In the UK today we are increasingly struggling to understand how to accommodate different views on religious beliefs, and sexual practices. There are two quite distinct fault lines that this difficulty shows itself most clearly. The first is over what beliefs should be allowed in a modern society, and whether we should persecute, or in any way devalue someone who disagrees with us. The second is over how much we can allow people’s private beliefs to affect the wider society, and whether one group’s beliefs can be allowed to trump another’s.
This divide was seen this past couple of weeks in the launch of the “Coalition for Marriage.” This campaign generated a number of high profile declarations of support from prominent Christian figures, and over 600,000 people have so far signed the CFM petition, which calls for marriage not to be redefined. A recent survey suggests that 70% of the general population of the UK would like the current situation not to be changed.
There has also been a strong backlash against this campaign, with many criticizing it as homophobic and discriminatory. Passions run strong on both sides of this argument. Christians themselves are far from united about what they believe about this subject, and on what is appropriate to request of the rest of society.
At one extreme there are some who would strongly criticize anyone who would hold to a personal view, say on sexual morality. For example even to simply hold and live by the personal belief that sexual activity should be restrained to only occur within a marriage relationship between one man and one woman for life would be viewed by some to be repressive. Even if that plan for managing sex is simply one that someone chooses to live by, and they do not promote it to other people, still less suggest it be imposed on others, some would still argue that is a terribly Victorian view that has no place in the 21st Century. Some who hold this traditional view of sex today already live in fear that even if they were to say to someone, “Well, personally, I am trying to live by what I believe the Bible teaches about relationships,” this could be enough to get them fired from their jobs, or worse.
On the other extreme, some Christians quite frankly do exhibit homophobic behavior and are discriminatory towards homosexuals. We are fortunate that there are not many in the UK that would hold protest marches complete with hate banners against homosexuals but some are not that far removed from that perspective. Some Christians would even advocate that homosexual acts should once again become illegal between consenting adults. What is more, few Christians publicly criticize those countries where such acts can still lead to a time in jail or even execution.
So we have a problem where quite frankly extremists on both ends of the spectrum seem to hate and reject each other, and would in some cases ideally like to use the strong arm of the law to punish one another. Is there any peaceful way through for our society, and how should we think about the possibility of marriage being redefined to allow same sex couples to wed? For the majority of people, surely, whatever their religious or sexual views they want to live at peace.
There is no question that among people who give themselves the label “Christian” there is a very wide spectrum of beliefs about homosexuality. Some would go as far as to reject the traditional perspective on sex as being outdated, and would advocate sexual freedom for all. To claim that sex is an animal impulse that needs to be satisfied, and that we should not put any restraints on that is surely incompatible with any view of the Bible as in any sense an authoritative book. Arguments for total sexual liberty focus on the idea that now we have contraception, and times have changed, we should cast away the constraints that previous generations lived under.
Interestingly, however, out there in the world there is definitely something of a backlash against the total sexual freedom advocated by the 1960s and beyond. Our sexual desires are not so easy to divorce from our need for a loving committed relationship. Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike often find that, over time, what seems like freedom is in fact bondage. Some speak about sexual addiction. Many say that to engage in serial promiscuity is ultimately lonely and not satisfying. Thus, as hard as it is for many Christians to understand this, many unbelievers decide they want to settle down into a committed monogamous relationship.
Thus, some Christians approach the sexual issue in a different way than the libertines. They argue that sex belongs in a committed relationship, but in contrast to the majority of Christians through the ages, they would like to extend such a relationship to include homosexuals.
There are many homosexuals who far from wanting to rebel against the social norm of such a committed relationship, want one for themselves. Despite the caricature that many within traditional circles have, the homosexual identity is not always about rebelling against society. Homosexuals understandably want to be accepted by society. They want to feel valued. For many of them, that being valued would include being included in the oldest institution known to man, marriage.
This compromise was not entirely happy for either side. Some homosexuals feel passionately that this “almost marriage” is discriminatory against them. Some cohabiting heterosexuals were angered because they too wanted the opportunity to forge a civil partnership (rather than marriage) to give them the rights that they are denied by not entering marriage. Some Christian registrars lost their careers because in some cases their personal opposition to these unions meant they could not conduct them in good conscience. This angered many homosexuals who feel that to refuse to participate in the celebration of such a union is to devalue them and to discriminate against them. The law courts have tended to side with the homosexual’s viewpoint on this matter, with prominent cases underlying a principle that if a public service is provided it must be offered to all without discrimination. Thus, photographers must agree to photograph civil partnerships if they photograph weddings, and bed and breakfast owners are not allowed to refuse same-sex couples a bed for the night.
There are another group of Christians who would argue for same-sex equality, support civil partnerships, but believe that marriage itself is something that must remain between a man and a woman. For many this is a deeply and profoundly held belief. There is anxiety about church leaders being forced to marry same sex couples even if their conscience is against it. Thus, despite the Church of England’s clear statement that they do not believe the law as it currently stands will force them to conduct civil partnerships (see this statement) they have expressed a view that if marriage itself was redefined they would ultimately be forced, presumably like all churches, to offer marriages to heterosexual and homosexual couples alike.
This is of course an example of the second fault line I mentioned at the beginning of the article. It is probably this point that has prompted much of the response to these proposals from many Christian leaders. For there seems little doubt that any imposition of a requirement to ignore a religious conviction about marriage and force ministers to marry same-sex couples in religious buildings is incompatible with freedom of religion.
Christians can and do disagree amongst themselves about whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, and about whether, if they are allowed by the state to marry, a minister should lay aside his own convictions and marry them. But where many Christians are concerned, whatever their personal view of marriage, is the idea that a one-sized-fits-all approach might be imposed upon them. Of course this imposition would presumably not just affect Christians but Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths who also hold to more traditional viewpoints.
So the question remains, how can we as a society ensure that homosexuals feel they have equal rights and respect as individuals within society, without forcing those who hold different beliefs to them to compromise their own convictions? It is not an easy question to answer. Lawyers are not at all clear how any legal exemptions could be suitably drafted that they would not then be challenged in court. It seems that this dilemma is not going to be easy to solve.
In the meantime, Christians are left, along with others who’s religious faith teaches a certain view of marriage, to ponder whether or not to sign the coalition for marriage statement. Such a decision is not easy for many, not least because many Christians would support homosexual marriage provided they themselves remain free to follow their religious convictions.
In the past couple of weeks almost 120,000 people have decided to sign the declaration despite the fact that many others in society simply cannot understand their reasons for doing so. Perhaps more than any other issue, this one demonstrates the way that traditional Christianity is slowly being edged from the very heart of our nation to its very outskirts.