I was caught out. On Thursday I was giving a talk on homosexuality to a church deanery readers’ group. I expected differences of opinion, but the big sticking-point was not what I expected.

Nobody argued that intimate same-sex partnerships were immoral. That seemed fine. What was unacceptable, to those who disapproved, was the decision to change the definition of marriage. Gay and lesbian people can do what they like, as long as they do not call it marriage.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. This, after all, was one interpretation of the Church of England’s formal Response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage. This Response, published in June 2012, is emphatic that

the intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the  advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman.

Why does this matter? Civil partnerships are fine – they have solved all the inequality issues – but

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a   dilution  in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental   complementarity of men and women  from the social and legal definition of marriage.

Instead, I thought this argument was so weak that it would rapidly be forgotten. How silly of me. So let us examine what it means.

Meaning 1: gay partnerships are immoral because of the definition of marriage

First we define the word ‘marriage’, and then we can deduce which actions are moral and which are immoral. We have a tradition that sex outside marriage is immoral. To widen the definition of marriage is to permit sexual activity in more situations.

I suspect that many church leaders were motivated by this thought when opposing gay marriage. It is as though gay and lesbian partnerships are to become morally acceptable not because of ethical reflection on what they do but because a word has been redefined. This, they must feel, is not the way to change moral norms.

It is not indeed. But let us be clear why. On this point there is a big difference between law and morality. Governments pass laws. The judiciary apply them to individual cases. In order to do so, all they have to go on is the words. Judges do not go back 20 years to when a law was passed and ask the members of parliament what they meant; the meanings of the words are the top authority.

In moral judgements this is not the case. Since this was a Church of England meeting, I think we would have found a consensus that the top moral authority is the way God thinks we ought to behave. Not a set of words. Many people believe moral norms are not derived from God, so they need some other account of moral authority; but I have never come across anyone who thinks moral truths can be deduced simply from the meanings of words.

So for present purposes let’s stick with God. God has created us in such a way that we are free to perform morally good or evil acts. Meanwhile the definitions of words vary from one language to another. Translators know that many words are not precisely translatable. You can translate ‘rabbit’ into French accurately. ‘Chocolate’ is different; addicts know that what we call chocolate is not what they get in France. Abstract relational words have much fuzzier edges. ‘Marriage’, like ‘honour’ and ‘friendship’, can have subtly different parameters.

So let’s suppose that the French and English languages have always limited ‘marriage’ to opposite-sex relationships. Then, let us say, the English change their minds, and redefine the English word to include gay marriages, but the French do not make the equivalent change. If the moral status of the marital condition depends on the definitions of words, this means that gay marriages are now morally permissible for English speakers but not for French speakers.

Because the top moral authority is God, this means that God approves of English same-sex marriages but not French ones. Why? God is obliged to take this bizarre line, because the English have changed the meaning of the word.

It’s absurd. If you really think this is how to establish moral truths, I just hope you are not fluent in both languages.

Meaning 2: gay partnerships are fine but redefining marriage does harm

From what I remember hearing, Thursday’s opponents of gay marriage were not concerned about the physical activities of gay and lesbian people. What they do is their own affair. Civil partnerships are fine. The problem lay simply in the fact that the word ‘marriage’ is being redefined. It has always been about one man and one woman, and so it should remain.

If so, this is a major liberalisation. Has the opposition to same-sex partnerships been reduced to debate about the definition of one word?

I suspect that more lies behind it. No doubt the readers were aware that the redefinition of the word ‘marriage’ (inasmuch as it is a redefinition, which is debatable) is being driven by those who positively believe gay partnerships ought to be treated the same as straight ones. So the proposal to redefine the word is being driven by a moral claim. How are the opponents of the moral claim to resist it? By resisting the redefinition. If this is what is happening, we are back to Meaning 1.

Fudge is sweet

Nevertheless these are two very different arguments, one about what gay and lesbian people may do and the other about how to define a word. They have been confused with each other. If we recall the situation in June 2012, confusion was exactly what was needed.

For a long time – since well before the 1997 Global South Conference at Kuala Lumpur which expressed it explicitly – opposition to same-sex partnerships was the dominant campaign that unified evangelical opinion. From 2002 onwards the campaign against it was front-page news time and time again: the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, the proposal to appoint Jeffrey John to a bishoprick, the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire,  the order of service for same-sex blessings in New Westminster, the succession of threatening Primates’ Statements, the Windsor Report, the threats of schism in America, the actual schisms, the proposals for an Anglican Covenant.

By 2012, the mood had changed. The general public were fed up of the schismatics. Ordinary churchgoers, faced with the prospect of splits and legal battles, saw more clearly the advantage of accepting differences of opinion within the same church. Evangelical churches were finding that their opposition to same-sex partnerships was making them unpopular with young people.

The leadership had recently been defeated over the Anglican Covenant: on 24th March the diocesan votes had reached a majority against. They then faced a bruising battle over women bishops. Suddenly faced with yet another controversy, the government proposal to introduce gay marriage, they produced what in retrospect has to be admired as a brilliant confusion of issues. I doubt whether anyone thought of it like this at the time.

The Response could be, and has been, interpreted in two radically different ways. According to Meaning 1, the official line is still that same-sex partnerships are contrary to church teaching. The Church’s teaching has not changed. According to Meaning 2, What gay and lesbian people do in bed with each other is no longer important. The big objection now is about how we define the word ‘marriage’. Clergy and lay readers could begin the process of forgetting what they were previously expected to believe in.

And so, step by step, the Church of England’s leadership disinvests itself of a foolish campaign against same-sex partnerships. It does so slowly, constantly claiming the moral high ground, never admitting it was wrong in the past, always retaining enough of last year’s rhetoric to save face and give the impression of continuity. Progress!