Christians, take note!
- The Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam suggests it is time to ‘rethink’ attitudes
- He argues attitudes towards homosexuality have changed ‘considerably’
- Says gay marriage would be ‘strong endorsement of institution of marriage’
By JAMES RUSH
Opponents of gay marriage have been likened to Christians who used the Bible to support slavery, by a senior Anglican bishop.
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, suggested it was time to ‘rethink’ attitudes towards allowing same-sex couples to marry, as Christians did with slavery and apartheid.
He argued that attitudes towards homosexuality have changed ‘considerably’ over the last fifty years and that the development of gay marriage would be a ‘very strong endorsement of the institution of marriage’.
In the letter to Labour peer Lord Alli, published by The Telegraph, he wrote: ‘Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience,’ he wrote.
‘Before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation.
‘Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation.
‘No one now supports either slavery or apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has.’
Legalisation of gay marriage was approved by MPs last week after surviving a Tory backbench bid to derail it.
The Bill will have to overcome more resistance when it comes before the House of Lords next week.
Bishop Holtam, who sits in the House of Bishops but not the Lords, revealed his support for gay marriage last year in an interview and a speech.
Labour peer Lord Alli however asked him to clarify his position, as a member of the House of Bishops, before the peers’ debate next week.
SCROLL DOWN TO SEE THE FULL LETTER FROM THE BISHOP TO THE LORD
‘This is complex to express, partly because there are those who see this issue as fundamental to the structure of Christian faith.’
The Church of England is opposed to same sex marriage. It says it remains ‘committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman’.
There have been suggestions the Most Rev Justin Welby, the recently-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, will be one of a number of bishops raising concerns about the policy during the debate.
A Church of England spokesman said Bishop Holtam’s letter was a ‘helpful contribution to the debate’.
The spokesman said: ‘The House of Bishops has agreed its collective view on same sex marriage.
‘It has always been open to individual bishops to differ. There are a wide range of views in the Church of England and the Bishop if Salisbury’s letter is a helpful contribution to that debate.’
Bishop Holtam, who was appointed to the role in 2011, is the first clergyman married to a divorcee to be made a bishop.
Gay couple Vincent Autin, 40, and Bruno Boileau, 30, yesterday became France’s first gay couple to get married, just days after their country legalised same-sex marriage.
They said they were ‘honoured to be a symbol for the country’ as they married in the southern French city of Montpellier under strict security and tight police surveillance.
‘SOMETIMES CHRISTIANS HAVE HAD TO RETHINK THE PRIORITIES OF THE GOSPEL IN THE LIGHT OF EXPERIENCE’: BISHOPS LETTER TO LABOUR PEER
Thank you for asking me to set out why I am sympathetic to the possibility of equal marriage and have a different view from that stated in the Church of England’s response to the Equal Civil Marriage consultation. That response from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in June 2012, written in consultation with the Archbishops’ Council and House of Bishops, was prepared under the pressure of the government’s absurdly short period for consultation on a major legislative social and legal change. The Archbishops affirmed what the Church has always taught (with Judaism and Islam) that marriage is a gift of God in creation, the lifelong union of a man and a woman. A subsequent document has been produced by the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission on ‘Men and Women in Marriage’. That this is ‘for study’ indicates a discussion continues to run within the Church of England. This was acknowledged in a recent briefing from the Church of England to MPs for the Commons Report stage which stated: ‘the Church of England recognises the evident growth in openness to and understanding of same sex relations in wider society. Within the membership of the Church there are a variety of views about the ethics of such relations, with a new appreciation of the need for, and value of faithful and committed lifelong relationships recognised by civil partnerships.’
You, as a gay Muslim, will not be surprised that there are a variety of views within the Church of England where we are experiencing rapid change similar to that in the wider society. This is complex to express, partly because there are those who see this issue as fundamental to the structure of Christian faith. It is also complex because of the worldwide nature of the Anglican Communion in which what might be said carefully in one cultural context (for example, the USA) can be deeply damaging in another (for example, parts of Africa). Change and development are essential in the Church, as they are in life, and part of the genius of a missionary Church is its ability to root the good news of Jesus Christ in varied cultures in every time and place. One of the difficulties now is that globalisation and communication mean it is much more difficult for Christianity to develop in this culturally sensitive way. There has been a very uncomfortable polarisation of views even in our own country.
Whilst marriage is robust and enduring, what is meant by marriage has developed and changed significantly. For example, the widespread availability of contraception from the mid- twentieth century onwards took several decades to gain acceptance for married couples by the Lambeth Conference in 1958. The newer forms of the Church of England’s marriage service have since recognised that the couple may have children. Over the last fifty years the Church of England has come to accept that marriages intended to be lifelong can break down and that on occasion marriage after divorce can be celebrated in the context of Church. It is also the case that most couples now live together before they marry. This happens without censure from the Church which continues to conduct these marriages joyfully even though the Church’s teaching is that sexual relationships are properly confined to marriage.
The desire for the public acknowledgement and support of stable, faithful, adult, loving same sex sexual relationships is not addressed by the six Biblical passages about homosexuality which are concerned with sexual immorality, promiscuity, idolatry, exploitation and abuse. The theological debate is properly located in the Biblical accounts of marriage, which is why so many Christians see marriage as essentially heterosexual. However, Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience. Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience. For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation. Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has.
The pace of change with regard to same sex relations has been considerable. The Wolfenden report (1957) and Sexual Offences Act (1967) decriminalised homosexual acts in private between men aged over 21 years in England and Wales. This received cautious support from the Church of England at the time. The changes they introduced are now unchallenged and wholly welcomed.
At the co-educational North London Grammar School I attended from 1965-72, there were 2 effeminate gay lads in my year who were no threat to the rest of us but who were regularly beaten up just for being different. At times school for them must have been a brutal experience. What they went through was unkind and unjust but I don’t remember a teacher intervening on their behalf. I am thankful things have changed and we now have a greater sense of equality and fairness. In the current debates it is striking that within the Anglican Communion one of the strongest supporters of same sex marriage is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. From his experience of the racism of Apartheid he sees same sex marriage as primarily a matter of justice.
When the proposal for civil partnerships was debated in 2004 the Church of England was largely hostile. I am grateful that in the Archbishops’ opposition to equal marriage they have expressed their support for civil partnerships and I hope this will help the Church of England towards affirming these relationships liturgically. Like the Archbishops now, I used to think that it was helpful to distinguish between same sex civil partnerships and heterosexual marriage. Many in the churches think the commonly used description of civil partnerships as ‘gay marriage’ is a category error. However, the relationships I know in civil partnerships seem to be either of the same nature as some marriages or so similar as to be indistinguishable. Indeed, the legal protection and public proclamation which civil partnership has afforded gay relationships appears to have strengthened their likeness to marriage in terms of increasing commitment to working on the relationship itself, to contributing to the wellbeing of both families of origin, and to acting as responsible and open members of society. Open recognition and public support have increased in civil partnerships those very qualities of life for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. It is not surprising this now needs recognition in law.
The possibility of ‘gay marriage’ does not detract from heterosexual marriage unless we think that homosexuality is a choice rather than the given identity of a minority of people. Indeed the development of marriage for same sex couples is a very strong endorsement of the institution of marriage. The ‘quadruple locks’ contained in the Bill provide extraordinarily robust protection for those religious bodies, including the Church of England, unwilling or unable to conduct same sex marriage without accusation of being homophobic.
This subject provokes strong feelings but in most churches a variety of views will be found. I hope this letter helps to say briefly why there is a greater variety of views within the Church of England than can be expressed in the formal statements of the Church or House of Bishops. At its best the Church is committed to the Spirit of God leading us into all Truth in what is a complex period of social change.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam
Bishop of Salisbury