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Gay Marriage and Church Leaders ~ There They Go Again

Some church leaders. They sure hate the idea of marriage equality. When someone suggests that gay people should have the right to marry, but not necessarily in their churches, they still go all crazy. First they claim that “traditional marriage" is universal, that is throughout all time and in all cultures (this is so obviously not the case I can only assume they are exaggerating for effect, or have not read the Bible, or are ignorant, or are stupid). They then claim gay marriage is going to lead to the destruction of traditional marriage, men marrying their sisters and women their brothers, polygamy (though so far I haven’t heard anyone suggest gay marriage will lead to polyandry, polygyny, endogamy, exogamy, or levirate), people marrying their cats and dogs, and the downfall of civilization. I kid you not. All these things have been suggested by supposedly God-friendly loving intelligent church leaders. The best you can hope from them is the argument of “equal but different,” an argument that has been decimated by people of colour and women some time ago (equal but different has been an old stand-by of oppressors for ages).

The latest round of ecclesial angst was in the Lord’s debate on marriage equality here in Britain. Archbishop Welby of the Church of England, the biggest of church leaders, said the marriage equality bill would lead to the destruction of traditional marriage which is a cornerstone of society. To quote Welby himself:

"Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened…[T]raditional marriage is a corner stone of society…"

Given its importance as a cornerstone of society it is not unreasonable to ask what exactly a traditional marriage is. From the Church of England:

The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture ofchildren, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

It is this institution that is a cornerstone: permanent and lifelong, exclusive (meaning faithful), for the purpose of procreation, grounded in affection (presumably romantic and spiritual love), sanctioned by “our Lord,” which points to Jesus but I assume includes the Trinity (Welby’s comment that gay marriage will diminish marriage as covenant implies that marriage will no longer be approved by God). It is this institution church leaders claim is universal and utterly important for the wellbeing and continuation of society.  So, some interesting statistics on marriage in England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics, which defines marriage as the union of unmarried people (single, divorced, widowed) in the population (there are pages and pages of restrictions and procedures associated with marriage which you can access here): 

  • 21.3 men per 1000 marry each year.
  • 19.9 women per 1000 marry each year.
  • For every 100 married people there are 90 unmarried.
  • 15% of marriages are of both people remarrying.
  • 19% of marriages are of one person remarrying.
  • 42% of marriages end in divorce.
  • 2.9 million couples are cohabiting.
  • 12.2 million couples are married.
  • 38% of married couple families have dependent children, the same percentage as cohabiting couple families.
  • 68% of all marriages are by civil ceremonies (meaning 32% of marriages are apparently by religious ceremonies).
  • Since 1996 the number of people cohabiting has doubled.
  • Since 1981 the number of people marrying is down by a third.

Infidelity statistics for England and Wales are hard to come by. I’ve read infidelity among men married or cohabiting runs from 25% to 57% and among women in marriage or cohabiting from 18% to 54%. The truth no doubt lies somewhere between the high and low percentages.


  • Permanent and lifelong – divorce rate of 42% with 34% of marriages having one or both people in their second (or third, or fourth) marriage.
  • Exclusive – extramarital affairs being somewhat common to very common.
  • Tradition marriage – on the decline.
  • Cohabitation – on the rise.
  • Unmarried people – almost equal to married people.
  • Procreation – difficult to judge; while 38% seems low I did not see statistics for the percentage of married couples who choose not to have children verses the couples who had not yet had children but were planning to or the percentage of marriages where the children had left the home.

What can we say about the society’s cornerstone of traditional marriage? First, the ideal of traditional marriage as a universal reality only exists in the minds of people, and perhaps particularly in the minds of church leaders. I am not saying that the ideal does not exist at all. Clearly there are people who marry for life, remain faithful, mutually supportive, have children and raise them well. But it would be a stretch, when considering the above statistics on divorce and infidelity, the unknown number of people who are unhappy in their marriages, the unknown number of parents who emotionally and/or physically abuse their children, the number of people who do not or cannot have children and the persistent and significant problem of male violence in marriage, to say that the ideal represents what is overwhelmingly normative. And yet, our society continues without major disruption or actual collapse.

Second, given that gay marriage does not exist in the UK and never has, the state of marriage, traditional or otherwise, has nothing to do with gay men and lesbians. It has everything to do with straight people.

Two Important Qualifications:

First, I must shout from the mountaintops that not all church leaders are anti-gay and go utterly ditzy when someone says the words “gay marriage.” Some Christian denominations are supportive of gay rights and advocate for marriage equality. And in denominations that have policies to exclude gay people or in some way render them second class citizens there are faithful Christians who advocate for the full inclusion of gays. Some can be quite passionate about it. For example, Rev. Marcus Ranshaw in the Church of England called his archbishop a wanker for his anti-gay position. On his Facebook page he wrote the following:

“What really upsets me is nasty people such as Justin Welby robbing me of my faith in the church, he does not speak in my name and I think he is a wanker, but I’m not going to stop being a Christian or a priest.”

To say the least, he got in trouble and withdrew the statement from his Facebook wall. While it may have been somewhat foolish to lose his cool on Facebook, it does point to the passion of support for marriage equality some possess in the Church of England. They too make a claim on their church.

More personally, my wife is a church leader, if one can be called that in the United Reformed Church. The URC prides itself on being a conciliar church. I have even heard it said by a URC minister that there is no such thing as individual leadership in the URC – she meant that as a good thing. However, while the URC holds no position on gay rights or marriage equality (when is the last time you heard of a committee demonstrating strong leadership and taking bold actions?), my wife has advocated and preached for gay rights and equality in marriage for most of her ministry.

Second, church leaders have every right to participate in public debate on societal issues on behalf of their organisations and congregations. However, two things are important. First, we need to agree on an acceptable language that articulates a commonly held understating of reality. Books should be, and probably have been, written about this. What is an acceptable common language representing a reasonably held understanding of reality? Not all arguments are acceptable. While the flat earth society may amuse us, we would not allow members' views to impact a debate on the costs and merits of space exploration. However, if the flat earth society were given the legal and social status of a religion, would we then allow its belief system to be taken seriously in the debate?

Also, while church leaders can and should participate in societal discussions and debate, they do not have the right to impose their belief systems and/or institutional  rules on a secular democratic society. For example, some churches do not accept or recognise divorce and will not sanction remarriage. That is fine. No one is making them remarry people. However, they do not have the right to impose that belief and practice on a democratic society that accepts remarriage. Church leaders need to remember they do not live in a Christian theocracy but a secular democratic society that gives their organisations considerable protection and privilege.

A final thought. Given that 68% of people get married in civil and not religious ceremonies, and given that a certain percentage of people (probably fairly high) who do get married in a church do so not for faith and membership reasons but for sociological reasons (only about 6% of people regularly attend church), and given that the majority of people in the UK favour a change in the law to allow gay people to marry, one would hope that church leaders would show a little more humility and restraint as they participate in the marriage equality debate. Unfortunately, that is not often the case.

By the way, the Lords supported the Commons' marriage bill by a vote of 390 to 148 (for the complete run down of voting click here).

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger

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