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The Curse of Janus 5 February 2013

Posted by Dr Moose in Church, Faith, Life, Ponderings, Self-criticism, Theology.
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“As usual there are many things about which I could write today”. In that single sentence is the summary of one of the recurring dilemmas of my life. It may be seen as an Anglican view, or as an excuse, but I genuinely quite often find myself reduced to an inability to communicate on any one of a number of issues. How? Because circumspection, looking around and trying to see the big picture, is almost inevitably bound to lead to an awareness of conflicting opinions. Some of these may seem specious, lightweight or ridiculous, but not all. I may be driven to distraction by trying to get a simple binary response from my children on something (“yes” or “no” , “porridge” or “pitta bread”), but the truth is that so often I’m no better.

I might be quick at finding fault, with any statement that does the rounds, but that doesn’t always equal a constructive response. Maybe the word “response” is part of the answer. A response is something reasoned and thought through; too often we accept a “reaction”. We like quick, simple and easy answers, but anyone who has ever been through a liberal Western education system (or at least the one I passed through) should remember that many facts and models are provisional, approximations. What I was taught as a seven year old was nuanced and varied as an  eleven year old, and again as a nineteen year old. It makes absolutes hard to come by. It makes me wonder how many of my friends and colleagues presume that I share their opinions simply because I have not disagreed with them.

Today the UK Parliament will vote on whether to accept a re-definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriages to be legal. Arguments, both sensible and rather less sensible have been flying thick and fast. By any liberal standards the right to extend equality of opportunity and welfare between a couple who wish to commit one to the other is a no-brainer. With the passing of legislation on Civil Partnerships a few years back the current Bill before Parliament was inevitable anyway. As a child of the secular West I have no problem with it. As a theologian I remain strangely unconvinced by the “God instituted marriage argument”. There is no doubt that the Judaeo-Christian faith tradition has long-regarded heterosexual marriage as “good” and even “proper”, but whether that same faith tradition can claim to have instituted the practice of marriage, or simply blessed and adopted it is another matter entirely. Likewise appeals to the person and ministry of Jesus (My Boss) remain deeply equivocal. We have no record of Jesus either condemning or condoning homosexual relations. We have plenty about resisting physical temptation, about the specialness of the marriage relationship and about not inflicting capital punishment for adultery though. But we have no clear grounds to enlist his support for either party. “What Would Jesus Do?” He’d probably be more concerned with the welfare of the individual concerned and the discrimination they faced in any arena, not just the obviously sexual one. If he had said anything that deeply contradicted the established order “it’s OK chaps, God doesn’t mind” I’m pretty sure we would have a record of it, so the implication can be drawn of disapproval. But the truth is that we can only infer; I’m not sure we can be guided, let alone legislate.

We do not live in a Christian country, although we live in a sub-Christian country the heritage of which springs from a western interpretation of scripture and tradition. Let the state sanction committed loving same-sex relationships, should it choose to do so (I’ll leave the Party political arguments and conversations about the nature of democracy to others). People will call them what they will anyway. Plenty of gay friends have been calling their Civil Partnerships “marriage” anyway. Plenty opposed, even if the legislation passes will call it ‘marriage’ and hope the scare quotes convey their disapproval.

What concerns me more and more is the inability for anyone to oppose the liberal Zeitgeist without being automatically branded a bigot and n-phobe. To hold a principled opposing position is still right and proper, even if it’s contrary to my position. We in the Church of England have a similar on-going spat over the issue of allowing bishops who happen to be women. My love for neighbour must still extend to those who hold a contrary position, as the love of God extends to all fallen sinful humanity (as if there are any perfected anyway!) I’m saddened by a total lack of reported comment from other “anti” faith communities (as opposed to those who are anti faith communities).

As a legal registrar, by virtue of my position as an Anglican Minister, I find myself in a potentially far more tricky position than many. Let the state sanction committed loving same-sex relationships, should it choose to do so, as I have already said. What it may not do is tell me what to do in this regard. I am a registrar by virtue of being a Minister in the Established Church, and the faith takes precedence over the dictates of the state, even if that is currently unfashionable, and occasionally a cause for state-sanctioned discrimination.

I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t necessarily act as registrar for a homosexual couple, if I were so permitted (which would include all sorts of legal and liturgical hurdles anyway) and so minded. What I am saying is that neither I, nor any of my colleagues, should be required to do so. In reality it might (or might not) surprise people that I would have no problem with asking God’s blessing upon them and their relationship. No problem at all. What I couldn’t do in good conscience is to act in the priestly capacity as “spokesman” for God and pronounce that blessing. I can’t yet discount certain verses of scripture, even if I can rationally understand their logic, why they exist and why we might argue they don’t apply now. A time may come when I think differently.

Yes, it’s very subtle and nuanced. Yes, it’s unusual for me to think in terms of my “office” as a Priest. Of course, as ever, it’s not what you say, but what others hear or understand you as saying, as I know full well, but here I stand, in this as in so many other positions, under the Curse of Janus.

 

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Comments»

1. nickpheas - 5 February 2013

I very reasonable position. I have far more concerns about the idea of an elected official saying that the CofE can never allow such things than the original ‘if the churches want to they can, if they don’t they can’t be forced into it’ proposed.

2. Jane Williams - 5 February 2013

Subtle, yes. To my mind, it depends on the precise conditions under which you’re a legal registrar. If you’re directly paid to do that job, then you should do it – all of it – or get a new job. As a web developer, I do not get a say in the content of the sites I create, and if I refused to create one on the basis that I disagreed with the proposed content, I’d quite rightly be sacked.
But if it’s more that the position for which you’re hired and paid *allows* (rather than requires) you to *also* act as a legal registrar, then yes, I’d say you should obey the rules of your actual employer.

kangerew - 5 February 2013

Ay, there’s the rub: what if God is your employer? That may be a legal fiction but it is still a legal one.
I do not agree with your position vis a vis gay “marriage” in so far as I understand “marriage” by definition to be heterosexual. That is not to say that certain rights and privileges could not be extended to analogous relationships.
By way of analogy: a century ago one major issue in the UK was that of women’s rights (votes, representation in the political process, access to the professions etc). The solution was not in renaming women “men” but was by giving women the vote etc (and a hundred years later could say that it is still a work in progress).
Where I do agree with you is that it is a pity that those with honestly-held but contrary views are too often labelled as bigots or at best “intolerant”. It is one thing to tolerate something one disagrees with, but to tolerate something one believes is profoundly wrong is to risk being hypocritical.

Jane Williams - 5 February 2013

The analogous position here seems to to be saying that “vote” is something that can by “definition” only be done by men, but that women can be allowed to “cast a preference ballot” or some such awkward phrase.
The marriage vows I took (in a registry office) said nothing about the gender or sexual preferences of either party.

But really , why Dr. Moose disagrees with the principle of gay marriage isn’t the point. Assuming that he does, and that he has good reason for this (because this is him, and his reasoning is usually good), the question is, should he have to carry out such things, as a legal registrar rather than as a priest?

3. Dr Moose - 5 February 2013

As a Chaplain I occupy a slightly different position from the one I did as a Parish Priest. In both cases I am permitted to marry a couple and for the church marriage to be recognised as legal by virtue of my Orders in the Church of England.

In the Parish it is a clear part of the role that you marry, or allow to be married by another suitbaly qualified individual, those who come to you who fulfill the legal requirements for marriage. The faith (or lack of it) of either person is not a legal issue. (Therefore if a Roman Catholic bride and a Muslim groom wish to be married in church and fulfil the legal obligations they are entitled to be – a case that came up in a neighbouring parish).

As a University Chaplain I am under no such obligation or expectation. I might be asked by a couple of students or a fellow minister to cover a marriage that they are unable to take (most usual in cases of holidays or vacancies) but I am not obliged to do so, and I do not have suitable premises, since I ma not permitted to conduct a marriage anywhere other than an Anglican Place of Worship.

As regards payment for “work” the legal position, which gives the grounds that mean clergy are self-employed for tax purposes, has recently changed, in that fees that were the legal due of the minister for conducting a marriage (which s/he could chose to retain or not) are now, if I understand it rightly, the perogative of the Diocese.

By implication the fees are there by virtue of being a registrar, not by virtue of being a priest, but as I mentioned above, not acting as registrar (ie not conducting marriages) as a Parish Priest isn’t really an option (and might constitute grounds for disciplinary action)!

Confused yet?

4. Long-lost Babel or Pentecost Presence? | Life, Faith and Role-Playing Games - 2 June 2013

[…] they are held by me, by the church I currently worship in, or by wider society. I have commented elsewhere on my take on the continuing gay marriage debate and find myself being probably in a rather more […]


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