Should you sign the Coalition for Marriage Petition?

I’m someone who likes to thrash ideas out in a conversation. It’s in the cut and thrust of a good challenging discussion that I best formulate ideas and opinions. I like to test aloud how something sounds, hold an idea in the midst of the debate and examine it from many angles. The writer of Proverbs says, as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

So, blogging can be an unusual way to express opinions for folks like me. Yes, sometimes it can lead to a good conversation in the comments section, but often it hangs in the ether, like a written statement, instead of an invitation to conversation.

With those thoughts in mind, I want to share some of my thinking around the current debate regarding marriage for same-sex couples, and how the church could respond.

My first comment is that I don’t think it is the role of the state to dictate to communities of faith the meaning of a sacrament.  We would be rightfully outraged if the government sought to dictate to the Church how we were to baptise, or conduct communion, or who we were to include in those sacraments. It is simply pushing beyond the boundary of reasonable government interest. It is for communities of faith alone to decide how best to conduct the sacraments they offer, and to whom they may be offered. Any changes must surely come as a result of a process of theological reflection, pastoral insight and long discussion.

My second comment is that perhaps we need to find a new language, and that here is an opportunity to for the church to become a distinctive voice. Perhaps we need to talk about civil marriage and (for want of a better name for now, please suggest one) sacred marriage.  The former would be a contractual agreement, based on love and commitment, for sure, but done by and on behalf of the state. The latter would be the lifelong commitment to exclusive partnership and shared love and commitment, done within the context of an act of worship, and actively seeking the involvement and blessing of God.

 I think, as a pure mater of justice, that if the state is to offer civil marriages, then it ought to offer them to same-sex couples, anything else would be unjust.

Faith communities ought to be free to decide for themselves within their own structures who they would offer marriage services for.

So, as much as I dislike some of the commentary around the Coalition for Marriage petition, and certainly agreeing with UKIP and the Sun leaves a bad taste in my mouth (go ahead, call me a liberal lefty), I think we ought to speak against the government’s current suggested ideas of redefining, and perhaps push towards something far more radical, a clear distinction between the sacrament offered by communities of faith, with all the privileges it brings, and the contract provided by the state, with all of its rights.

It’s a bit messy, but it might be a lot more honest.


serena said…
Just a thought - you make a strong case for civil marriage and the equality thereof, and for the church's idea of the sacrament of marriage to be separate. But you then follow this up by saying you should sign the petition anyway, which seems a bit odd.

Wouldn't it be a more positive statement NOT to sign the petition, which frankly is pushing a pretty homophobic agenda, but instead to stand FOR justice and equality in civil law (as you have already hinted in your views on civil marriage), but asking for recognition that churches and other faith groups should not be forced to do anything which their conscience goes against? After all, in most non-conformist churches, there is the civil aspect recorded by the Registrar, and the sacramental which is conducted by the minister. Non-conformist churches aren't under any obligation to marry anyone, are they? I suspect we would be more likely to feel the weight of public support for churches being able to conduct themselves according to conscience if they didn't spend half their time trying to stop other people gaining legal rights.
Jonathan said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said…
Serena, if the govt were suggesting a clear separation between the two, I'd sign any petition in favour in a heartbeat.

The current conversation is to recognise just "marriage", and CofE lawyers seem clear that their churches could be facing legal action if they were to refuse same-sex couples.

You're right, non-conformists have no obligations to marry, but we still belong to the Church universal and have a concern for the impact on others of legislation.

Let me be clear, a bill that suggested making a definition between the civil and the sacred, with equality in civil law, and the option (even the encouragement) for faith communities to decide who they offer sacraments to would receive my full support.

One of the big problems, it seems to me, is that so many difficult issues have been bound up in this one subject. Having some space to tease these issues apart might help us become clearer and more nuanced in our responses.

Thanks for the comment.
John S Smith said…
Thanks for your thoughtful piece.
What a minefield! I understand that what we offer and promote in our churches is Christian Marriage - an expression I would favour over Sacred Marriage. But as soon as I say Christian Marriage - what do I mean? Every marriage ceremony in UK has a civil/legal element to it. Are Christian marriages exclusivley those which begin in the context of worship - in the sight of God, those whom God has joined together etc... or if I carry out a service of blessing immediately after a civil ceremony and invoke the presence of God as witness and make a similar declaration - those whom God has joined together.. is this no less a Christian Marriage? In some countries it would be normal practice for a Christian couple to have a civil ceremony and then have the christian ceremony subsequently - even at a later date.
What if the couple are married in a civil ceremony and subsequently find faith - does their marriage now become Christian marriage, because they have become a Christian couple? When we marry a couple in church whose faith is very nominal - we conduct a service of Christian marriage but is the marriage itself authentically Christian?
As I said earlier 'What a minefield!'
We are in urgent need of thoughtful reflection and understanding of marriage.

You refer to marriage as a sacrament. Some of us would be very uncomfortable with sacramental language - I was taught that as Baptists we recognised two ordinances Baptism and the Lords Supper - marriage never even got a look in as an ordinance never mind a sacrament a concept which we eschewed!
Yet we declare that God ordained marriage in the Garden of Eden and Jesus endorsed it in his teaching - one man, one woman, one flesh until separated by death.
Sometimes I hear it said that marriage is a creation ordinance - i.e. available to all people created in God's image not exlcusive to people of faith.
it is very difficult if as believers we have different understandings of marriage and different language to describe marriage, for us then to have a credible discussion with a secular society.
I have signed the Coalition for Marriage Petition and encouraged members of my congregation to do the same, but fear we are ill-equipped to engage in this battle
Neil the pastor said…
I really like your thinking about the separation of the sacrament from the legal/civil marriage, (although as a non-conformist I am unsure if I can subscribe to sacrament).
I guess the issue is wider than sacrament in any event, other religious communities recognize the "institution" of marriage, for example Muslims. I would therefore also wish to find language that separates the civil from the sacred.
Muslims already separate civil and religious marriage as Islam allows a man to have four wives whilst UK law only allows one wife, so one woman has legal status as a wife under UK law and the other three have legal status under sharia law. I'm guessing that is why they aren't making more noise about the issue; it doesn't affect them to the same degree.
The problem is to find language that works for all faith based groups, especially when one faith based group has supporters and opponents of same gender marriages (e.g. Christianity).
With all that in mind I guess for me the two terms would be civil marriage and faith marriage, with the latter carrying no recognition in UK law (just as baptism doesn't - and I chose this comparator deliberately because it marks a similar covenant, except between a person and Christ as opposed to between two people).
Morrisson said…
As a non-conformist (albeit worshipping with Anglicans) I'd go along with ditching the 'sacrament' language. Creation Ordinance sounds fine, but the fact that it's our understanding that it is for all, not just Christians, doesn't mean that the state has to go along with it. Christians in other countries don't have a problem with two ceremonies one civil & one state.
Revd. Mark said…
The church has happily subscribed to marriage as defined by the marriage act since it became law a long time ago. It was inevitable that civil partnerships would become the legal equivalent of marriage in all respects. Perhaps it is time that the Church stopped operating as a registrar for legal marriage and offered its own service (with liturgies of its own choosing) without legal force in the UK. That way, people can covenant in faithful union before God, and either precede or follow that up with a legal contract drawn up at a registry if they so wish. The state can pass laws calling legal contracts what it likes. The church does not need to either fight or follow the state on this one. Let's just stop being a registrar and offer a suitable service in recognition of happy couples' commitment and not let an act of worship be dictated by legislation.
Anonymous said…
JS - you know some of my views/questions from our discussion the other week.

A couple of further observations/questions to add to the debate:

1. Most Christian denominations regularly marry hetrosexual couples in a church building who are neither regular attendees or church members or 'Confirmed' or 'Baptised' Christians/believers.

Surely any definition of 'sacred marriage' has to mean that all denomination/faiths abide by their own denomination/faiths teachings -but if some churches within a denomination/faith apply these teachings and others 'turn a blind eye' but take the money for the use of their buildings etc, how can 'Sacred Marriage' have any genuine meaning - in law or a denomination/faiths rules or anywhere else. Each church/denomination/faith would surely be open to accusations of hypocracy?

2. Are you proposing that churches have two types of marriage services - a 'legal marriage' service for non-believers and a 'sacred marriage' service for believers?

3. Does your term 'sacred marriage' apply to all faiths - Muslim, Christian, Mormon etc or just Christian faiths?

4. If we are content that gay people are born not made - and not all Christians are convinced this is the case and are awaiting 'scientific' proof, which is slightly odd as we Christians normally side-step science and prefer faith - and as an aside I think we should be careful of using terms such as 'gay people are a result of the fall' as we are 'all a result of the fall', not just gay people ! - then surely if a couple (meaning two people), hetrosexual or gay, love each other, are committed to each other and truly belive in Jesus and adhere to HIS teachings, why not marry them in a church as a 'sacred marriage' - as they tick all the boxes?

I clearly have more questions than answers and I'm not all that bright either ... I'm rambling on so I'll sign off now - but its great that people are discussing this - well done and keep up the good work.

Jonty said…
Thanks for that, Jon. Very reasonable. Though I'm still not sure I can support the petition. It smacks more of the weird belief that marriage and sex define a religion that was founded by the unmarried, presumably celibate Jesus. I agree that every church should have the freedom to choose who they marry (and hey, maybe Baptist Ministers can officiate at a blessing of a gay couple if their Baptist conscience allows it, without the Baptist Union retracting their accreditation?)but why do we want to remove the choice of others to decide what they consider marriage?

Thanks, anyway, for stimulating thought (and probably another blog post!)
Patrick Gillan said…
I have not long come off the Radio where I was invited to express my view on this topic. As a Christian who is Gay I am obviously for the new legislation. Let me be clear Christians are not being asked adopt Gay marraige,indeed it remains illegal for Gays to get married in church. This new legislation is state marriage nothing to do with the church which does not own marriage anyway. The issue for the church here is the lose of control and if I am being really cynical the lose of finance. Well that is easy to remedy welcome and include Gay men and women into the full life of the church and it will flourish! Many of my Gay friends in civil partnerships refer to themselves as married so lets make it legal! As a christian should I choose to get married I would aspire for a church blessing and why not I am a practicing Christian,Baptist and a follower of Jesus and therefore entitled to share all the same sacrements as my heterosexual brothers and sisters.
Anonymous said…
as Christians isn't our main love Jesus and didn't He say 'If you love Me you will obey my commands His commands are given for the good of individuals familys and society. He said therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall be one. I know we are all sinners and that is the reason Jesus came to help us live rightous before God. We definately should sign the petition because just as gravity is a law that effects the saved and unsaved the lifelong union of one man and one woman is the blue print God gave for all, both saved and unsaved there is no other and if we love Jesus we should seek to uphold this. Jesus love is not touchy feely or romantic but rightous and merciful. This is the narrow line through the confusion of feelings

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