for the attention that government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom – deeply grateful. But it is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good.

According to Scripture, faith is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen‘ (Heb 11:1). It is imagined and eschatological, while marriage is immanent, seen and known. It is natural law and present reality; not a future hope, but the Creator’s design for this world. Marriage is not at heart a faith issue, but about the realisation of the common good for the ordering of society.

And so with much regret but entire conviction, I cannot support the Bill as it stands.

Does Justine understand Justin’s conviction? Her ‘not yet’ suggests not. She may think the Archbishop deluded, misguided or mistaken, but in this speech he spoke clearly not only for the Church of England, but also for other Christian denominations and, indeed, for all of “our major faiths” who have no particular desire at all to “keep up with modern attitudes in our country”.

When the Church of England contributes to public debate on matters of concern to secular society, it should address society on terms common to all participants. To do otherwise is to set up stumbling blocks and preach foolishness (1Cor 1:23). The attempt to be distinctly Christian belongs only to the pursuit of internal discipline among the faithful. Christians must distinguish between those dictates of the law of nature which are apparent to all men of good will, and those which seem clear to themselves but not to others. The state’s definition of marriage has changed, but for Justin Welby it remains immutable natural law.

It is wholly appropriate for the ‘hard heart’ of Parliament to be sceptical of metaphysics, but it is not for Parliament to redefine the integrity of the created order. And it certainly not for the Education (and Equalities) Minister to transmit the expectation of the church’s inevitable destination, as if her personal political preference were somehow an eschatological expression of God’s will.