I recently became involved in a brief email exchange with my local MP John Leech regarding the consultation on civil marriage and gay people. Whatever one might feel about his politics, John was admirably prompt and attentive. One of his remarks struck me deeply –
‘I am delighted to hear from someone in the church in support of these proposals. I support the plans for same sex marriage, and it's good to see others in the church supporting it too.’
Clearly, John had not been overwhelmed by positive responses from church representatives or members. Am I surprised? Many congregations are absorbed in their own concerns, and many clergy choose silence. Sometimes this is out of fear for their future prospects, sometimes out of concerns about how speaking out might look to their congregations and sometimes because they feel they have better things to do. Anecdotally, I have met very many clergy and lay people who do not agree with the C of E statement concerning marriage. This document is not in their name.
In a complex, post-industrial society, there will be a variety of perspectives on any subject. There will also be differing streams of thought – some more conservative, some more progressive. Intelligent folk will seek to think through the implications of social change. However, the claim that either society or the institution of marriage will be dealt a massive body blow by the extension of civil marriage rights to an excluded and traditionally marginalized group does not stand the weight of serious scrutiny. As a woman who both happens to be gay and a priest I regularly get asked to preside at the civil partnerships (or as they're commonly described by participants 'weddings') of friends. Clearly I cannot do this. Nor could I preside at the civil weddings of those folk should the current law be changed. But I have witnessed how gay folk are just as capable of commitment, love and, yes, failure in relationships as straight folk. And this is v encouraging. It indicates that we are all human beings first, with all the attendant wonder and brokenness that goes with that. But CPs surely demonstrate that, de facto, CPs have become akin to marriage – we talk of' getting hitched', and so on. It is time that this de facto equivalent was made a de jure one. And at a civil level, the state can do this. Some countries already have. And guess what? Society and its institutions have been no more damaged by it than by allowing free assembly for all, regardless of ethnicity, etc.
Sometimes I weep over the Church of England. People sometimes ask me why I stay part of it. God, they say, weeps over it too. God, they say, is not part of its stumbling machinations. But there are too many remarkable folk and, yes, often too much passion, hunger for justice and love for me to leave. And yet at times like these I think of that Hebrew word yasha. (Someone will correct me if I’ve got this slightly wrong – never was a Hebrew scholar.) Christians typically connect the word ‘salvation’ with faith in Jesus Christ. But if we go back to the Old Testament we discover that the Hebrew verb for ‘to save’ is yasha. It is from this word that the name Jesus (meaning ‘he who saves’) comes. Yasha means ‘to be wide, to be spacious’. Its opposite is sara, which means to be narrow, whether physically, intellectually or spiritually. So, in Old Testament terms, ‘salvation’ has to do with having or getting space in which to move or breathe. This space gives the possibility of choice, of growth and development. On these terms, the question of our salvation becomes a focus upon how spacious and generous our souls are. A key question is: am I a person who is broad and open, who is open to growth and change? The extent to which we are on a journey to salvation is the extent to which we are becoming more open and more generous human beings.
Experience tells me we are all a combination of openness and narrowness. But surely, if the Church of England is going to have a hope of modelling God’s love, hope and peace it needs rather more openness at this time than narrowness?