Belief Matters … Or Not? What IS the church saying on same-sex marriage?

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Politicians – and especially English Conservative politicians – have a habit of making unhelpful interventions on the subjects of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

The latest is Andrea Leadsom, who is running against Theresa May to become the next Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. Yesterday, she gave a rather odd interview to ITV News, in which she made comments that have inevitably have been widely criticised.

Ms Leadsom said: “I believe the love of same sex couples is every bit as valuable as that of opposite sex couples, [I’m] absolutely committed to that. But nevertheless, my own view actually, is that marriage in the biblical sense is very clearly from the many Christians who wrote to me can only be between a man and a woman.

“I would have preferred for Civil Partnerships to be available to heterosexual and gay couples and for marriage to have remained as a Christian service for men and women who wanted to commit in the eyes of God. I don’t think the Anglican Church should be forced down a route where many Christians aren’t comfortable about it.”

What should we make of this? Clearly quite a lot if this woman is to be the next Prime Minister – seriously, did she to stop and think making those kinds of pronouncements might not be a good idea?. Interestingly, Ms Leadsom has never, in her six years as an MP, voted on LGBTI-related issues – perhaps hinting at the personal conflict she feels between civil marriage (which she feels should be open to all) and religious marriage (which she clearly doesn’t).

Her comments offend me, but perhaps not for the same reasons they do others. What concerns me is the way in which she is blind to the reality that many Christians don’t share her views, are supportive of same-sex marriages, want to conduct SSMs in their churches and are generally making very positive moves towards greater inclusion.

For a potential Prime Minister to say that “marriage in the biblical sense is very clearly only be between a man and a woman” is sufficiently worrying in itself. Actually, a would-be PM talking about something in the biblical sense should raise alarm bells. But it isn’t clear to me that the Bible makes that assertion, and when Ms Leadsom uses “the many Christians who wrote to me” to justify her position she’s either being disingenuous or deliberately selective.

I feel sorry for her if her experience of Christianity has genuinely been so narrow she believes that SSM damages rather than enhances our Christian communities.  She doesn’t seem to realise that there are many LGBTI Christians, or that a growing number of Christian denominations actually want to be able to conduct SSMs. And yes, in their churches. Reiterating the myth that religious SSMs are somehow unchristian, as Leadsom does, is damaging and factually incorrect. Not to mention deeply hurtful to LGBTI Christians.

When she says that she “would have preferred for marriage to have remained as a Christian service for men and women who wanted to commit in the eyes of God” she is effectively expressing a wish to deny churches the freedom to decide whether or not they will conduct same-sex marriages. Her mindset cannot grasp the reality that many same-sex couples want to “commit in the eyes of God”, and that their Christian communities often want to participate in that experience. And when she states that “the Anglican Church should [not] be forced down a route where many Christians aren’t comfortable about it” she overlooks the huge numbers of Christians within that very church who are not only comfortable with it but actively embrace it. She clearly hasn’t been watching developments within the Scottish Episcopal Church.

It’s not encouraging either to hear a prospective Prime Minister focusing on the concerns of the Anglican Church, as if no other denominations matter, but that’s another issue entirely.

The danger is that when the public hear these kinds of statements from politicians, it reinforces the stereotype of Christianity has inherently opposed to same-sex marriage – and, implicitly, LGBTI equality more generally. Well, yes – inevitably there are some expressions of Christianity that continue to treat certain sexual orientations as inherently sinful, but the bigger picture says something different. Perhaps it’s time we listened to what churches were saying rather than Andrea Leadsom.

Tomorrow, the United Reformed Church will vote at its General Assembly in Southport on whether to allow its churches and clergy to conduct same-sex marriages. With 1,500 congregations across the UK the URC would become the largest denomination in the country to embrace same-sex marriage (while the larger Baptist Union allows local ministers to conduct same-sex ceremonies if they wish, it retains its historic Biblical understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman). Having spoken to a number of people who will be voting tomorrow, it is clear that  – while the vote cannot be pre-empted – there is an expectation that the motion will be carried and that we will see URC same-sex weddings before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Methodist Church’s annual conference earlier this week decided it would “revisit” its understanding of marriage in light of legal and social changes since it last considered the issue 24 years ago. The Methodists are clearly a significant denomination, with 4,650 congregations in the UK. Not only did the Methodists consider SSMs – on which a working party has been tasked to consider “matters of marriage and relationships” prior to a potential future vote on conducting same-sex weddings – the conference also looked at issues of gender identity and the challenges facing transgender and intersex people. It was clear that many speakers at the conference in the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster – yards from the House of Commons – hope their own church will be performing marriages for same-sex couples in the near future. Andrea Leadsom does not speak for them. Indeed, her words have hurt many Christians.

Unfortunately the mainstream media seem far more interested in the foolish words of a politician than they are in the decisions being made by the URC and the Methodists.

The URC and the Methodist Church are not alone. The Scottish Episcopal Church – the Anglican Church in Scotland – will vote at its General Synod next year on whether to allow its churches and clergy to conduct SSMs. Given the nature of the ongoing conversation within that church, I would be very surprised if the SEC did not join with the Quakers, the Unitarians, the Metropolitan Community Churches and probably also the URC in accepting that it isn’t only heterosexual couples who can commit to each other “in the eyes of God”.

It is also heartening when the Church of England itself, for whom Ms Leadsom believes she speaks, makes a stand for equality. Groups such as Inclusive Church, Changing Attitude and Open Table are at the forefront of the pro-equality movement within their church – perhaps Ms Leadsom should listen to their views on SSM? More recently, news that the first ever Pride parade in Salisbury (hardly a hotbed of radical Liberals, which has had a Conservative MP for all but five years since 1886) will be blessed at the start by the Dean of Salisbury shows a willingness to affirm the lives and relationships of LGBTI people. A member of the Salisbury LGBT+ Group said they appreciated the support from the church, who they approached “because we have a friend within the Christian LGBT community. We’ve been speaking to leaders within the Cathedral for about a week. Having their support is fantastic, it’s exciting because things are happening really fast now.” This is not an isolated incident.

There is a growing understanding in Christian circles that love is love, and that it should be celebrated irrespective of orientation. There is also a growing recognition that discriminatory laws preventing Christians from marrying in their own communities and churches on the basis of their sexuality is unfair.  Change can often be frustratingly gradual – but it is happening, and with more Christians becoming convinced of the case for same-sex marriage it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pass the reactionary views of the likes of Ms Leadsom as “mainstream”. There will inevitably be disagreement among Christians, but it is obvious the momentum is with the progressives.

To rephrase the Stonewall slogan – some Christians are LGBTI. Let’s accept it. Let’s listen to them. And let’s also listen to the views of the affirming voices from within their churches.

More importantly, let’s listen to what our churches are actually saying about same-sex marriage. We may be pleasantly surprised. It may well be less frustrating that listening to Andrea Leadsom.

 

 

 

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