Broadcast on Radio 4 this morning
A few weeks ago, two Anglican clergymen celebrated their civil partnership at a service in a famous London church. Newspapers last weekend called it a gay wedding. A number of friends of mine were at the service and told of a happy and wonderful occasion. But there are those who have been deeply upset; people who would quote scripture to argue that it threatens the very fabric of marriage itself.
So what, then, is the Church of England’s theology of marriage?
Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the Book of Common Prayer was being put together, marriage was said to be for three purposes:
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children …
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication ..
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
How do these three concerns relate to the prospect of gay marriage?
The third priority insists that marriage is designed to bring human beings into loving and supportive relationships. Surely no one can deny that homosexual men and women are in as much need of loving and supportive relationships as anybody else. And equally deserving of them too. This one seems pretty clear.
The second priority relates to the encouragement of monogamy. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself has rightly recognised that celibacy is a vocation to which many gay people are simply not called. Which is why, it strikes me, the church ought to be offering gay people a basis for monogamous relationships that are permanent, faithful and stable.
So that leaves the whole question of procreation. And clearly a gay couple cannot make babies biologically. But then neither can those who marry much later in life. Many couples, for a whole range of reasons, find they cannot conceive children – or, simply, don’t choose to. Is marriage to be denied them? Of course not.
For these reasons – and also after contraception became fully accepted in the Church of England – the modern marriage service shifted the emphasis away from procreation. The weight in today’s wedding liturgy is on the creation of loving and stable relationships. For me, this is something in which gay Christians have a perfect right to participate.
I know many people of good will are bound to disagree with me on this. But gay marriage isn’t about culture wars or church politics; it’s fundamentally about one person loving another. The fact that two gay men have proclaimed this love in the presence of God, before friends and family and in the context of prayerful reflection is something I believe the church should welcome. It’s not as if there’s so much real love in the world that we can afford to be dismissive of what little we do find. Which is why my view is we ought to celebrate real love however and wherever we find it.