Daily Archives: March 1, 2014

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Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to begin delving into some of the earlier documents relating to the Church of England’s response to same sex marriage – and I’m going to start with ‘A Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘.

It seems to me that the document makes two moves that are at least partially independent. It argues that the proposed legislation is contrary to the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’, and it argues that there will be legal problems with its implementation, and in particular with any guarantee that the Church can continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. I’m going to focus almost entirely on the first of these strands: the argument about the intrinsic nature of marriage. Strange as it may seem, I think that the core of this argument is not directly about same-sex sexual relationships – so that the claim made in §5 of the document is true, at least to a first approximation – the claim that ‘our response to the question of same-sex marriage does not prejudge the outcome of that continuing theological and ethical debate’.

Instead, it is all about gender.


Summarising the argument

The argument of the document (which, let me stress, is not my argument!) can, I think, be set out as follows.

1. There is an essential complementarity between men and women.

2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human society.

This complementarity has been recognised and expressed in societies down the ages; it is ‘enshrined in human institutions throughout history’ (Summary), and this acknowledgment serves ‘the common good of all in society’ (§4).

3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central to the purpose of marriage.

‘Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.’ (Summary.) This is what the document means when it speaks of the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman’ (Summary), and says that ‘marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman’ (§1): the emphasis falls firmly on ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Of course, there are other goods proper to marriage – mutuality and fidelity – but these are not at issue in this debate, nor are they unique to marriage (§9). ‘[T]he uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women’ (§10). This understanding of marriage is ‘a matter of doctrine’, ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (§1), ‘derived from the Scriptures’, and ‘enshrined within [the Church of England’s] authorised liturgy’ (§2).

4. Marriage is the primary social institution by which our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.

‘Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.’ (§11)

5. If marriage ceases to be a way for our society to acknowledge and express this complementarity, our society’s capacity to acknowledge and express at all will therefore be seriously reduced, and society as a whole will be harmed.

This is why the problem can be seen as the government’s attempt ‘To remove the concept of gender from marriage’ (Summary). And this is what is meant by the claim that the proposals would ‘change the nature of marriage for everyone’ (Summary). It’s not that the authors of the report think that the strength of my marriage will be undermined if other people enter into a union of which I disapprove. Rather, they think that marriage as an institution will be less capable of performing one of its most important social functions if it ceases to be clearly defined in gender terms. And this is also what the authors of the report mean when they say that the legislation will involve ‘imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage’ (Summary). The ideology in question is one where ‘men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ (§12) – which is the only alternative the report imagines to its own account of essential gender complementarity. And all of this is why the report can plausibly say that this is not (directly) an issue about the acceptability of homosexual sexual activity, but about the fact that ‘the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good’, and that this will be lost, ‘for everyone, gay or straight’, if ‘the meaning of marriage’ is changed (§5). ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage’ (§13) and ‘the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole’ (§8).

6. The essential complementarity is biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to, capacity for procreation

It is, according to the report, fundamental to the definition of marriage that the couple be ‘open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment’ (§25); it quotes the Common Worship liturgy to the effect that marriage is the ‘foundation of family life in which children may be born’ (§2). More precisely, marriage relies upon a ‘biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation’ (§6); more precisely still ‘This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation’ (§10; my emphasis). ‘And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning’ (§10).

7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in all social institutions.

The report states that ‘a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender’ (§12). After all, this is a fundamental reason for supporting ‘the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions’ (§12). In other words, marriage is the means by which we recognise and celebrate an essential gender complementarity, which needs to be recognised and affirmed for the sake not just of marriage but the sake of ‘all social institutions’, which will flourish more fully if the ‘specific and distinctive contributions from men and women’ are given full expression in them.


Understanding the present debate

This is only one document, and I don’t want to build to much on it at this stage.  I’m therefore going to limit myself at this stage to two comments on this.

The first relates to my previous post. I assume that it is not unfair to think that something like this thinking is being expressed both in the House of Bishops’ promulgation of their Pastoral Guidance, and in its defenders’ reaction to the question posed by Linda Woodhead. And, as I suggested in my previous post, I think grasping this point helps to make sense of their reaction.

We are, such a person might think, dealing in this debate with a fundamental structure of creation, and of society – and of our law’s relation to that. We might all agree that questions about fidelity and mutuality go as deep as this question of gender complementarity, but nothing else comes close. In particular, questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this question. We are dealing with a fundamental structure of creation, and therefore with the very possibility of flourishing in a society that has to live in harmony with creation. That’s clearly what was really being said when the bishops talked about there having been no fundamental divergence between civil and religious understandings of marriage until now – and all this fuss over secondary details is a mischievous smokescreen.  It’s all about gender – and this criticism from the likes of Woodhead, her colleagues, and now Higton – well, it dramatically misses that point.

Have I got that right? Is that a fair representation of the source of the impatience with Linda’s question that I’ve been hearing? I realise I’m putting words into mouths here, but I hope I haven’t slipped into caricature?


Thinking about gender

My second comment, however, is – well – Wow!

Because we’ve all been (understandably) focused on the foreground issue of same-sex marriage, and the long-running disagreements in the church about homosexual practice, haven’t we missed something else very important going on here? Because it looks to me like we’re seeing here the publication, at least in outline, of a whole massively controversial social theology of gender, as if it were unproblematically and straightforwardly the Church’s teaching – and it is happening without debate and without serious scrutiny. (I mean, yes, there’s been loads of scrutiny of this document and other related documents, but not much of it has focused on this issue.)

Let me put it this way. Suppose that we were to hear that the Church was putting together a commission to work, over the next couple of years, towards the production of a report on ‘Gender in Church and Society’. Suppose this commission were asked to state the Church’s understanding of how gender works – how our understanding should be shaped by scripture, how it should be shaped by engagement with tradition, how we should relate to our tradition’s many failures in this area, how we should understand gender to relate to biology, how gender should be acknowledged in our accounts of roles in the church, what we have learnt about gender in our debates about priesthood and epsicopacy, how gender should function in society more generally, and where we stand on questions of complementarity and equality in every sphere of society, how we should respond to other accounts of gender alive in our society, and so on.

Suppose such a commission were created. What kind of work do you think we would expect that commission to do, whom should we expect it to consult, what would we expect its members to read, with which debates would we expect them to engage, if we wanted them to carry out their task well, and with integrity?

Have we, as a Church, done that work together?  Are we putting forward the account of gender outlined above because, after careful and prayerful deliberation together, asking all the relevant questions and listening to all the relevant voices, we have concluded that this is what we have to say about gender as part of our witness to the gospel of Christ?

If not – well, don’t we have some rather urgent thinking to do?


Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.


Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.


Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.


Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.


Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.