The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has been making headlines over the issue of gay marriage. In opposition to proposals supported by David Cameron, he opposes the possibility of gay marriage, stating that marriage is a bedrock of society and that it would be wrong for the definition to be changed to include same-sex couples.
I've been thinking about this issue for some time - I blogged about it back in 2009, when I suggested that the 'undermine marriage' argument against civil partnerships was unsustainable. Indeed, I suggested that having a means to register legally long-term faithful same-sex relationships should have an ordering and stabilising effect on society, rather than the opposite.
But what of the symbolism of the terminology involved? The legal status and consequences might be the same, but civil partnership doesn't sound the same as marriage. For some gay people, this is seen as a positive. I once heard a lesbian student explain why she would not want a marriage, even if it became legally available, as the term 'marriage' was tainted by patriarchal oppression of women. Likewise, there was an attempt by a heterosexual couple to change the law to allow a civil partnership. However, for others the inability to call their commitment 'marriage' is a shortcoming.
And on top of all of this, the Church of England still has a prominent role in registering marriages, but a very hot and ongoing internal debate on the issue of homosexual relationships. Churches and other religious groups are also concerned that they could be legally forced to celebrate same-sex unions.
Here's a suggestion: why don't we take all the legal stuff out of the hands of churches? What if everyone had to register their relationship in a civil ceremony first, in order to satisfy all the legal issues. Then religious communities could be free to celebrate (or not) the relationships their beliefs could accommodate with complete freedom. For the C of E, that could have some interesting consequences - a step towards disestablishment some might say, not to mention the fear of losing fee income. But maybe that would be a new challenge - what do we want to celebrate with members of our community and why? And where would we draw the line, and who would we leave out?
On this occasion, I don't think the Archbishop has been very wise (if he has been correctly reported). It's perfectly possible to have a dispassionate debate about the definition of the word marriage, and whether it can be applied to anything other than a heterosexual union. Linguistically and culturally one could argue that case, even if you have no objection to same-sex relationships. But that's not what people will hear from the Archbishop, and it appears he was saying more than that. I fear it will only lead to the church as a whole being portrayed (again) as bigoted and prejudiced.