by David Simon
from Signs of the Times No. 46 - Jul 2012


The survival of species depends upon their successful reproduction. In humans (and most species) reproduction is brought about through the uniting of male and female elements of the species. Since it is  individual members of the species whose volition leads to evolution, incentives are embedded in the psyche of the individuals. 

For humans these incentives are an instinct to undertake the action that leads to reproduction and an experience of pleasure in that act - the two may be understood as the same incentive or as two separate incentives, and that understanding may have consequences for the temper of the analysis.

Survival also requires the nurture of vulnerable young, and therefore further incentives (such as the maternal instinct) provide some level of protection of the vulnerable young and of the fist line protectors of the juveniles.

In any species, nation, tribe or family, there will be  a variety of types and expressions of instinct. Evolutionary theory suggests that this is a necessary part of the process of ensuring the continuation of the species through experimentation as to the more efficient development of its members and its position in the natural world in relation to other species over time. It is, however, those which best lead to reproduction that will survive, the others tending to die out through the process of natural selection.


The import of the survival of the species, or at a more local level of the nation, tribe or family, leads to the development of cultural norms to regulate and safeguard reproduction. In societies that are close to the margin of extinction (through demographic, environmental or economic factors) it is vital that this regulation leads to a strengthening rather than a weakening of the society. Thus, social norms develop to encourage effective breeding and to discourage ineffective breeding (e.g. to avoid wasted effort in undertaking reproductive acts where reproduction is unlikely or where the reproduction is likely to be of weak or damaged members). This explains social censure of incestuous and same gender sexual acts and the encouragement of heterosexual acts between healthy partners with expectedly high fertility rates.

Social culture also leads to the reinforcing of the conditions necessary for the protection of healthy young and of the protectors of the healthy young. Thus cultural codes of behaviour develop  (such as monogamy or polygamy but rarely polyandry) with modes of censure  for those who offend the codes. These codes of rights and responsibilities of members in respect of their reproductive status are culturally developed, culturally enforced, and assist the salience of the species, nation, tribe or family, by being culturally transmitted through education and the application of sanctions (a legal and judicial system).

As societies become more secure, demographically, environmentally and/or economically, the need for the social norms that have developed in order to provide efficient reproduction become less necessary and other considerations may grow in importance. Thus, it could be argued that, Northern Hemisphere Western societies have recognised a greater threat to salience from dissatisfaction from individuals within the society than from other species or nations: a greater emphasis on the importance of the feelings, rights and wishes of the individual has grown. The effect of this shift of emphasis is that individual members of the society have requested, and generally been granted, rights and responsibilities as individuals independently of their (reproductive) status/role within the society. In case of the specific issue being considered in this paper, those individuals whose instinct/pleasure/attraction relates to individuals of the same gender as themselves, and who would not therefore be reproductively efficient, have been granted very similar rights and responsibilities as those whose dispositions would have been reproductively efficient and effective.


Societies develop linguistic conventions that describe the social norms, and these conventional terms take on the emotive and evaluative meaning of the rationales for which they were developed.

The terms 'betrothal' and 'marriage' carry the values and import of the reproductive imperative of the societies that use the terms - though the actual operation of the institutions which operate under the term adopted may vary considerably across societies and across time.

The legal and judicial system uses the language and its inherent value judgements as a way of determining and expressing matters to do with the cultural institutions. In England for many centuries the courts have used the term 'marriage' to describe an institution in which one male and one female human being form an exclusive partnership which has particular cultural expectations about the disposition of property and might lead to the reproduction of children.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the gradual acceptance of the rights of those people whose reproductive instinct is directed at those of the same gender as themselves has led to a legal recognition that their rights and responsibilities should be made comparable (or even equal) to those whose instinct is heterosexual. The way that has been found to express this has been to adopt the term 'civil partnership' for a legally recognised social arrangement, which (like marriage) has constraints about the parties who may avail themselves of that status (must be of same gender, may not be related in particular ways, must be reciprocal, may not be multiple &c).

Since terminology implicitly carries value judgements, the language used does indicate the societal value placed upon the institution being described. If society wishes to convey the same value judgement on one institution as it does on another it might, therefore, choose to adopt the same terminology (as for example it does in the variety of corporate entities termed 'companies'). On this basis it would be available to a society to change the terminology so that a relationship that has hitherto been described by the term 'civil partnership' might be termed 'marriage' in order to indicate its equivalence in value.


Throughout human history religion has been a powerful vehicle for the expression of societal values. Religion's understanding and teaching that these values derive from, and carry the authority, of a super-human, extra-societal being have provided a stabilising influence where societal norms have been shifting.

For most world religions, observation of the natural order has provided a powerful understanding of the will of the super-human extra-societal being whose authority is accepted by the members of those religious orders. Since most religions maintain the unchangeability of the divine, then the divine will, once discerned, may be expected to remain constant. However, all religions also recognise that while there are elements of the divine will that are universal and set for all time, there are others that will be contingent upon the particular situation being faced by the believers and their contemporaries. One of the most taxing questions facing believers is to determine  which elements fall in which category.

For most of the Christian era the Natural Law approach to ethical analysis has been extremely powerful. Regardless of the terminology, the culturally normative patterns of rights and responsibilities that have emerged around potentially reproductive partnerships to ensure the survival of the species have been understood to be the will of God.

There are, however, within Christianity, alternative available frameworks for ethical analysis. The challenge facing Christians in the 21st Century United Kingdom is to determine what is God's will in relation to same sex partnerships.

Although for Christians the debate might concisely be subsumed under the heading of 'same-sex marriage', the substance of the question and analysis is whether the emotive and evaluative overtones of the term 'marriage' should be carried over into the description of homosexual partnerships. The issue under discussion is not therefore whether the term 'marriage' can be applied to same sex relationships - since language is socially constructed it is a logical possibility - but whether the church should accede to the societal change or attempt to oppose it.

The decision for the church will depend upon whether the church discerns within this cultural shift an indication that, in an affluent and robustly stable society, the gender of those entering into sexually expressed partnerships is a contingent matter in understanding God's will - and therefore capable of changing over time - or an unchangeable prohibition.

David Simon is Diocesan Officer for Non-Stipendiary Ministry in the Diocese of Carlisle.