Lone Voice in the WIlderness

Western Christians complain a lot. We don’t like it when people criticise us. We get tired of the amount of people who “don’t do God” – not just in government but in everyday life. We lament the fact that churchgoers are in the minority, harking back to a bygone (yet undefined) era when going to church was the norm.

This can only be described as the complacency of Christendom. Since the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christians have become increasingly accustomed to being in the majority. At times this norm has become nothing short of toxic – leading to such arrogance and corrupt power as that which led to the murder of non-Christians during the Crusades. 

One of the saddest consequences of this complacency in the present-day is our complete detachment from the earliest Christians. For three centuries they had an uphill struggle to remain a living force – faced with mockery, isolation and even death. Such Christians, living as aliens in the midst of their fellow citizens of the Roman Empire, had a real sense of what it meant to depend upon the Holy Spirit.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that I want Christians to be persecuted in the West. The awful consequences of persecution in China, North Korea, Iran and countless other countries are only too acute, and show just how dreadful such an existence can be. But Christians might benefit from not being in the privileged position we’ve enjoyed for so long – a position that we’re gradually losing.

This Holy Week and Easter, I’m thinking back to the perhaps tiniest set of followers of Jesus ever – the Twelve Apostles, and the few who’d come to join them in their journeys. Christians in Britain think it’s lonely to be Christian on a Sunday morning when friends and relatives are at home in bed. We start to despair at the fact that most people seem to regard Easter as an opportunity for chocolate and family holidays. We feel mildly embarrassed when people catch us reading our Bible or humming a hymn. As if that existence is somehow difficult.

How much lonelier would it have been to have followed Jesus to the foot of the cross?

How much more would we have despaired if we’d given up everything we had to follow a man whose ministry culminated in a humiliating execution?

How much more embarrassed would we have been to have been seen with a man who became one of Jerusalem’s most hated criminals?

Clearly it wasn’t easy – even Peter couldn’t handle it.

This Easter I’m trying to snap out of this self-pity that I share with a lot of Christians – feeling desperately wronged because some regard me as crazy, or stupid, or infantile for what people regard as believing in an invisible being in the sky and that an ancient Galilean’s death was significant. I remind myself of how much tougher it would have been to follow Jesus in the loneliest of times. And how much tougher still it must have been for Jesus himself – to spend his final moments with his closest friends who couldn’t stay awake in his most troubled hour, and who repaid his leadership and ministry by denying him, and handing him over to be crucified.

I have nothing to complain about.

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The Prophesied Messiah?

I love carol services. I feel they may almost have become my favourite part of Christmas now, since I (lamentably?) moved past the stage where presents truly excited me…aside from being with my family, of course.

I love hearing the special choir pieces, and no service is complete for me unless I hear a soloist open ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and a descant to end the grand finale of ‘Hark the Herald-Angels Sing’.

But these past few years, one part has always been a little uncomfortable for me, and I must confess, it comes in the Bible readings. I’m referring to the idea expressed in these words from what is, nonetheless, one of my favourite ever carols, Of the Father’s Heart Begotten:

This is he, whom seer and sybil

Sang in ages long gone by;

This is he of old revealed

In the page of prophecy;

My problem has usually arisen when I hear those famous verses:

‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14);

‘For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (Isaiah 9:6)

My problem is that, since studying theology, I’ve never been able to shake off the (now evident) fact that these verses, and the other prophecies, were not primarily referring to Jesus. Isaiah 9 especially, as we can see that the words are in the perfect tense – referring to what has already happened. Clearly Christ had not come to earth in the eighth century BCE, when these verses were most likely to have been written.

So as I’ve heard these verses, I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud: yes, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, and fulfils God’s purposes, and saves humankind from our sinful state – but no, I couldn’t accept that these eighth century BCE authors were talking about him with their words.

And that was my predicament – until I stumbled across this article a few weeks ago. It’s not specifically about the Messiah prophesies, but rather about the New Testament’s use of Old Testament prophecies in general. The author, Joel Hoffmann, argues that we’ve misunderstood the connection between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament accounts of Christ, which is based on our misinterpretation of a Greek word – pleroo. 

Like most ancient Greek words, this word has numerous meanings, but our translations usually interpret it as ‘fulfil’. Yet, as Hoffmann’s article demonstrates, it is commonly used to mean ‘fill’ elsewhere, rather than ‘fulfil’ (e.g. Matthew 13:48; Romans 15:13). If we were to take this meaning for New Testament citations of Old Testament texts, it would be taken to mean that what was described in the pages of the Old Testament ‘fills’ or ‘fits’ the New Testament situation very well.

This may sound like liberal wishy-washy watering down, but it actually leads to a far more plausible reading of the biblical texts. Take, for instance, Matthew 2:15. After Joseph is warned to take the baby Jesus (along with Mary) to Egypt, to protect him from Herod, before returning, Matthew writes:

“This was to fulfil [plerothein] what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’”

Here Matthew is quoting Hosea (11:1). The problem here is that the verse is clearly not a prediction, but a reference to a past event. The past event is obvious: it is the God of Israel’s rescuing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (here, the nation of Israel is being referred to as God’s son, as it is elsewhere – e.g. Exodus 4:22-23).

So what could Matthew mean? Unless Matthew was not particularly familiar with the Old Testament (which is highly unlikely given the gospel he produced), he must have been aware that this verse was referring to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, not to the baby Jesus returning from Egypt after fleeing there for safety. The only plausible reading I can therefore make of it is that Matthew was suggesting that this verse had meaning in relation to this situation, and in addition implying Jesus could be compared to Israel, thereby placing him in firm connection to the roots of the Old Testament.

To reiterate: this is not an attempt to ‘water down’ Scripture. Such a reading, if anything, does more justice to both the Old and New Testaments: it demonstrates that the Old Testament has significance on more than one level – not only does it narrate the ancient history of Israel before Christ, but its descriptions are often very meaningful for talking about Christ. It also allows us to see Old Testament characters and events as ‘types’ or precursors of Christ and episodes from Christ’s life.

Also, to make clear, this does not render the status of these Old Testament verses as ‘prophecy’ to be void. We must remember (and Joel Hoffmann himself makes this mistake in his article!), prophecy is a word from God, not necessarily a prediction about the future.

So where does that leave our Isaiah verses? And those words of the carol I so love? Thankfully, this interpretation has saved them for me. I have no problem with Christ being ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’, or a wonderful counsellor or Prince of Peace. All of these titles fit him very well indeed, and get us some way to the impossible task of articulating adequately the significance of Christ in human language. Likewise, I can comfortably sing that “this is he of old revealed in the page of prophecy”, because in one sense these verses do talk of Jesus, just as some descriptions of literary characters in novels can be said to talk of real people, in that an author’s description of a character may correspond perfectly well to a real person.

So, thankfully, I have, and will continue to, enjoy Christmas carol services even more this year, knowing that I can say and sing with honesty and conviction, that Christ is – in a different sense – the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke.

Merry Christmas.

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Fight a Worthwhile Fight

Ever since the first announcements in 2011 of the Coalition Government’s plans to extend marriage to couples of the same sex, there has been outrage and uproar across the UK. In the vast majority of cases, this level of objection comes from Christians.

I don’t agree with those who object to these proposals; I find none of the arguments against compelling, and find the principles for them more compelling. But my purpose here isn’t to give a detailed account of my support for same-sex marriage. That is something I’ve already done, on the blog of Archbishop Cranmer: http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/gay-marriage-theological-perspective.html.

My thought here is a different one. Today I posted a link on Facebook protesting against the removal of ‘Shopmobility’ in my local town – an important resource for disabled people in my local town to get into the town centre for their grocery shopping. As part of yet another ruthless cut, my local council has given this 5 weeks before it closes this.

Between the time of my posting this link, and just now – a total of about 6 hours, I think that petition has gained another six votes. Six. And I have no idea if any of them are even from people who saw the link.

I, for one, felt angry about this cut. It is a clear instance of depriving the most vulnerable members of my home community of an incredibly important service to them. But no-one seems to care.

And yet…if I posted, say, on the page of my former church, an update on the progress of the same-sex marriage legislation, there would be fierce response: angry comments; emergency prayer meetings, maybe even a willingness to join a protest. People are furious about gay marriage – seeing it as an injustice, against nature, and even, laughably, as a violation of Christian liberty! (Liberty for what, exactly? To feel uncomfortable at two women holding hands? To get married knowing that their vicar has only ever performed marriages between people of opposite sex couples?)

But when it comes to the disabled…not a peep. After all, why should Christians care about the disabled? It’s not like Jesus was interested in the vulnerable and the minorities in society, was it? He spent all his time ranting about homosexuality, the greatest evil of all time, surely?

For those who are unaware – he didn’t. He didn’t say a word. He was too busy telling people to love their enemies, to give their money to the poor, and to visit those who were sick, or in prison.

So I’m left wondering – how different would the world look if Christians took even half of the energy they’re investing in protesting against gay marriage – signing petitions, writing angry letters to Bishops and MPs, protesting on the streets – and invested it in a truly worthwhile cause: standing up for the disabled in the community, whose services are being taken away from them.

I suspect it would look a lot more like the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus spoke. But alas – that day will never come. Unfortunately, Christians can’t afford to waste time defending minorities – they’ve got the grave injustice of a gay couple in love wanting to make a public commitment to worry about.

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Keith O’Brien: The Struggle with Internal Conflict

Since Keith O’Brien’s resignation over claims (which he initially denied) of inappropriate advances and sexual behaviour, he has now come out (if you’ll pardon the expression) and acknowledged the truth of the allegations.

Many reactions have ensued: devout Catholics viewing this as an isolated, or at best rare, instance of unfortunate succumbing to temptation, defending the need for priestly celibacy and arguing that it is, in the vast majority of cases, obeyed; those with hostility towards the Catholic church viewing it as exposing the inherent hypocrisy in the church’s hierarchy, and others more sympathetic to the Catholic church but nonetheless promoting change in celibacy rules.

For me, resisting the temptation to cast a stone, and to make sweeping generalisations about hypocrisy, I find myself feeling rather sorry for Keith O’Brien. Throughout his life he must have struggled with attractions which presumably his family, wider society, and the church to which he belongs and feels the strongest allegiance all condemn as unnatural – a tune which he himself echoed, and maybe even convinced himself was correct. Such a tragic case of internal conflict warrants sympathy, not condemnation.

But O’Brien is not alone. Case after case of publicly anti-gay evangelical pastors, condemning gay relationships from the pulpit on Sunday morning but hiring rent boys by night time, is brought to our attention. And many more gay people will unquestioningly quote Leviticus, and condemn as perversions of nature the relationships towards which they themselves are inherently ordered: romantic relationships with people of their own gender. This is not to say that the sexual relationship is all-encompassing; familial, friendly and neighbourly relationships are all significant dimensions of human interaction. But the sexual relationship is of a special order and kind; on this, most Christians (and many who aren’t Christian) – whether supportive of or opposed to same-sex relationships – would surely agree.

Many will wonder how a person can live with such conflict, which is strictly hypocrisy (though in compassion we’d be unfair to be too judgemental in using this term). How can the same person condemn homosexual practice in vehement terms whilst engaging in it in secret? But in fact the two are often not simply separate, conflicting facts, but actively related. One of the most common ways of dealing with self-hatred is to inflict it on others. By outwardly condemning gay relationships, one somehow reassures oneself that they understand right and wrong; that they are not immoral; that ‘gay’ doesn’t apply to them, but those evil, unnatural, promiscuous, rampant queers out there.

If only these closeted people would rethink human sexuality, the nature of God’s creation and intentions for humanity in such a way that they could find in their natural orientations not a lamentable perversion but an ordering towards potentially healthy, fulfilling romantic relationships.

So the great tragedy of the multiple cases like O’Brien’s is that people like him have lived with internal conflict, never reconciling this dimension of who they are with their relationship with God and other human beings; instead engaging in casual, hidden encounters which do nothing to promote their own flourishing.

But is this the greatest tragedy? For the implications of such cases are not limited to the self-hating gay person and their sexual partners, or the recipients of their unwanted advances. O’Brien doesn’t just condemn himself; he declares authoritatively to every Roman Catholic in the UK that gay marriage is “grotesque”, an “aberration” that goes “against natural law”. Secretly gay evangelical preachers proclaim to faithful conversations sometimes numbering thousands that gay people are condemned to hell, and that their expressions of love are, in the words of Leviticus, an “abomination”. And in many cases, televangelists teach wide-reaching audiences to dismiss the relationships of their gay relatives and friends as unnatural. People’s self-hate is channelled in a way that promotes widespread hate and fear.

Clearly the consequences are vast, and the damage is immense, whenever a member of the clergy uses condemnation as a coping mechanism for internal attractions which they cannot accept, support or perhaps even understand. For this reason, for the sake of themselves and the many Christians who may view them as a mediator of authoritative teaching, this hypocrisy must end. And it seems to me that the only way this can really happen is if the stance of the Roman Catholic Church undergoes a radical shift in its understanding of homosexual relationships. Given the c.800 year old tradition of natural law, this may be a long time coming: but maybe one day, within or far beyond my lifetime, the Catholic church might come to accept gay relationships as conducive to human flourishing, and thereby engage in mature understanding, teaching devout Catholics around the world who experience homosexual attraction that the way to live out their sexuality is neither to suppress it nor engage in secret gay sex acts, and instead give to LGBT young people in particular what the Church has failed them for decades: an embracing of this dimension of their person, and substantial, pastoral guidance on how to live out their sexuality well.

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Rev Steve Chalke: seeking the truth in love

In yesterday’s Times, Ruth Gledhill wrote an article drawing attention to the shift in attitude to homosexual relationships of Rev Steve Chalke, a prominent Evangelical minister whom I remember hearing preaching in my evangelical days. Like a growing number of Evangelicals (who are nonetheless still in the minority), he has come to a position where he can no longer reconcile blanket condemnation of gay relationships with the God in whom he believes and the Christ whom he seeks to imitate.

In his immensely brave article in Christianity (formerly Christianity and Renewal), Steve Chalke proposes openness to the possibility of embracing gay relationships within the Christian community in the spirit of inclusion which he (like many Christians) sees as fundamental to the heart of Christianity.

Chalke’s article is superb for a number of reasons. It isn’t simply that he supports gay relationships – whilst this is fantastic, plenty of Christians, indeed ministers, have written in support of these (not the least of whom is our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams). What is brilliant is not simply what he argues, but how.

Chalke clearly eschews the typical Evangelical approach to ethical debate: “This is what the Bible says [in my modern English translation without any reference to wider context]. If you disagree, you’re going against God’s word”. (This isn’t mere speculative caricaturing by the way – I was an Evangelical for 8 years). Likewise, he avoids such rigid revisionist assertions that in a way can, at times, adopt an almost fundamentalist tone: “I believe God loves gay people and embraces gay relationships: if you don’t, you’re just a homophobe and a bigot”. As I’ve said before, not everyone who opposes gay relationships is a bigot or a homophobe.

Instead, he advocates what can surely be the only real way forward: true dialogue and engagement, in which those on both sides of the debate – traditionalists and revisionists – listen to one another. Chalke’s whole approach is clearly one of openness, engagement and respect – a willingness to listen to what people on both sides have to say.

A challenge this will present to many evangelicals is that of listening to, and respecting, the testimonies of lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians. Rather than simply dismissing them as against God’s will, he is advocating genuine openness to what they have to say, and careful consideration of whether their experiences might testify to them being part of God’s plan, rather than simply a perversion of nature, as they are so often dismissed.

This is where I think Steve Chalke has in particular made a point which has not often been discussed, yet warrants serious consideration:

“One tragic outworking of the Church’s historical rejection of faithful gay relationships is our failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy.”

As long as the Church insists on a blanket condemnation of non-celibate gay relationships, those who experience same-sex attraction and do not feel called to celibacy are left feeling they have no home in the church: either they must reject the church, which they may love and wish to belong in, or they must neglect an important part of who they are, and enforce upon themselves a denial of a wonderful part of human existence – that of the romantic love of another person. And if it’s the church they have to neglect, they, unlike straight people, have no guide, model or supportive community upon which to draw when entering their own relationships. Just as when churches condemn all sex before marriage, young Christians end up engaging in unsafe, exploitative or harmful sex because they have no proper teaching or guidance, when churches condemn all homosexual activity, gay Christians are left without any model or coherent understanding of what a healthy, virtuous gay relationship looks like, and might similarly end up engaging in sexual relations which are detrimental to their flourishing as human beings.

At times when I despair that this might always be the case, little moments like prominent Evangelical ministers having a change in attitude remind me that I must not be so negative: the Spirit blows where it wishes.

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Looking back and forward

Happy New Year! As I think back to 2012, I’m reminded that it was both personally and as part of wider communities, a significant year. From a personal perspective, it’s the year in which I endured the most stressful exam period of my life, graduated and began a new course. From the perspective of a member of wider communities, it’s the year I experienced the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, London putting on a magnificent spectacle in the Olympics, and commenced and celebrated my own membership of the United Reformed Church.

Yet I am always, and probably forever will be, conscious of the church of my roots: the Church of England. Whilst I consider myself firmly removed from the Evangelical tradition of which I was once a part, I still feel in many ways connected to the Anglican communion. Indeed, I still consider myself in many ways a typical Anglican: a believer trying to get along in life, trying (and usually feeling) to love others in the name of Christ, trying never to be entirely rigid on issues of theological doctrine or ethics.

And my eyes are, for these reasons and others, often fixed upon the Church of England. At this time, of course, they are particularly conscious of it being the first day of the biggest church interregnum (for non-churchgoing readers: this is a period in a church between the exit of one leader and the commencement of another’s tenure), referring in this case to the period between the Most Rev’d Dr Rowan Williams’ last day as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his successor’s inauguration in March.

I have, for a very long time, been an enormous fan of Rowan Williams. I should note, at this point, that it would be unfair of you to assume that this is simply because his overt inclusiveness fits nicely with my stereotypically liberal agenda. Rather, I respect him as both a theologian and clergyman (leaving aside the many other strings to his bow!), for a number of reasons.

Firstly I respect his deep humility. As a man who has degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, having lectured at both, written numerous books, articles and even poems, he can justifiably be regarded as an immensely successful and highly-achieving person. Despite this, he demonstrates not an ounce of arrogance or self-importance. He rarely draws attention to his achievements, and by all accounts addresses whoever he speaks to in a respectful and modest way.

Secondly, I admire his commitment to the social implications of the Gospel: he does not bang on repeatedly about everyone being a sinner and needing repentance, as if that summarises the whole Gospel, like numerous clergymen (specifically clergyMEN) I’ve encountered. Rather, he recognises that much of Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God was of the weak being lifted up, the greatest one serving others, and the challenge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner.

Connected with this is his ability to speak to the concerns of people. He is often criticised as being out of touch, a stuffy academic who has no idea what real people think or need. But these criticisms are usually made by people who have never taken the time to listen to a sermon or New Year’s message of his, or to read any of his articles. If they did, they might in fact appreciate how striking his ability to speak in real terms is, when one considers his background in academia. Instead of taking one look at him, seeing his grey beard and glasses and knowing that he is also an academic, and therefore assuming he has no ability to connect with people, they might do well to actually bother to read or listen to some of the things he’s written and said. In them he talks not of complex interpretations of the nature of the Trinity or the complexities of Irenaean Theodicy; rather, he talks about the need to help the poorest in society, to care for the welfare of others and to work together and be united with people of all races and religions, rather than divided.

Last but not least, I appreciate Rowan Williams’ unwavering attempts to hold together a seemingly divided church. Whilst conservative Anglicans often dismissed him as a wishy-washy wet liberal, and liberal Anglicans often criticised him as never going far enough in his commitment to inclusivity, he continued to attempt to keep both sides in communion with each other, realising that the unity of God’s people as a presence and witness to the love of God in the UK at a time when there is so much division, anxiety and instability, is an overarching and urgent need which takes precedence above all disputes.


As he moves on to his post at Magdalene College, Cambridge (a real shame it couldn’t have been Oxford!), the abiding image in my memory of Rowan Williams’ ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury will be pictures, like the one above, of him looking immensely saddened and embracing many of his fellow clergy after the vote against women bishops in the house of laity. To me it encapsulates much of what makes him a superb clergyman: honest, heartfelt passion for what he (and many) perceive as justice, a genuine empathy with others in their suffering and sorrow; ultimately, showing Christian love to his fellow human being. Far from criticising him so smugly and scathingly, most of us would do well to learn from Rowan Williams and to attempt to show the love of Christ to others in our daily lives, just as he does.

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Points to bear in mind when discussing Same-Sex Marriage: On Both Sides

I’ve not yet written on same-sex marriage here, partly because the discussion has been so consistently in the news that people are probably becoming a little tired of it, and partly because so many arguments have been made, repeatedly, on both sides, that I have been unsure if I have anything to contribute.

On reflection, it seems that there are lessons for both opponents and proponents of gay marriage to learn when debating same-sex marriage, many of which actually apply to both sides. Even if nothing I say here is particularly original, I hope it at least reminds people of things which may have been laid aside in the heat of impassioned online debate…

#1: Avoid ridiculous labels 

It’s fair to say that there are plenty of homophobes who oppose same-sex marriage, and indeed plenty of bigots. But it’s important to remember what those terms actually mean, so as not to make them entirely devoid of force: a ‘homophobe’ is someone who is prejudiced against gay people, often on the basis of revulsion to the idea of gay sex or a same-sex union. A ‘bigot’ is, specifically, someone who is intolerant of others’ opinions, often out of blind prejudice. Neither of the two are necessary components of opposition to same-sex marriage. Yes, there are people who oppose same-sex marriage at least partly, if not entirely, out of revulsion towards gay people or a refusal to accept gay unions with no rational basis. But not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot or homophobe. There are those who accept and love gay people while disapproving of homosexual activity; furthermore, there are those who have no objections to gay activity, but who believe marriage is distinctive to couples of opposite genders. I have plenty of reservations about both of these positions, but neither is homophobic or bigoted, and referring to one’s opponents with such terms merely undermines one’s own position.

But the conservatives don’t get off lightly, either: I’ve seen the term “gaystapo” used of proponents of gay marriage, for instance. On both sides of this debate, people are campaigning for what they believe is right, as a matter of justice and the good of society. Ignoring this and referring to people with such ridiculous language does nothing to endear anyone to one’s own position, whichever it is.

#2: Try to avoid hyperbole

Exaggeration is another tendency on both sides of the debate which undermines people’s positions.

The words of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spring to mind, when he invoked a comparison with the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany to warn against the very thing I remark upon in point 1: name-calling. Of course, Carey’s opposition is purely to the name-calling of people who oppose gay marriage. With his specific words, he’s not strictly wrong: name-calling was (one way in which, if not the only way) that anti-Semitic persecution began in Nazi Germany. But it is clearly insensitive, and almost ridiculous, to make such a comparison. See  http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/holocaust-survivors-rally-round-church-of-england-2012101044438 for a much better summary than I can give.

Equally, all the language about the crumbling of society and civilisation makes opponents of same-sex marriage seem completely deluded. In reality, society [probably] won’t crumble if the (UK) government legalises same-sex marriage: rather, the reality is, that some men will marry each other and some women will marry each other, and some people will be angry at it. The 90% of the population who are heterosexual will still fall in love, make commitments, copulate and produce children. Talking as if the end of society will ensue helps no-one.

But proponents of gay marriage must also be careful. Implying that opponents of gay marriage are all evil, devil-horned, fork-brandishing gay-haters really won’t help the case.

#3: Try not to make the issue bigger than it is 

This is possibly a controversial statement. Obviously the issue matters; it is a question of the common good for many people. But it really isn’t the be-all and end-all.

To put this into perspective for liberals, the makers of the film ‘Call me Kuchu’, about a murdered gay rights activist in Uganda, remarked that they were motivated to make this film partly after seeing the predominance of the gay marriage debate in the West. They looked towards Africa and saw that, actually, there are more pressing gay rights issues right now. Whilst British LGBTs campaign for the right to marry, Ugandan LGBTs often hide, campaign for the right to basic privacy, and hope and pray that a bill to sentence them to death is not passed.

But conservatives can be just as bad. They often seem to be a little confused about this; on the one hand, they spend an awful lot of time protesting against the proposals, and the perceived implications of them; yet, on the other hand, they argue that the same-sex marriage debate distracts people from more important issues like EU membership, education and taxes. My argument is simple: if you feel same-sex marriage is taking up too much time, stop ranting on about it! 

Pope Benedict XVI hardly helps when he uses his speech as an opportunity to speak out, once again, against same-sex marriage. With so much scandal over child abuse, poverty, war in the Middle East, was it really sensitive or helpful to talk about the perceived immorality of same-sex marriage? Even if none of these surely more pressing issues took his fancy, I’d have settled for a good old exposition of the wonders of the Incarnation and the Divine humble self-emptying in this act. 

On both sides there are Christians and non-Christians: everyone would do well to remember other pressing issues, and Christians in particular would be well-advised to consider how much time is devoted in the Bible (particularly in the Prophets and the Gospels) to concerns for peace and the poor, for instance. This doesn’t mean that same-sex marriage isn’t important – it just mustn’t be focussed on disproportionately.

#4: Take experience seriously

Conservatives often oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of concerns such as the definition of marriage, the distortion of nature or biblical patterns. But often, in doing so, they fail to do justice to the testimony of experience. The reason that many LGBT people care about same-sex marriage is that there are committed same-sex couples who have shown devotion to one another, against all odds and without the support of the wider community, for 10, 15, 20 years (often far longer than many heterosexual marriages). This experience cannot count for nothing. It must at very least be acknowledged in such arguments. 

#5: Address one another’s arguments

Both sides of this debate have a tendency to reduce same-sex marriage to a single issue. In so doing, both ignore the other side’s actual concerns, and instead talk past each other.

The terms “equality”, “rights” and indeed “equal rights” are used frequently by those who support same-sex marriage. The issue is about people’s “right” to marry those they love; opponents are denying them this right. They may see this as the case, but repeatedly asserting this demonstrates an unwillingness to engage with one’s opponents arguments. Instead of just reducing the debate to it being about equality vs. opposition to equality, listen to what those who oppose same-sex marriage are actually saying: very few are opposed to equality overall, but are making more subtle and nuanced arguments.

At the same time, opponents of same-sex marriage often dogmatically re-assert the same points: marriage is about procreation; marriage is God’s intention for man and woman, or, Pope Benedict’s favourite: same-sex marriage is a manipulation of “nature” (like a good, Catholic Thomist natural-law theorist), with people refusing to accept the nature given to them. Instead of re-asserting Aquinas’ thirteenth-century Aristotelian arguments, the Pope might benefit more from listening to what proponents of same-sex marriage are actually saying, and addressing their specific arguments.

Ultimately, these issues mostly boil down to a basic principle of argument: respect for one’s interlocutor. Listening to, understanding and engaging with one with whom one disagrees, instead of misrepresenting them, making assumptions and ascribing unhelpful labels, is surely a more virtuous, and Christian, way of arguing.

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