The URC GA decided this weekend to pass a resolution allowing local churches that wished so to do to register to conduct civil partnerships. I wasn’t there but the social media have had the predictable mix of celebration from some and lamentation from others. I share neither of these emotions. I would shown in favour of the resolution but I’m not really in favour of the practice.
I can’t make any theological sense of churches acting as registrars of civil partnerships. This is a legal contract between two people overseen by the state. What’s it got to do with the Church? What is the theological basis for this? It seems to amount, from what I’ve heard to saying that if we don’t some gay people will feel hurt. That just isn’t a theological argument nor, for me, sufficient reason to do something I think there are quite strong theological arguments against.
These arguments, for me, aren’t primarily about the nature of the relationship but about the relationship between church and state. Here we have the Church demanding to be annexed to the state as its agent. Why would we do that? Why would we be so keen to carry out this function on its behalf?
The answer seems to be, at root, a sacramental understanding of marriage. The suggestion seems to be that we conduct weddings, that this must mean that there’s a definite religious content to marriage, that this content can be generalised to same-sex relationships, we should so generalise it. I think every step of this chain of reasoning is false other than the first. We do indeed conduct weddings.
I dispute whether there is really any definite religious content to marriage. When we conduct weddings we are enacting “civil religion” rather than Christianity, although we have lost the ability to distinguish the two things. Our wedding ceremonies don’t have their roots in the Christian tradition but in the various historic codes of civil law. The Church took over the regulation of marriage only in the middle ages with the collapse of civil law. There are no ancient wedding liturgies.
The long negotiation and contestation of the relationship between the Church and the emergent state formations of modernity played itself out in marriage law among other places. The Church sacramentalised marriage as part of this process. I would suggest that this was a radical departure from a New Testament witness that is, on the whole, deeply ambivalent about marriage. Celibacy is the preferred state for most of the NT writers with marriage a poor second.
This fused with the social promotion of marriage to create a two-sided “religious” programme around marriage. On the one hand it drew on some remarks of Paul’s about an analogy between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the Church and the Genesis account of the origins of the sexes to create a sacramental view of marriage and on the other it worked with the civil authority to promote marriage as a social good.
Neither of these work well in a free church tradition derived from the reformation. We (officially) reject the idea of marriage as a sacrament and assert our absolute independence from the civil authority. However for whatever reason both parts of this programme clearly live on on our denomination, as in the wider Church. This deeply conservative and backward looking ideology of marriage informs the “progressive” programme around gay marriage.
There are deep difficulties with this, though. The historic institution of marriage is entirely predicated on sexual difference and procreation. Its origins lie in the control of the legitimation of children and of the property of the married people, rights to which varied with the sex of the spouse. The contemporary advocates of the extension of marriage to same sex couple want to abstract from this and redefine marriage as about “love” between two people whose sex, like all their other particularities, is a matter of indifference. This is possible, of course, and is in fact happening, but this represents a major break with the past.
Such a break may be a good thing but what’s left isn’t really recognisable as marriage as it was defined through its capture by the medieval Church. Indeed with the separation from it of procreation and its rendering implicitly temporary by the acceptance of divorce it has already been fundamentally changed.
My point isn’t really that this is a disaster, I’m really not at all sure it is. Rather it is that the Church would do better to return to the NT position, as I discern it, and conclude that marriage is primarily a matter for the civil authority. We should stop trying to perpetuate the power grab of the 11th Century church and be glad to hand marriage back to the authority from which the Church took it.
This would give us the opportunity to re-think our sexual ethics on the basis of the eschatological vision of the New Testament rather than the conservatism of the later Church. We should see all our sexual arrangement as marked by our fallen state and seek to open ourselves properly to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in them.
My feeling is that a programme of theological reflection on how heterosexual relations are currently structured in the light of the promises of the Kingdom and on what the changes and developments in contemporary sexual and reproductive life mean for us is a more urgent matter by far than the attempt to corral homosexual relationships into a deeply flawed structure that is anyway in a process of decomposition.