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Why is the Church of England like Chicken Licken?

2012 June 12
by Paul Vallely

The bishops of the Church of England have resorted to some extraordinary hyperbole in their formal objection yesterday to the Government’s proposal to permit gay marriages. They have been privately briefing that equality in civil marriage raises the prospect of the biggest rupture between the church and state since the CofE became the established church 500 years ago. What, bigger than the dissolution of the monasteries? Or Queen Mary burning Protestant bishops at the stake? Or Cromwell chopping off the head of the church’s Supreme Governor, Charles I? The extravagance of the bishops’ language only reveals the paucity of their argument.

What the Government is proposing is that all couples, regardless of their gender, should be permitted to have a civil marriage ceremony. No religious organisation would be compelled to conduct a gay wedding ceremony and yet the church is objecting on the grounds that this would, in some unspecified way, undermine the very nature of the institution of marriage. It offers no grounds to justify this notion,  beyond the writings of its scriptures – or rather a traditional interpretation of them forged in more bigoted times. How allowing two gay people to pledge their love and fidelity devalues the principle of the lifelong commitment escapes most people. It, rather, broadens society’s commitment to it.

Definitions of marriage have shifted subtly in different societies and times. Those changed emphases – as when married women were given the right to own property or when laws were passed to protect them from domestic violence and rape – also provoked protests that the amendments undermined marriage. The Church of England accommodated those. It even permits vicars, where they wish, to remarry divorced people – a change which, an outsider might argue, represents a clearer prima facie erosion of the principle of lifelong commitment.

Social attitudes are clearly changing. In 2004 a bare majority of people polled supported gay marriage. In 2008 that had risen to 55 per cent. By 2009 it was 65 per cent. A YouGov poll for Stonewall yesterday showed that more than 80 per cent of British adults under the age of 50 now support the proposal. A survey of MPs suggests that, of those prepared to declare their view, 233 were in favour with just 56 against, though many refuse to disclose their position.

It is, of course, up to the church if it wants to be left behind, though intriguingly the YouGov poll suggest that nearly 60 per cent of religious believers disagree with the opposition yesterday lodged by the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council. Many churchgoers have pointed out that the diocesan, deanery and General Synods have not endorsed the bishops’ reactionary stance.

What the Government is proposing sits well with this split within the church. No vicar who objects will be forced to marry gay people. But those who would see gay marriages as part of an inclusive vision of a church, whose underlying principle is declared to be love, should be allowed to do so. Church lawyers have suggested that permission will slide into obligation if a gay couple lodges a test case with the European Court of Human Rights alleging they are being discriminated against. But exemptions to safeguard religious sensibilities are stoutly enshrined in European law and it is scaremongering to suggest otherwise. After all no divorced person has used the law to force a reluctant vicar to marry them against his convictions.

So it is odd that the Church of England has, like Chicken Licken, now decided that the sky is falling in. Its suggestion that permitting gay civil marriage could lead to the church being forced out of its role of conducting weddings on behalf of the state seems far-fetched. But if the bishops persists in brandishing the threat that same-sex marriage could result in the disestablishment of the Church of England they might just find that the rest of society calls their bluff.

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