The Marital Spectator

The Church of England and Same Sex Marriage

Prime Minister Cameron finds himself at odds with leading figures of the established church.

By 3.12.12

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Two notable retired Church of England bishops have recently spoken forcefully against Britain's possibly legalizing same-sex marriage by 2015.

"This matter is so serious and so important for our nation that we cannot allow this act of cultural and theological vandalism to happen," recently warned former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey in uncharacteristically vivid language. "The government has no mandate from the people to redefine marriage, and that is why we are gathered here today," he told a group called Coalition for Marriage. Carey has also called potentially legalized same sex marriage "one of the greatest political power grabs in history."

Tony Blair's former government legalized British same-sex civil unions in 2004. Prime Minister David Cameron supports a process that would legalize same-sex marriage by 2015 for England and Wales.

"Marriage will only remain the bedrock of society if it is between a man and a woman," Carey has written in a recent op-ed. "The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way."

George Carey was appointed as senior prelate of the Church of England and the global Anglican Communion under Margaret Thatcher's rule. He style was typically careful. But when forced to choose, he almost always sided with theological orthodoxy against liberal revisionism. Although often hailed for his brilliance, Carey's successor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, is often more ambivalent on key theological and ethical issues. His post-modern nuances frequently make his ultimate point incomprehensible.

The Church of England remains the largest religious communion in Britain, but only a small fraction of British people are regular church goers. The more spiritually healthy congregations tend to lean evangelical, often thanks to African, Caribbean, or Asian immigrants. Despite diminished numbers, bishops of the established church, some of whom sit in the House of Lords, are still public figures whose stances often attract publicity.

"[We are] worried because an institution that has stood the test of time and is the building block of society is under threat," Carey announced to the Coalition for Marriage. "[And we are] disappointed that the government has taken upon itself to redefine the nature of marriage." Carey noted that some of his homosexual friends are "uncomfortable that their situation is being exploited to challenge the traditional view of marriage." These friends "perceive that when marriage as we understand it is challenged, so is the centrality of the family at the heart of our society."

Similarly, retired Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali has warned against Britain's diluting the definition of marriage. He defended traditional marriage for serving a wider social good for the nation and not simply the parochial interests of religious institutions. "On this issue the church is not just talking about themselves and their rights, they are talking about the wider good of society and therefore must be listened to," he said.

Himself of Pakistani ancestry, Nazir-Ali had been considered a potential Archbishop of Canterbury. But his more liberal critics regarded him as too acerbic. There was probably little chance that the former Tony Blair government would countenance the appointment of an outspoken defender of Western mores against multiculturalism. Nazir-Ali's parents were converts from Islam to Christianity. He was himself the youngest bishop of the global Anglican Communion when still in Pakistan but had to flee in the 1980s amid threats from angry Islamists. He retired as bishop in the Church of England in 2009 to focus on advocacy for persecuted Christians. 

While emphasizing the church should defend traditional marriage as a social good of itself, Nazir-Ali warned that legalized same-sex marriage inevitably would threaten traditional churches: "Given the direction that legislation has taken recently where conscience has not been legally recognised, how can we be sure that any assurances given to the church at this time will not later be overtaken first by an amendment which allows such marriages to take place in religious premises and later on a case is brought by someone which rules that it is discriminatory not to do so?" Thanks to his immigrant past and history of persecution as a religious minority in Pakistan, Nazir-Ali is renowned for more robustly defending the church's role and its teachings in British life than native-born prelates typically are.

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a native Ugandan, is not typically as outspoken as Nazir-Ali. But as the Church of England's second most senior prelate he also is opposing same-sex marriage, even while accepting same-sex civil unions in Britain. "Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," Sentamu told a reporter earlier this year. "I don't think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are." He surmised that Prime Minister Cameron would be acting like a "dictator" if he attempted to foist same-sex marriage on Britain. "The Church has always stood out -- Jesus actually was the odd man out. I'd rather stick with Jesus than be popular because it looks odd."

As to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, his views are as always opaque. But speaking recently to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, he implied opposition to legalized same-sex marriage, at least as interpreted by the British media. He spoke of "alien cultural standards [that] are somehow being imposed -- particularly in regard to inherited views of marriage and family." And noting claims that failure to legalize same-sex marriage "perpetuates stigma or marginalisation for some people," he suggested this concern should be "addressed at the level of culture rather than law." Like the Oracle of Delphi, Williams' remarks usually call for interpretation that is rarely definitive.

British Roman Catholic bishops of course are strongly opposing same sex marriage, with support from some Muslims, while liberal Judaism, Quakers, and Unitarians are for it, as are some liberal Church of England bishops. The Church of England's unique role as established church ensures its special role in the debate. That debate may ultimately revive at least parts of the often dormant church as they defend traditional faith against Britain's latest secular trends.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.