I don’t quite know how to start this. If you know me in real life, then you know that this piece and me thinking about this isn’t a bolt from the blue. That said, it’s a question that is contentious (sometimes contentious for being seen as contentious) and that raises emotions and in some cases hackles in most of the various spheres of my world, and I’ve held off writing it down till now. But I have to write to work out what I think and whether it seems to make sense – and I’m thinking about this more and more so here I am, writing about it.
The thinking about it is partly because it’s on the political table at the moment in the UK, and this means the occasional-to-regular conversations I have about the legalisation of same-sex marriage are becoming regular to frequent – because I personally exist in a space both my Christian and my non-Christian friends are challenging me to think about it (in a very positive way, I might add, which I really appreciate – none of them have yet made me feel like my relationships with them are on the line) – and it matters. So I want to start moving towards an answer, or a series of answers, or discussion points around it.
I also think it’s important to keep thinking about what I believe, why I believe it, and how I express that in the way I live my life, in the way I interact with other people also working out their beliefs and the implications of them – with my friends, my family, the other members of my church, and with people who might at some point come to me for my thoughts on this looking for advice (because, that’s a thing that might happen when you lead a Home Group, which I do, and oh boy is that ever a terrifying responsibility). And I think that it’s important to think about how my beliefs relate to how I think, campaign and vote, politically. Because I think being an engaged citizen matters, I believe in the idea of a common good, and that there is one for most societies, and that while there is probably no ultimate right or ultimate wrong answer to the question ‘what will achieve the common good?’ on any individual issue, I think the choices we make probably do tilt us towards or away from moving towards a common good as we make decisions.
The longer I think about this, the more I feel my brain rotating around three distinct questions, which are all important and all interconnect. Not necessarily in a cumulative fashion where Answer 1 leads to Answer 2 leads to Answer 3 = A Great Solution, but in a way that makes it really hard to have a conversation about any one of them without the other two cropping up. I also think that answering question three (which is the question in the title), without going back through one and two, has almost limitless potential for making assumptions and causing pain. And that, I think, is a bad thing. The answers are always more complicated than ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and it’s in engaging the complications that we can actually make the discussions fruitful and stand a chance of building a future that’s not a set of zero-sum stand offs.
The questions are:
- What do I, as a Christian, think my faith means I should think about same-sex relationships, and how (based on this) do I live my own life?
- Given my generally positioning on / internal debate around number one, how do I interact with the people around me? What does it mean for how I build and maintain relationships? I’m thinking specifically of two kinds of relationships in my life – those with gay and bisexual friends, who I love, but who may disagree with me at points of my thinking around number one, and those Christian friends who may also disagree with me, from the other perspective.
- How do I vote? (Using this as shorthand general political engagement). This relates partly to my thinking around numbers one and two, but also to a bigger political question of how Christians do politics.
I want to talk a bit about why I think these are the discussion points and where I am in my own internal discussion about them. Just bear in mind, this post is going to get quite long – and while I’d generally agree that I could stand to have more brevity in my blog posts, this is one where brevity doesn’t help. I thought about making this a series of posts – but I couldn’t work out how, because the pieces interconnect too much. Anyway, here goes…
(1) What do I, as a Christian, think my faith means I should think about same-sex relationships, and how (based on this) do I live my own life.
This is the issue of my personal discipleship, and my relationship with God. Here I have to work out what I think the bible tells me about morality, sexuality and homosexuality, and also about marriage (we had a very interesting sermon on the biblical idea of marriage a few weeks ago, which I found really challenging, and is feeding into all my thinking at the moment). I have to wrestle with working out how I read and interpret the bible, what I think is fundamental and eternal, what I think are Godly principles on a topic expressed in rules and guidelines (and language) in a particular historical context, and what I think are laws that were superseded by the death and resurrection of Jesus (I’m thinking here primarily about Old Testament laws around building a relationship with God – so, for example, I’m not making any burnt offerings, and I think that’s ok).
Then I have to decide what I believe and what to do about it in my life.
And this is the bit where I, personally, get stuck. These questions, ‘What do I think the bible says about same-sex relationships and about marriage,’ right now, are the ones I feel like I’m fighting with God about most. Especially the first one. A biblical understanding of marriage feels easier to get to – although what it is can be easier than what it is for (after all, the Anglicans changed the priorities on ‘mutual companionship’ and ‘procreation of children’ when rephrasing cermeonial lanuguage a while ago) – but then I find it running into my struggle with what the bible says about same-sex relationships.
I said up above that I wanted to talk a bit about where I am personally, on each of these three points. This is the one where I really really don’t, because I don’t know what I really think and believe, and so I don’t really know what to say, especially in a public forum, because I don’t trust my thoughts to commit them to writing without finding myself in the middle of a minefield – and as we’ll see when I get to question two, minefields and bloodbaths are what I’d quite like to avoid. Suffice it to say that I’m struggling with everything I’ve ever been taught, am currently taught by my church, my understanding of people I know and love, and really big questions of moral truth and personal sacrifice. I’m terrified of what getting off the fence might mean, but I don’t think that means I should stay teetering on it. And a lot of the time, I don’t even know if it’s a fence. The question is framed as a fence all of the damn time, but is it, really? Is there a different way of looking at this that I’m missing? I hope that there is. I hope that it might, actually be more important that I build a relationship with God, even if and when I’m failing at bits of my thinking and doing.
But here’s the thing guys: I’m struggling, and it’s my struggle with God. Everyone else can counsel and challenge, and I’ll appreciate people who do this with love and grace and politeness and good humour more than I will people who, um, don’t? No one else can decide this for me, or tell me how I should be living if I want to express my faith. I want things to read, and questions and challenges to think about – and I will think about them – but honestly, anyone who tries to tell me or strongly persuade me, actually gets discounted in my head, because It feels like I’m being sold someone else’s position or agenda, and I don’t like that feeling.
And all of this struggling, it is also important to note, is significantly easier for me than it is for many others, because – I’m straight. This means that for me, this question is relatively abstract and is unlikely to cause me to have to make serious personal sacrifices about things I want, or deal with criticism or persecution because of the way I live my life. There’s a possibility, as I struggle with this issue that people on who hold one view might call me a bigot, and people who hold the other might tell me I’m a bad Christian or not really a Christian at all – and yes, that will hurt, but people can’t actually tell me that I am wrong for being who I am (and I can barely even begin to imagine how much that would hurt). A lot of the time, I’d like it to all go away, and I could probably shut it out if I wanted – but that would be a cop out, and I don’t want to do that, because that’s not fair to people who don’t get to walk away from it. Understanding this, and having the empathy and imagination to consider this is something I think is really important when we come to question number two.
(2) Given my general positioning on / internal debate around question number one, how do I interact with the people around me? What does it mean for how I build and maintain relationships?
We’ve already seen above that it affects how I interact with people I’m talking to about it – I’m talking around the questions and getting into frustrated knots, and trying not to express my conflicted mess of thoughts badly or in a way that’s hurtful, in a way that’s probably quite painful to read.
But the basic question is about how I talk to and behave towards people who think differently to me or make different choices to me about question number one – what language do I use, how do I have a conversation or a debate, how do I disagree (where I do disagree) without making anyone I’m talking to feel less smart, less Christian, less morally sound, less human than me, or making them think that I think of them as different or less. And I think that there’s a rough set of principles for this. For me it’s about understanding that while Jesus was clear that there is right and wrong, he also spent time with and loved and didn’t judge the people who the religious establishment thought of as sinners, and when he challenged them he did so while being in a good relationship with them. And that he also challenged those who ostracised them.
I said above that no one gets to tell me what to think or believe – but they can counsel me and challenge me. That works both ways. I also don’t get to tell people that what I think applies to them – but I can question and challenge them if I choose.
And Christians, I think, have a responsibility to counsel and challenge each other where they think that they are walking the wrong way. But. Butbutbut. This is something that has to be done in a way that is loving and respectful, and leaves them room to say, ‘I respectfully disagree’. It has to be done really carefully if you’re in a position of leadership (I currently lead a home group) and someone is coming to you for advice – that’s true of everything (leadership is a huge responsibility), but the more so with same-sex relationships and marriage because these are so deeply personal, and my advice would have a huge potential to be damaging if I give it badly.
Questioning people and disagreeing well with people, in a way that lets you talk to each other rather than past each other, and to maintain that relationship past more than one conversation is really freaking hard – and is you can only ever be responsible for your half of it as well. Bye bye control.
I admit that I find having discussions about same-sex relationships and gay marriage easier with non-Christians than Christians a lot of the time, because there I know I’m starting from a point of likely disagreement, so often we outline where we’re coming from (like, ‘I believe in God…’ and ‘I don’t…’) which can help. With other Christians I often feel you start off with an assumption of common ground, and then, nope, it’s fallen away, and everyone’s scrabbling around and trying to save the people around them they think are falling off the cliff into heresy – and then it just gets painful. Yet, I think that on any question of sexuality and sexual activity, and what a marriage is, this kind of moral challenging – the kind that calls on people to think about how they should live and what they might sacrifice – should probably only be happening between Christians, not between and non-Christians. And I know that that is a little bit hilarious, given that I just said I think that it’s much harder to do that well – but at least here you’re starting on a fundamental assumption that God exists, that there is a good way of life and a discipleship journey, and that it’s worth searching for and striving for the right way of doing things – even if you’re questioning and disagreeing what that is. How can you rationally expect someone who doesn’t believe in God to think they should live in a way that you think he thinks you should?
I think that, wherever I end up positioning myself on question number one, I should be able to talk about my life and my choices – especially with my friends – but I also need to be careful to be clear that it is my life – and I’m not trying to choose for other people. Of course it’s tricky. Relationships are. They’re also worth doing well. But I want to be able to talk about this with my friends who have very clear positions or different thoughts to me about this, and for them to trust that I’m doing my best with it – that I don’t mean to hurt them if I fall over my words or am struggling with my thoughts and ideas in a way that causes them pain – and I want them to be able to feel like they can have that conversation with me being honest and when I’m struggling, and what with. In a lot of ways, this is a conversation that it’s easier to have in person, because then, even if I’m stumbling around, at least the person I’m talking to can see that I’m trying not to screw this relationship up. For me, putting the relationship first, and the command to love the people I meet and interact with is absolutely the most important thing about my faith – after my initial connection with God. And that’s true no matter who I’m talking with.
So that is my personal life, and my personal relationships – but what about the political question that is on the table at the moment?
(3) How do I vote?
And here is where you you have to think about how your faith interacts with your society and your political system. Which, I think, is not as simple as working out what you think is right and what you think is wrong about a particular question and voting for or against measures relating to that question. You have to think about whether you think your faith should have a privileged voice In the discussion or not, and if it should, why. You have to think about what your society looks like, what you want it to look like, and how you want it to get there: about what the common good might be, and what the best way to pursue that is – and if your answers to any given question (such as what kind of personal relationships are ok and the role of marriage in a society), worked out in good faith, actually provide that. And, I think, in the case of same-sex marriage, you have to think about whether following the rules of a religion without believing in its god or tenets makes any one a better, or happier, person or any society a better place.
I don’t think it does. I think it makes it more uniform – but I don’t think that uniformity makes it better.
I can absolutely see why some Christians campaign politically on the basis of the convictions of their faith. I do believe that they genuinely think that their country would be a better place if everyone shared their faith and lived in accordance with it. And I think it’s great that they get to and that there are lobbying groups and campaigns to support them. I also don’t think that they’re necessarily wrong in the idea that we’d be better off and happier if we could all live a Christian life: I’d hardly be a Christian if I didn’t think it the best way to live. But (again), I also I think that if we could all get together and agree on any one thing then it might be a better place, even if the thing we agreed on wasn’t necessarily in *my* ideal world, and I think that we’re unlikely to get to any agreement, especially my own personal (or my religion’s) ideal, through politics and law.
I simply don’t think that either unity of mankind, or the Kingdom of Heaven are going to happen through politics and law. In fact, I think law is only really, deeply effective when people believe it is upholding the right values for their society and that if enough people ignore it or actively go against a law, then it becomes ineffective and kinda pointless (but that is probably another topic for another time). You might argue that if the majority of the people think that legalising same-sex marriage would not uphold their values and the right values for their society, shouldn’t that be reflected in the law? A bit of me thinks that yes, given that we live in a representative democracy in the UK, it probably should, but I don’t know that the majority do think that same-sex marriage is undesirable (certainly the majority of my immediate circle don’t, but it is possible that my circle is weighted) – I get the impression that the House of Commons thinks that the majority are in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, because a majority of the MPs who want to get re-elected are voting for it.
I also don’t think that making law based upon Christian tenets (even if they were undisputed) because they are Christian makes people more Christian or brings them closer to God – that starts in the individual and grows, and then the individual explores their discipleship (and sometimes theology and doctrine in a really deliberate way) and works out how they want to live. I have a sneaking suspicion that Constantine (ok, not so sneaking) may have been the worst thing to ever happen to Christianity, because he brought into being a tradition and assumption in much of Europe that Christianity goes well with political power, and that showing up and going through the rituals is belief. It doesn’t and it isn’t. I believe that God gave up power when Jesus came to earth, and that that is how he chooses to meet people and let them get to know him. Christ came and built relationships with people, and the people who followed him and choose to live like him did that because they knew him and loved him – not because he gave them a set of rules.
Sure, there are guidelines help those of us who’ve made that choice to keep on with it, but I’m not sure that we should expect those who’ve not to go along with them, and I’m not sure that it’s in the common good of society to make them – unless, of course, the thing that they want to do instead actively hurts other people.
My general position is that in a society that is multi-cultural, and ethnically and religiously diverse, finding the common good is about finding a social, political and legal system that does the most to secure the wellbeing of the majority of the people – and that this includes finding a way for people to express their beliefs (verbally and behaviourally), but not to impose them on the majority through law (and, frankly, to allow the minority to dissent on matters of conscience and belief).
I think we’ve found ourselves in a place where there are two concepts of marriage, and this is a large part of the current problem. I think that over the years, especially the last few decades, we have evolved a civil concept of marriage that is the legal contract of a committed relationship, alongside a religious concept of marriage – or rather, religious concepts of marriage, since I assume that the concept is different for each religion – but in the UK it’s alongside a traditional Christian view of marriage, between a man and a woman, for the purposes of mutual companionship and family life – including the procreation of children. And yet, despite this marriage is still seen as the norm for committed relationships in the UK – as a symbol of that commitment (although, yes, this norm is more frequently challenged) and of a legitimate relationship – and so marriage as a concept remains united in being understood as major building block in how our society does relationships.
It’s interesting to me that this weeks the Bishops of the Church of England had a voice in the political debate, because, as a friend of mine pointed out, it is only in the Church of England – the established church – that the difference between civil and religious is completely elided, because it’s the only church where the proclamation of the officiating vicar, “I now pronounce you man and wife” has the force of law. Everywhere else, you have to have a registrar – which creates a pause (a physical one in some ceremonies). And honestly, I don’t understand why there can’t be a standard civil and legal ceremony, which is marriage, alongside the marriage ceremony of your religion (or your non-religious choices). We don’t demand that all heterosexual couples get married ‘in the sight of God’ and we still legally define it as a marriage and Christians are comfortable terming this a marriage.
Civil Partnerships aren’t marriage. Nor, I think are they a ‘good enough’ substitute – no matter about the legal protections that they provide, because I think words and language actually matters, and that being able to be married matters. I understand that people who don’t want to legalise same sex marriage also think that words matter, and that to change the definition of marriage changes – and in their view damages to the point of nullification – the concept of marriage as a God-ordained and blessed union. And I understand that in trying to debate this question with someone who holds the other concept is not going to reach a compromise, because marriage is so fundamental a thing that trying bring each other to another point of view you almost bring each other to a personal breaking point. Personally, and emotionally, I feel that by saying to people, ‘you can’t be married’ says to them, ‘there’s something not normal about you,’ – and that is just cruel and I can’t do it. I don’t think it moves us towards a common good, towards a better society, and I just can’t vote for it.
And so, while I understand the Christian concept of marriage as being between one man and one woman, even while struggling with my theological adherence to it, and while if I ever get married it will be to a guy, in a church, and I believe it will be before God – I also don’t think that it should necessarily be the norm, nor that it should be the definition of a legal, civil marriage.
I think that a society that is moving towards a common good lets Christians and churches (and other religions too) – explore and express their faith, individually and corporately – and yes I think religions get to decide about who they choose to marry. But I also thinks it says to religions you get a voice, you get to argue and debate, and live in the way that you belief is Godly, including through your ceremonies and rituals, but we’re going to try and work out a way for those who don’t share your beliefs to live their lives in a happy and whole way – unless you can convince a majority of the people that we shouldn’t. And I think that you should think about why you’re wanting to convince a majority of the people that we shouldn’t – because I think that Christians making political choices within a society also need to think about the common good, and whether campaigning for to keep legislation that makes people feel that they and their relationships are being defined as ‘different’, ‘less’ and ‘wrong’ is loving, and just, and the best way in engaging in a conversation about morals and values.
Personally, I don’t think it is. I don’t think it’s the best way of questioning, challenging and disagreeing with people, and I don’t think it’s the best way of building good relationships with people – and if we can’t build good relationships with each other, or at least make the effort to how’s a society supposed to function well anyway?