Today has witnessed the first legal same-sex marriages within England and Wales. This development heralds the movement into a new stage of public discourse surrounding marriage, within which a different set of issues will become more prominent and pressing. The following are some thoughts at the current juncture in the cultural conversation.
1. Irrespective of its legality, same-sex marriage still isn’t marriage.
In challenging same-sex marriage, our argument has not been that it shouldn’t be permitted, but that it isn’t possible. Calling the union between two persons of the same sex a ‘marriage’ doesn’t make it one, even if that definition is made legally binding. Marriage names the committed sexual union between a man and a woman. By recognizing and naming its unique character and significance, it protects and celebrates the natural relation that brings the sexes together, within which new life is brought into existence, and by which humanity is constituted as a race. This natural relation is the source of our deepest given bonds and integral to the well-being of society, providing a horizon of our existence and relations that precedes and transcends law, politics, technology, and economics, disclosing the primary telos of our sexed bodies and the deep natural grammar whereby we exist through, by, and with others. While Christians recognize a deeper set of issues that are at stake here (about which more soon), recognizing and upholding the natural reality at the heart of marriage and resisting the pressure to present it as being on a par with other forms of sexual relations is a matter of importance for society and its members more generally.
2. We’ve lost a big battle, but the war is far from over.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is a big step in the direction of the normalization of such relations and a significant milestone in our culture’s forgetting of the meaning of marriage. Nevertheless, the currency that same-sex marriages will have in our society is not singlehandedly determined by their being enshrined in law. It is far from assured that placing same-sex unions on a par with relations between the sexes in law will lead to the same equivalence being maintained in the minds and imaginations of the public. While same-sex marriages are now legal, we should seek to ensure that the public continues to regard such marriages as if in scare quotes or with an asterisk attached. The public may want to tolerate such unions, but that does not mean that they are on board with all for which they stand. As marriage culture deteriorates in our society more generally it may well be the case that the preservation of a robust definition and practice of marriage within the Church will lead people to recognize how chipped the coin of marriage is in the society more generally and not give it the currency that it claims for itself. Here the ‘quadruple lock’ may prove very significant.
3. The legalization of same-sex marriage further pushes open the door on other cultural struggles.
When society holds homosexual relations on a par with those between a man and a woman, it compromises its well-being on various fronts. Perhaps some of the most immediate effects are seen in the gradual diminishment of the significance of and weakening of the protections for the natural bonds between a child and their mother and father. The rights of children to their natural mother and father or to a mother and father more generally are compromised as same-sex marriage leads to a normalization of circumventions of procreative relations in favour of the use of reproductive technologies, economic transactions, or legal arrangements. With the legalization and normalization of same-sex marriage, it will be increasingly difficult to speak publicly of having a mother and father as natural, ideal, and normal, or to speak of the bond between children and their parents in terms of natural procreation. The normalization of same-sex unions will also encourage a decay of any public discourse concerning what is ‘natural’ in the sphere of human relations—between children and parents, between the sexes, or within wider family networks—and the elevation of social and legal constructivism over all else in this area.
4. The legalization of same-sex marriage gives momentum to other challenges to marriage.
Now that the big wave of same-sex marriage has broken down our cultural defences, successive waves will find fewer obstacles to their ingress. One of the developments that we should expect over the next decade are a push towards the normalization of non-monogamy, ‘monogamish’, or ‘open’ marriages. A number of the gays and lesbians who have been interviewed or have written on the subject of the legalization of same-sex marriage in the UK over the last few weeks have pointed out that gays and lesbians will retailor the institution for their own needs and preferences. Some have even used the language of ‘redefinition’. The sexual exclusivity of marriage is one thing that will be steadily challenged, weakened, or abandoned over the coming years. A further possible development is a rise in advocacy for the legalization of polyamorous relations.
5. This has the benefit of clarifying where we stand.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is a signal development within what has for the most part been a slow and gradual erosion of the institution of marriage. The foundations of the institution of marriage have been crumbling for decades. However, now that one of the walls of the institution has dramatically fallen away, there is a greater chance of making people aware of what is taking place. We would be deeply mistaken to see same-sex marriage as a development unrelated to previous developments in marriage more general. It is the cultural decay of the meaning of marriage between men and women and marriage culture more generally that has led quite directly to our current situation. For Christians, this development also clarifies where we stand with respect to our wider society and government. Christian values, which were formerly honoured and protected now seem to be in jeopardy and protection for Christian conscience, teaching, and practice are matters of growing concern. Our full participation in the public square and the right to air and uphold historic Christian convictions in education and elsewhere are increasingly uncertain. The expression of many Christian convictions is in danger of being consigned to private reservations and excluded from the broader realm of political, economic, cultural, and civil life. Christians who uphold and express orthodox views on sexual ethics risk marginalization, stigmatization, discrimination, or cultural exclusion. All of this will help Christians to process the fact that we are no longer a Christian country and will have the benefit of teaching us to act and think accordingly. While it has been important to address these issues publicly and politically, our primary concern should be that of creating a distinct culture within the Church, one which exposes the failures in the wider society.
6. As the primary context for our marriage apologetics shifts, we have the advantage of appealing more frequently and explicitly to some of our deepest, distinctively Christian, convictions about marriage.
In the more general cultural and political debate around marriage, in defending marriage we had to limit ourselves to secular categories and principles. While such defences are quite possible and still necessary—Christianity does not have any monopoly upon natural marriage—as the contrast between orthodox Christian understandings of marriage and those of the culture becomes sharper, we will spend more time defending marriage on our home turf. Here we have many more resources and arguments to call upon in its defence. We can make clear, for instance, that same-sex relations are an idolatrous distortion of the image of God—an offence directly against God and against human nature. We can also ground our defence of marriage upon the robust account of nature and teleology that exists within Christian orthodoxy.
7. Many of us will face a raft of new problems of conscience, tensions in our relationships, and difficulties in our workplaces.
Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized, those of us who still believe that such unions are not marriages will face pressures upon our convictions from various angles, personal, relational, legal, social, and political. Some of us will be invited to the gay weddings of friends or family. We will face the challenge of being seen to be rude and intolerant in standing for our convictions. We may risk losing or hurting friends or being socially ostracized. Others of us may be in forms of work that will require us tacitly or openly to approve of such unions with our actions or words, to facilitate the formation of such unions, or to act in terms of their legitimacy. We will need a great deal of grace, nerve, and wisdom in the coming years as these issues are ever more likely to hit closer to home.
8. We need to maintain a resolute and vocal witness on this matter.
We can reasonably regard the first legal same-sex marriages as nails in the coffin of the public debate on this matter. For many Christians who have opposed same-sex marriage, the closing of the public debate will lead to a change in their stance on the issue. Instead of openly speaking out on the matter, they will quietly resist or disapprove of it, regarding it as a lost cause. However, as in the case of abortion, even if there is no change of changing law or government policy, we need to bear a firm and uncompromising witness. Our witness to marriage and Christian sexual ethics are not merely apologetic in character, depending upon a public hearing for their rationale, but are essential dimensions of our Christian identity and testimony within a society. We aren’t merely in a position where we ‘can’t approve of’ same-sex marriage, but in one in which we must actively disapprove of them and have the responsibility to declare this fact as part of our Christian witness. This isn’t going to get any easier.
9. Grace is essential.
Holding a Christian position on same-sex marriage is increasingly going to put us in the position of being regarded as hateful, intolerant, uncivil, and disrespectful. Being in such a position is profoundly uncomfortable for many of us, especially as we instinctively desire to make clear our unconditional love for our gay and lesbian neighbours, friends, and family members. When our Christian witness will lead to our motives being maligned, aspersions being cast on our characters, and being represented as hating people for whom we care about deeply, it can be painful and difficult to maintain it. We must pray for wisdom and opportunity to express such concern, care, and love in such a manner that the true nature of and motives driving our resistance to same-sex marriage will be apparent. Sadly, for other Christians a different struggle will exist. For such Christians, the legalization of same-sex marriage will excite anger, hate, and bitterness towards gays and lesbians who are perceived to be vicious opponents of Christians. We must make clear the sinful character of such passions, wherever they might take root in our hearts. The Christian response to our gay and lesbian friends and neighbours should never be characterized by bitterness, spitefulness, or vengefulness, but must be expressed in a love addressed to them as they are—not to what we might want them to be—and a general pattern of behaviour towards them characterized by respectfulness, grace, and compassion.
10. This is a time for repentance.
In light of this latest development, we should recognize our own complicity within it. We should recognize how our failure to bear strong witness to the decay of marriage paved the way for this. We should recognize how Christians’ hatred and their use of God’s truth to justify and underwrite their hatred—and the way that many of us, while not following along, stood silently by while this was taking place—have given ammunition to those who dismiss the orthodox Christian position as a mere cloak for homophobia. We should recognize how professing Christians have contributed to the oppression of LGBT persons within our society in a manner that left our society and the Church without the moral credibility to withstand the unreasonable demands of the gay rights movement. Rather than just lamenting the state of our nation, let’s take this opportunity to lament the shameful role that we have played in its creation and seek both for God’s forgiveness and that of our neighbour.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I have written lengthier treatments of the subject of same-sex marriage in various places in the past. The following are the main examples:
The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation
Questions and Answers on Same-Sex Marriage
The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage—Part 1, Part 2, Part 3