same sex marriageI’ve had a request from a medical student for information about clergy views on same-sex marriages. I’m posting it here, together with my responses, in case anybody is interested.

The request was for information about:

• ​The views of those who would wish to conduct same sex marriages on church property but are currently not permitted to do so.
• The beliefs of your colleagues who do not wish to perform same sex marriage
• The beliefs of the establishment who does not want to condone same sex marriage
• Whether you think Anglican ministers should be allowed to conduct same-sex marriage on grounds of 'freedom of conscience.'

This is the reply I sent. Let me know if you think I’ve got it wrong.

Clergy who wish to conduct same-sex weddings are currently discussing how to respond to the present situation. Some will conduct them, and some will enter same-sex weddings. The onus will then be on the relevant bishop to respond. Opponents will kick up a fuss if the bishops do nothing; on the other hand, if they impose a strict discipline – eg remove the relevant clergy from post – the whole thing will flare up into a major public controversy.

They know this. I anticipate that the bishops concerned will keep in close touch with each other to discuss tactics and will aim to do whatever keeps things as calm as possible. I believe that eventually gay marriages will be normalised within the churches as well as outside them. Opponents in other parts of the world will denounce us and then move on to other concerns. Opponents in England will set up competing churches. There will probably be some financial loss to the Church of England, as many of the most outspoken opponents are well-heeled evangelical churches.

As for the reasons why clergy do or do not think it right to perform gay weddings, the arguments are widely aired. Protestantism began by challenging the Pope’s authority to interpret the Bible, and in general it has developed in two directions. One is to insist on accepting the bible as it is, literally, without interpreting it.

In practice it is impossible to get a coherent ethical system out of the Bible without a great deal of interpretation, so what has happened over time is that conservative evangelicals have developed their own interpretations. Characteristically these interpretations take trouble to ensure that no two biblical texts contradict each other. The other Protestant development is the tradition of critical biblical scholarship, the main approach in university theology departments.

Conservative evangelicals have traditionally focused on the biblical texts which condemn homosexual activity. Critical biblical scholars generally argue that (a) there are very few such texts, (b) what they are actually saying is disputed in some cases and irrelevant in others, and (c) that the idea of taking such texts as universally binding would imply that all the other commands in the bible are also universally binding – and nobody seriously attempts to live by them all.

For Roman Catholics, ethical discourse depends more on natural law than biblical texts. This means that ethical norms are derived from observations about nature. However Catholic natural law has been heavily influenced by Platonism with its concept of ‘forms’, with the result that it tends to emphasise uniformity of behaviour. For example, a traditional view is that the genitals have been designed for procreation so masturbation is immoral.

Similarly, homosexuality is problematic because if everyone was a homosexual there would be no children. However modern biological understanding, especially evolutionary theory, rejects ethical uniformity. Species survive because the individuals in them behave in diverse ways, so changes in the environment which wipe out many leave others to survive. How this relates to same-sex partnerships I’m not sure, but researchers in the zoological sciences study how, not whether, there is a role for gay and lesbian minorities.

A more specifically theological issue is whether God expects us in our present lives to be happy and fulfilled. If so, the fact that we have the sexual libidos we have indicates that God expects us to use them in the diversity we have. This is the reason why some opponents of same-sex activity argue that same-sex orientation is caused by something going wrong – single-parent upbringing, single-sex boarding school, or sexual abuse in early childhood.

Alternatively, some Christians believe the sexual libido is flawed anyway. This view has been influential because Augustine argued for it in his theory of original sin. However it is losing popularity. It is difficult to reconcile it with monotheism as it appeals to the idea that God’s original plan went wrong.

I hope this covers your first three questions. As for the fourth, I do believe Anglican ministers should be allowed to conduct same-sex weddings. Whether I would argue for it as ‘freedom of conscience’ is another matter.

One of the unfortunate effects of the conservative evangelical tradition is to set up an expectation that all Christians ought to agree with each other on all matters of doctrine and ethics. From this perspective disagreement looks like a problem. In historical reality we have always disagreed with each other over lots of things.

So I respond in two ways. (a) Because of the disagreements, there needs to be freedom of conscience. Thus Christians are allowed to drink alcohol even though some Christians think it is immoral. (b) However the disagreements are not just static oppositions. They are constantly being debated and reviewed.

So I think gay weddings should be allowed not just as a concession to freedom of conscience (though there is a place for that) but also because I think the debate is leading to a wider consensus. I think we are moving towards a consensus that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted as normal for those who find them fulfilling; but even if it were not so, I would want to argue that public debate in search of consensus is the proper way forward.