This week, the Church of Scotland will be discussing a specially commissioned report on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry at its General Assembly in Edinburgh. Essentially, it will be seeking to reconcile the unavoidable fact that a number of its clergy live in gay relationships they’d prefer to acknowledge openly, with its public and theological position on sexuality.
The Churches face a problem of course. Whilst our civil institutions become ever more scrupulous about anything that could constitute an obstacle to the legitimate aspirations of gay people, they remain guardians of a tradition steeped in patriarchal structures and heteronormative metaphors that raise – for those they marginalise – deeply painful issues concerning authority, identity and belonging.
In the context of much larger questions concerning the global capitalist exploitation of our environment or our failure to eradicate material poverty or even to ensure everyone has access to clean water, it is perhaps not surprising to find many people – both outside and inside the Christian community – impatient with such a ‘non-issue’. The question of whether it is right to ordain a man or woman who seeks to live openly in a stable, supportive same sex relationship seems irrelevant to the big questions. But, of course it is a significant point, touching as it does on the ordering of human relationships; a fundamental question of great moment in any society. In the United Kingdom and large parts of the western world, Christianity has provided the framework for domestic and sexual relationships for hundreds of years in such a way that, until very recently, people have really not had to give it much thought. Though critics from Harriet Taylor and J S Mill in the 19th century onwards have called marriage a form of female slavery, it has remained the default domestic position. More recently, legislation has loosened the bonds of women, taken away male prerogatives and allowed for an increase in non Church weddings, contenting itself with the more neutral territory of registration but, until now, civil society has not suggested anything substantially different from what the Church has itself prescribed. Recently, attending a lovely family wedding at a registry office in London, I was struck by how far this wedding followed the pattern of the Church weddings I’ve attended – it was a life-long, exclusive partnership in which reference was made to having and raising children. There were rings, bouquets, bridesmaids, a best man and photographers.
Yet In spite of the ritual similarities between registry office weddings and Church weddings, there are differences of course. Churches refer to ‘holy matrimony’ and seek to give significance to heterosexual relationships in very particular ways, claiming, for example, that it has been ‘instituted of God’ (Canon 31:1 of the Scottish Episcopal Church, or set up ‘for a remedy against sin’ (Book of Common Prayer, 1662). It is in the words of the canons of the Church of England, “…according to our Lord’s teaching … a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” (Canon B 30).
Arguably, then, marriage as it exists across most of the western world today is still thoroughly bound up in a specific vision of social relations that might or might not be exclusively Christian in origins but which have been thoroughly Christianised. This prescribed form of human relating brings together sex, property and children under a heading of heterosexual – and thus, historically at least, hierarchical – partnership, and promotes this as the premier form of mutual human support. Other potentially supportive relations, including same-sex partnerships are bracketed off as, at best, insignificant and at worst, a matter for shame and guilt.
Yet Christian churches clearly can change as new priorities emerge. In Sweden, for example, a proposal first brought forward in 2003, that marriage should be open to same sex couples was initially rejected by the Central Board of the Lutheran Church of Sweden on the traditional grounds that it could only denote a relationship between a man and a woman. In 2009, however, the Theological Committee of the Church changed its view and recommended that gay couples should be allowed to marry and that priests of the Lutheran Church of Sweden could perform such weddings in their churches (see Svenskakyrkan Church Synod Liturgy Committee report 2009:2 Wedding and Marriage).
The Lutheran Church of Sweden was, of course, responding to pressure– to the changing legal position in Sweden on marriage as a civil institution. It courts criticism from Christians who believe there is a deeper or eternal order existing beyond the realm of changeable human being – beyond changes implemented in response a secular government to reflect its secular concerns – to which biblical language and the traditions of the Church point. Yet Christian theology and Church order have been marked from the beginning by manifestly human heteropatriarchal social structures, inherited from the cultural milieu of the early Christian Church. Moreover, in taking such a radical step the Swedish Church has arguably put itself in a good position to act as a positive force in society, underpinning and supporting trusting relationships rather than undermining them. This too is surely something that could be aligned with the Gospel – perhaps with its refusal to make idols out of conventional family ties and responsibilities.