Jeffrey John: Church "does not speak with integrity" on gay marriage   (25.7.12)

Naturalistic fallacies all round   (19.7.12)

There's a thing in moral philosophy called the naturalistic fallacy. One kind of naturalistic fallacy is a claim that something is good because it is natural. Such claims are generally regarded as fallacious because they are both formal non-sequiturs, and because they often lead to conclusions which are morally counterintuitive (for example, "killing is natural therefore it is good").

Representatives on both sides of the gay marriage debate have attempted to support their arguments with naturalistic fallacies, and it is doing nobody any favours. On the one hand, some who support equal marriage point out that the phenomenon of homosexuality is present in thousands of species; its being present in nature is presented as grounds for its morality. On the other hand, some who oppose equal marriage point out that the phenomenon of heterosexuality is more natural than homosexuality, because males and females possess complementary genitalia. Each side attempts to derive moral norms from biological facts.

One would have hoped that thousands of years of western philosophy might have enabled a more sophisticated debate than this: one side claiming that gay marriage is okay because penguins dunnit, and the other side driving home that Peg A goes into Slot B, and therefore gayers are marital pariahs. Such claims reduce the question of marriage to one of biology, when the debate should really be about moral rights and the nature of the good.

Women bishops   (8.7.12)

Tomorrow, the Church of England may or may not vote on proposals to allow the consecration of women bishops, twelve years after the issue as such was first presented to General Synod. The Church of England's 44 diocesan synods approved the draft legislation by an overwhelming majority during the past year (42 voted in favour). However in May this year, the Bishops, in their wisdom, chose to throw a major spanner in the works by adding a substantial amendment to legislation which had already been voted upon at diocesan level.

The amendment is a further concession to parishes which refuse to recognise the ministry of women, and therefore demand oversight from not only a male bishop, but a male bishop whose views are theologically consonant with their own, and who has moreover not been "tainted" by a woman's ministry, either by receiving communion (bread and wine) from a female priest, or by having been ordained by a female bishop. Nobody can accuse the church of rushing into this reform: it is twenty years since the first women priests were consecrated, and they now make up 5,000 of the CofE's ordained staff. It is to the church's credit that it has explored so deeply how to keep everyone on board.

However, I believe we have reached the point in this debate where the medicine is at risk of killing the patient. The bishops' cackhanded amendment risks legitimating the unbiblical and more than faintly offensive theology of "taint". It also proposes to enshrine compulsory discrimination in law, by mandating that women bishops must submit to a male bishop in ministering to dissenting parishes. Furthermore, such a solution as this would set an alarming precedent, given the other issues facing the church. If conservative parishes are to receive special episcopal provision, why not liberal parishes who don't feel like serving under a conservative bishop? And what if evangelical parishes decide that a bishop's ministry is also "tainted" by having received communion or been ordained by a gay bishop?

If this is a recipe for church unity, it is an odd one. The spectre is now of a church made up of legally codified factions, each demanding bespoke episcopal oversight to sate a particular theological appetite. If this is to be the outcome, will it really be meaningful to talk about the "Church" of England in the future?

Jacobian semantics   (3.7.12)

Actor Derek Jacobi has described the campaign for equal marriage as a "squabble over nothing", saying marriage is "just a word". He's entitled to that view, of course; but I'm not convinced that he really holds it. If he did indeed view it as "meaningless", and "just a word", why would he be so determined not to use it to describe his civil partnership? I suggest that he would so choose because it is actually not "just a word", and that he actually feels that using the word would say something about his relationship that he doesn't want it to. That's quite understandable, given the chequered history of marriage as an institution.

If he, and others like him, don't want to use the word "marriage" to describe their relationships, then that's fine: nobody is going to force him to. But, for every Derek Jacobi, there is an Elton John who does regard marriage as a meaningful word that is relevant to their relationship. In short: some gay people are not interested in marriage. How is that an argument for preventing those who are from entering into it?

A list of hypocrisies   (2.7.12)

The Church of England a few weeks ago issued its official position on the government's consultation on equal marriage. Here are some hypocrisies it contains.

1. In paragraph 15, the CofE claims that the majority of its bishops supported civil partnerships. This is manifestly untrue. First, a majority of its 26 Lords Spiritual did not attend readings of the Civil Partnerships Bill, let alone vote on it. Second, at the Civil Partnerships Bill's main reading in the House of Lords, bishops voted 6 to 1 against the Bill, by supporting a wrecking amendment (which was later revoked when the Bill returned to the Commons). Senior clergy have recently misled the public about this fact of history in articles and radio interviews, claiming that the church "supported" the legislation.

2. In paragraph 16, the CofE claims that the only reason it has heard to justify equal marriage for same-sex couples is that it meets an "emotional need" of some gay people. (God forbid that the church should be interested in the emotional wellbeing of its minorities!) If this really is the only reason they've heard in support of the change, they have clearly not been listening to many people. Here's a few more reasons: a) it removes an inequality in legal treatment of different people in society; b) it provides equality before the law; c) it publicly affirms to society the equal value of committed gay relationships; d) it provides a secure framework within which gay parents can care for their children. I could go on, but since the church has so far managed to hear only one reason, I wouldn't want to overburden it with more than this.

3. The "equal value" of gay relationships is, incidentally, something that the church clearly does not believe in. The documents Issues in Human Sexuality, as well as the bishops' report on the Civil Partnerships Bill, make it clear that gay relationships "fall short" of heterosexual ones. Sentamu's notion that preventing gay people from marrying does not "diminish" their relationships is clearly disingenuous, particularly when he is simultaneously using the language of marriage being "diluted" by this proposal. (Heads up: "dilute" means almost the same as "diminish".)

4. A personal perspective: I have spent the past twenty years going to church more or less every Sunday and contributing to the church's liturgical life as a musician. I have played or sung at scores of weddings and thousands of church services; yet the one day I am not currently permitted to spend in church, and indeed the one day that the church is actively fighting against allowing me to spend in church, is the one when I make a public profession of love and commitment to my partner of ten years. And I know that many others in the church are in the same position.

5. The CofE is deliberately muddying the waters by claiming that these changes threaten the church's right to officiate heterosexual marriages. This is also manifestly untrue. There are adequate protections of religious liberty in respect of marriage, as is demonstrated by the fact that the CofE is permitted to refuse to marry divorcees in particular churches, if the parish priest chooses. On the contrary, the only legal problem is likely to be caused by law which does not allow religious organisations the option of offering these ceremonies if they want to; moreover, that is the real threat to religious liberty.

If our love were but more simple...

Elton in Kiev   (1.7.12)

There are a number of pernicious sideshows in the debate over gay marriage. One of them is this.

A commenter on Elton John's welcome article about the threat of repressive anti-gay legislation in the Ukraine asks this question: "Are there any other issues or injustices or social problems anywhere on the planet that you think are important or is this it?" I take the message of this question to be: why are you so obsessed with the treatment of gay people, when there are bigger problems in the world? And the implication seems to be that nobody should speak out about any injustice unless they speak out about all of them. It wouldn't require Alan Turing to compute that (given the mortal limitations of all human beings) if we all followed this maxim, no injustice would be challenged, ever.

There is also a subtext to this kind of reaction, which is not, of course, restricted to Elton John's article. There is a fairly common view that gay people speak out about their situation not out of a sense of justice, but because they have an interest in obtaining greater legal rights. Well, it's certainly true that we do indeed have an interest in obtaining equal civil rights, of which access to the institution of marriage is one. But our interest in these rights is not the justification for claiming them. The justification is, as Elton John says, a moral principle of justice: that all human beings are deserving of equality.

I also wonder whether those who propound such objections to the campaign for equal marriage would hold to their view in the case of racial discrimination. Were black people wrong to speak out against the ban on mixed-race marriage, simply because there were bigger problems in the world? Or were slaves wrong to seek freedom, simply because they had a personal interest in obtaining it? I hope the answers, even to CiF trolls, would be obvious; and hope springs eternal.

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