Thought for the Day - Canon Angela Tilby
Good morning. The debate on gay marriage is making me uncomfortable. Columnists tell me breezily that I should welcome it because of equality. Catholic and Anglican Bishops say I should shun it because it undermines one of the fundamental building blocks of society. Now my instincts are liberal. I think the introduction of civil partnerships was a great achievement and I don’t like the tone of recent Church pronouncements.
But there is an issue here which is in danger of being trivialized on both sides. The issue is the nature of marriage. Is it a convention or a sacrament? If it is a convention of course it can be redefined. But if a sacrament this is not so easy. The point about sacraments is that they can’t be made up. They work because they are a precise configuration of the material and the spiritual. When I celebrate Holy Communion I need bread and wine; tea and biscuits won’t do because they don’t carry the memory of what this sacrament points to, which is the bread and wine that Jesus declared to be his body and blood. If marriage is a sacrament it needs male and female because the inner memory of marriage goes back to the Garden of Eden – it is about procreative sex; the possibility of children, born from the bodies of both parents. It is all very earthy and concrete and physical.
And of course that’s where the problems lie. Though people on both sides appeal to what is natural, nature unhelpfully supports both sides liking both consistency and variety in gender and sexuality. Most people are male or female; but there are some who are born with unfixed gender. Most people are heterosexual but some are not. Most parents have children but some do not. And then there are people who marry knowing they can’t have children, and children conceived with donated sperm or eggs, or born through surrogates. Our society believes passionately in equality and wants everyone to have the chance of a decent and fulfilled private life. I have no problem with any of that. And yet.
I don’t want to lose the traditional view that marriage reflects a particular pattern in which a man and a woman unite across their obvious differences. Civil partnerships have a different pattern, and I think this could be sacramental too. I know partners who have created liturgies which celebrate their love, loyalty and commitment in the friendship of God. I’m not allowed to bless such relationships, but I think I am allowed to hope the day will come. What I don’t want to happen is that the demand for equality reduces gay and straight relationships to sameness. Civil partnerships offer something new and creative to thank God for, but there is no reason why we should lose the blessing of what remains both ancient and instinctive.