The bishops of the Church of England have resorted to some extraordinary exaggeration in their objection to the Government's proposal to permit gay marriages. Equality in civil marriage, they claim, 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? Than Queen Mary burning Protestant bishops at the stake? Than the decapitation of the Church's Supreme Governor, Charles I?
Such extravagant language from the bishops only emphasises the paucity of their arguments. The Government's proposal is a simple one: that all couples, regardless of their gender, be able 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 the change would, in some unspecified way, undermine the nature of the institution of marriage. No justification of the notion is offered apart from the scriptures – or, rather, a traditional interpretation of them forged in more bigoted times. How allowing two gay people to pledge love and fidelity to one another devalues the principle of lifelong commitment escapes most people, and rightly so.
Definitions of marriage have shifted subtly in different societies and times. Those changed emphases – married women given the right to own property, say, or laws passed to protect them from rape – also provoked protests about the undermining of the institution. The Church of England accommodated them. It even permits vicars, if they wish to, to remarry divorced people – a change which, it could be argued, is a more obvious erosion of the principle of lifelong commitment.
Once again, social attitudes are on the move. In 2004, a bare majority of people polled supported gay marriage. By 2009, that had risen to 65 per cent. And a poll for Stonewall, published yesterday, suggests that more than 80 per cent of adults under the age of 50 now support the proposal. Meanwhile, a survey of MPs records 233 in favour and just 56 against, although many refuse to disclose their position.
It is, of course, up to the Church how it responds. Intriguingly, Stonewall's figures also suggest that nearly two-thirds of religious believers disagree with the opposition lodged by the House of Bishops and Archbishops' Council yesterday. And, as many churchgoers point out, the diocesan, deanery and General Synods have not endorsed the bishops' reactionary stance. The dire warnings about disestablishment are more a reflection of the Church's own global battles, over both homosexuality and inclusivity more generally, than of the rights and wrongs of gay marriage per se. The bishops must act as they see fit, but they cannot dictate social policy from so slender a base.
In fact, there is still plenty of middle ground, if only the Church chooses to use it. Objecting vicars might be able to excuse themselves from marrying gay people, while those who see same-sex partnerships as part of an inclusive vision of a Church are allowed to do so. Church lawyers have suggested that such permission will slide into obligation, with the danger that a gay couple might lodge a discrimination case with the European Court of Human Rights. But exemptions to safeguard religious sensibilities are stoutly enshrined in European law. And no divorced person has used the rules to force a reluctant vicar to marry them.
The Church's suggestion that permitting gay civil marriage could spell the end of its role in conducting weddings on behalf of the State is, therefore, far-fetched. But the bishops are playing a dangerous game. If they persist in making the threat, the rest of society might just call their bluff.