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Like many people, I’ve had more than a passing interest in the public dialogue on same-sex marriage as it has increased in the last few months. Most of us will have at least a few family members, friends or colleagues who feel differently, and the attempt to keep the conversation moderate and respectful is a noble one. But I’m yet to hear an argument from those opposed to same-sex marriage that doesn’t begin in ignorance or paranoia, and some of their rhetoric of late has been unbelievably insulting, so I think I’d rather call it for the nonsense it is.

Marriage now looks nothing like marriage as it was first instituted. Original rules as follows: wealthy tribal leader paid so many camels for pretty daughter of other wealthy guy of approved tribe. In fact, wealthy guy had loads of wives. Wives he could treat like hell, because they were considered property, like the family slaves and the tent by the fire. Over the centuries we’ve drastically changed the definition of marriage as we’ve woken up to how extraordinarily bad that was for everyone involved. You want traditional marriage in Australia? Then bring back the following ‘traditions’: whites cannot marry blacks, wives have no right to financial independence, but their husbands can legally beat/rape them, children born outside of wedlock have no right to inherit, divorce is not allowed. Sounds like a dream, right? Not so much. It’s a pretty sorry state of things if we don’t want something a whole lot better than that for each other.

An obvious caveat before I go any further – I’m not married, but I have taken more than a few weddings, so I’m going to start there. It’s an extraordinary privilege to share such a significant occasion with two people who are so in love. Weddings are every kind of wonderfulness – a celebration of having found what is for many people the greatest search of their lifetime – the match to their own self. Human beings are designed for this – we are supposed to love. It’s innate – from the day we are born we come to know ourselves only by who we are in relation to other people – in fact, we have no other way of knowing. We inherit some of the people we love and choose others… And among all of the people we elect to surround ourselves with, for many of us there will be one, above all the others, who captures our whole heart. It is lovely and terrifying and risky and entirely beyond reason, but it has ever been thus. Having found it, we want it to last forever, hence why weddings involve vows – promises made with a lifetime in mind. Vows are the intrinsic protection of that depth of love. It is not a piece of paper that makes a marriage – it is those words. They carry so much weight that they create a centre of gravity which pulls that couple together. I promise you, the biology of the two people involved doesn’t matter. And that’s all we are trifling over here.

If you think that finding the sort of love that lasts forever has anything to do with X/Y chromosomes, I feel really, really, sorry for you. You cannot possibly have found your soul mate, because if you had, you would understand that other things matter far more… You will notice whether their smile reaches their eyes when they laugh, you will never run out of things to talk about, you will share the same plans for old age. They will be your first thought in the morning and the last before you fall asleep; their happiness will mean far more to you than your own. You do not know yet that the simple act of holding hands can turn more than one world upside down. These are not gender-exclusive experiences.

So back to that piece of paper… Who is it for? I think it’s mostly for the rest of us. It’s the mechanism we have as a society for honouring the deep and enduring nature of that commitment. We are compelled to cherish and safeguard it within something – hence we have developed the legal institution of marriage. It is the extrinsic protection that we as a community add to the intrinsic protection of the vows made by a couple on their wedding day. It’s our way of saying, ‘We are with you, we value what you are together, we will support you through whatever is ahead of you’. Allowing same-sex couples to marry isn’t a revolution that will tear apart the very fabric of society, it’s an affirmation that their love is not inferior, that it is equal in quality. It’s as simple and significant as that. So just to be very clear – opposing same-sex marriage doesn’t alter the nature of that relationship – it is unchanged by prejudice. It loses none of its loveliness through the stubborn refusal of acceptance from anyone else, it just makes them ignorant. It’s about as useful as looking at a northern constellation and suggesting that it is not made of stars, just because it is not the same as the ones in the south.

Love is an art. Very unfortunately, we aren’t born knowing how to do it perfectly. We have to practice and make mistakes and learn from others. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have among my friends some truly wonderful couples, some of whom are same-sex partners who have committed their lives to one another. They have taught me things about love, perseverance, graciousness and generosity that I could not have hoped to understand without them. I am a slow learner, but I am made better just by knowing them.

Some final words on a few of the more ridiculous arguments that have surfaced lately. A postscript of sorts, because that is all they deserve.

‘Someone think of the children.’ There are very few things making me so angry in this whole debate as the suggestion that the children of same-sex marriages are somehow at a disadvantage. It’s incredibly offensive. Children need love, security, boundaries, affection, education, space to make mistakes, someone to pick them back up when they do. They do not need a mother and father at home, mostly because that idea assumes a bunch of gender stereotypes that I hope we’ve long since given up on. When I was growing up, the workbench in our shed was my mum’s, not my dad’s. Mum is also pretty good in the kitchen. Dad helped with homework, taught me to iron, gave me my first driving lesson. The lines in our family tree don’t all meet where the first did, but we get on ok. I didn’t go without strong male role models when I lived with my mum, or female ones when I lived with my dad. Plenty of single parents have done a wonderful job of raising fantastic kids. It also bears pointing out that heterosexuality is no guarantee of parenting ability. Again, let’s not get so caught up on X/Y and focus on being worthy adult role models. This is the 21st century. Honestly.

‘We can’t because no other Asian country has.’ This one smells strongly of picking battles of convenience. Not so long ago, when there were Australians on Death Row in Indonesia, we heard strong moral opposition to the death penalty from every level of our elected representation, and they are our closest neighbour. No individual, much less a free society, should base their ethical framework on what is ok with the guys next door. We’d normally call that schoolyard peer pressure, and encourage a bit more maturity and integrity.

(This last one is aimed specifically at the church…) ‘Same-sex marriage is unbiblical.’

If you are a Christian who is opposed to same-sex marriage, at least have the good grace to acknowledge that your view is based at least a bit on fear of change and a bit on your own self-righteousness, and not on any ancient and unchanging commandment. Don’t you dare defend your prejudice on the basis of a ‘biblical’ sexual ethic that ‘unites one man and one woman for life’. It’s crap, and you know it. Read it again. Polygamy and the keeping of concubines was a societal norm. Lot’s answer to the abomination of sodomy was to offer his daughter for pack rape. David declared Jonathan’s love for him as ‘more wonderful than that of a woman’. Jesus said plenty about divorce. Nothing about same-sex marriage. Any right-thinking person of faith in this day and age is sensible to the fact that our understanding of the world around us is drastically different to that of our biblical forebears. Of course they didn’t imagine marriage equality for same-sex couples – they didn’t imagine an equal partnership between a woman and a man either. Context is not just significant, it’s central to identifying the true intention of the Scriptures. Pretending otherwise is beneath the intelligence with which you have been gifted, so for God’s sake, wise up.

Marriage in a Christian context cannot be defined by the biological facts of the people entering into it, but by the character of the relationship – if it is a relationship that is shaped in relation to God and which seeks in vowed commitment to continue in that life, then it is ‘the thing that is marriage’. People in same-sex relationships who seek to belong to the community of faith can most certainly be damaged by the rejection of the church, but the church is as much, if not more damaged, by that act of rejection. Wherever a boundary is drawn by the church, and blessing is offered to those ‘in’, and withheld from those ‘out’, the blessing that rests on the ‘in’ is also diminished. We do violence to the very nature of a sacrament when we use it as a tool of exclusion. So ironically, a Christian heterosexual married couple who enjoy the gifts of married life but choose to withhold recognition and celebration from loving, committed, gracious homosexual relationships and judge them as invalid are threatening the sacramental foundation of their own relationship all by themselves, they don’t need any help from anyone else.

To those Christians, especially those in positions of leadership, who have done your theological and pastoral homework and are actively supporting some-sex marriage – thank you. Those who aren’t yet – get off the damn fence. If the church you belong to does not affirm same-sex couples and intend to recognise their right to marry as soon as it is legally possible, but you do, then say so. Have the courage to engage in difficult conversations. The pathological niceness that avoids the issue for fear of conflict is completely inexcusable in any community that should be defined by the pursuit of truth. The ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ approach to LGBTI people in your midst is almost worst than outright condemnation – secrets have never led us anywhere good.

Read 1 Corinthians 13 again:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

It is not male or female. It is just love.


For those who, like me, are still finalising their Lenten reading:

(With thanks to Andy Goodliff for compiling this list)

1983 The Truce of God by Rowan Williams

1988 Looking Before and After by Helen Oppenheimer

1992 Tested by the Cross – Wesley Carr

1993 Mary’s Story, Mary’s Song by Elaine Storkey

1997 Pilgrims by Stephen Platten

1998 The Shape of Living by David Ford

1999 Living Well by Robert Warren

2000 Following the Way by Gerald O’Collins

2001 Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement by Rowan Williams

2002 Pearl Beyond Price: The Attractive Jesus by David Day

2003 Flame in the Mind by Michael Marshall

2004  I Thirst by Stephen Cottrell

2005 The Wounds of Jesus: A Meditation on the Crucified Saviour by Christina Baxter

2006 Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf

2007 Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection by Sam Wells

2008 Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life by John Arnold

2009 Why go to church? The Drama of the Eucharist by Timothy Radcliffe

2010 Our Sound is Our Wound: Contemplative Listening to a Noisy World by Lucy Winkett

2011 Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility by Stephen Cherry

2012 Love Unknown by Ruth Burrows

2013 Abiding by Ben Quash:

Sermon preparation is an unpredictable business… You never know where you might end up. Today I came across Terry Eagleton’s review in the LRB of ‘The God Delusion’ (about five and a half years late, but better that than never).

When ‘The God Delusion’ was published, there was quite a bit of criticism that seemed to boil down to ‘you think I’m a silly hypocrite, Dawkins, but actually, YOU’RE the silly hypocrite’, but this is not one of them. The fault with certain strands of atheism as I see it, and as Dr Eagleton puts much more eloquently than I could, is this:

‘Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals… Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.’

I can’t help meeting generalized statements like ‘Christians believe/think/do such-and-such’, or ‘religious people are all such-and-such’ with scepticism (and often, frustration), because a statement of that type necessarily brings together such a very diverse group as to render the label almost useless – almost always there are going to be notable and numerous exceptions. I also think it distracts accountability to say that ‘religion’ causes certain troubles in the world; religion is not a concrete, physical being capable of its own actions. Religion might be a motivating force, but it is people who act, people who are responsible agents.

Dr Eagleton also doesn’t avoid that tension that so often plagues debates like this, by resorting to a conclusion like ‘A secular rationalist view is the most correct option but that doesn’t mean that its adherents should ignore the positive contributions made to society be religious people or ideas’. Actually all human enterprise, ‘religious’ or not, should be critiqued by a community that wants to live ethically in response to its changing context. He goes on:

In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden. His polemic would come rather more convincingly from a man who was a little less arrogantly triumphalistic about science (there are a mere one or two gestures in the book to its fallibility), and who could refrain from writing sentences like ‘this objection [to a particular scientific view] can be answered by the suggestion . . . that there are many universes,’ as though a suggestion constituted a scientific rebuttal. On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.’

The validity of a worldview, theistic or atheistic, shouldn’t be judged primarily on how it is expressed, by its followers. While we are making that distinction, by the way, let’s do away with distinguishing between ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’ as though they are opposites. They simply aren’t.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.’

But going on and to take up Dr Eagleton’s example, my explanation of my love for you, indeed, the evidence of my love for you as displayed in my actions, does not define who you are. It is a terrible mistake to point to the behaviour of people of faith (religious people, if you like) and draw conclusions about the nature or will of God on the basis of what you see. It would, for example, be ridiculous to suggest that the Christian church in any way adequately displays the fidelity to or proclamation of the nature of God to which she is called. That’s probably one of the reasons why we are so often compelled to pray ‘Lord, have mercy.’

Dr Eagleton’s observation (that religion and science are not in competition, but do ask different questions of the world) reminds me of Dr Rowan Williams’ statements on the nature of faith (‘good’ faith, as opposed to ‘bad’ religion) in his lecture for the Cambridge Consultations on Faith, Humanity and the Future, ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ – The Gospel in Contemporary Culture’:

‘I want to begin by thinking about that aspect of our human being in the world which is puzzled, frustrated, haunted by the idea that maybe what we see isn’t the whole story, and maybe our individual perception is not the measure of all truth… What if the world is not as tame as I think it is? One of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it stops you ignoring things, when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought – and of course therefore a bit more alarming than you ever thought. One difference that faith makes is what more it lets you see, and how successfully it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what’s real.’

It seems to me that the cause of most of the grief and division between us as human beings, whether we are religious or not, is a failure to acknowledge with a critical degree of humility that ‘our individual perceptions are not the measure of all truth.’ But that probably won’t change until we’d rather talk together and risk changing our minds, than shouting alone to justify ourselves and put down others. But that is another subject for another day…

Quote of the Week

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner


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