Leading article: Nothing but hyperbole on same-sex marriage

The bishops' extravagant language just underlines the paucity of their argument

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
 

Upmarket and downmarket – why the modern consumer loves a bit of both

Sean O'Grady
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal