Jeffrey John, The Guardian, 14th August 2012
Since 2005, same-sex couples in Britain have been able to contract a civil covenant which gives them the same legal protection and framework as heterosexual marriage. It is an act of legislation that has been almost universally acknowledged as a great good, a real advance for social stability and human happiness.
The official church – and here my concern is mainly with the Church of England – is one of the few public domains where this development has been only grudgingly accepted, and in some quarters vehemently opposed. In recent years, while society has moved towards acceptance, the church has arguably moved in the opposite direction.
When the archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was succeeded by Rowan Williams in 2002, most expected a change of approach, not least since Williams himself had endorsed an ethical framework for gay relationships and personally campaigned against the culture of lying about homosexuality that obtains in the church. Tragically, he changed his public position as soon as he reached the throne of St Augustine. Since then the church's line on homosexuality has continued to harden. The CofE has refused to countenance any form of official liturgical recognition for civil partnerships; has sought special exemptions from human rights and equalities legislation in order to continue discriminating against openly gay clergy or gay employees; has repeatedly restated its condemnation of all sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage; and has formally debarred even celibate gay clergy from becoming bishops.
Most recently, the bishops of the CofE have set themselves against government proposals to extend civil marriage to include same-sex couples. Their opposition is above all a public and political stance which is intended to maintain ecclesiastical unity, particularly within the Anglican communion. About half the world's Anglicans are African, and the majority of them are in violently homophobic countries whose churches back harsh punishments against homosexuals, right up to the death penalty.
These are the Anglican provinces which the current policy is seeking to appease and keep on board, while the American and Canadian Anglican churches that now openly bless gay unions and consecrate gay bishops are condemned for daring to treat gay people equally.
This policy may be institutionally expedient, but it is morally contemptible. Worst of all, by appeasing their persecutors it betrays the truly heroic gay Christians of Africa who stand up for justice and truth at risk of their lives. For the mission of the CoE the present policy is a disaster.
Superficially there is little difference between civil partnership and marriage, as both rest on a similar covenant promise of permanent and exclusive commitment between two people. Popular instinct agrees: civil partnership is already widely referred to as marriage, and the partnership ceremony as a "wedding".
However, the official distinction of terms signifies and helps perpetuate a distinction in status: if marriage is the gold standard, civil partnership, though analogous to marriage, will always be seen as something less.
Theologically it is crucial that the relationship rests on the same sacramental understanding of marriage as reflecting God's covenanted love for us. Gay monogamy needs to be called marriage officially, as it already is instinctively and unofficially by many people, not simply because it must be seen to be equal, but because it must be seen to be equally holy, equally a gift and vocation of God to those who are called to it.
Here is a prediction. When civil gay marriage becomes possible the church will initially continue to refuse to accept it, but will call for the continued availability of civil partnerships so that it can offer gay people a second best while reserving the term marriage for heterosexuals.
In statements opposing gay marriage, the church's official spokesmen have already begun to praise the benefits of civil partnership, having conveniently forgotten that the civil partnership legislation only passed despite opposition from most bishops in the House of Lords.
Civil partners will no doubt soon be offered a service of "dedication" of the same sort that divorced heterosexuals used to be offered when a full church marriage was denied to them.
Already the demand for such a liturgy is growing among clergy, who are embarrassed by having to withhold the church's official support from so many of their own flock who are in civil partnerships. It will take a long time for the church to come round to solemnising same-sex marriage. But it will. The question is only how long it will take, and how much more damage we shall have to suffer on the way. The sadness is that the church will, yet again, only get there reluctantly, following the state, and will finally realise much too late that the impulse which brought this about was truly God's impulse, even though it had to begin outside the church. As with the equality of women, as with the emancipation of slaves, the thing which at first was supposed to be incompatible with scripture and tradition will finally be seen to be demanded by the heart of the Christian gospel itself. That is how it so often has been; but how bizarre that so few see it in advance.
As Jim Cotter wrote 20 years ago: "There are four stages in the church's response to any challenge to its tradition. First, it pretends the challenge isn't there. Secondly it opposes it vehemently. Thirdly, it starts to admit extenuations and exceptions. Finally it says: 'That's what we really thought all along'."