I was writing an opinion piece recently on "gay marriage" (not for the blog) when the thought occurred that an interesting parallel to the gay activists' demand for public celebrations of their unions was the campaign for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church. In both cases the necessary first step was the challenging of a hitherto universally shared assumption, that is, one of those undebated beliefs that make communities cohere and which, if questioned, can be difficult to defend by argument. In the case of marriage this is the belief that only a man and a woman can enter into the wedded state. In the case of the ordination of women it was that the clergy had to be male. The assault on the latter proposition came from feminism in the 1960s. Although most feminists couldn't have cared less about the church except insofar as its traditional practice presented a "glass ceiling" to be smashed there were shrill denunciations of "patriarchy" in the liberal secular press and demands that Anglican women be "empowered". Within the church the women's ordinationists were at first a small minority, as are those who campaign for gay wedlock. When these ladies asked why women could not be ordained the reply from "middle of the road" and liberal theologians and bishops was, well, precedent really. Christ had commissioned only men as apostles and the church had followed on from that. But, the feminists persisted, Christ had not explicitly excluded women from ministry. Further, as a product of his (supposedly) misogynistic times His choice of men was "culturally determined". It was up to us today, they argued, to do what Christ would Himself have done if He had had the advantage of living in more enlightened times such as ours. (On this reasoning, if selecting apostles today Christ would have ensured not only gender but ethnic balance. The Twelve would have looked like one of those group shots government social services have taken for their publicity blurb.)
The innovators got their way. Only the shared assumption had preserved the traditional practice and now the assumption had been challenged and found impossible to defend in a synodical church where votes can determine doctrine. Evangelicals and some Anglo-Catholics who said women's ordination was against God's will were outvoted in most first-world dioceses, although where they were especially strong, or agreed to form alliances, they were able either to block or delay the enabling legislation for priestesses (and later bishopesses). But for other Anglicans it was a case of applying the legal principle that if something is not statutorily forbidden it is permissible. A formula was devised that there were "no fundamental theological objections" to the ordination of women. No specific warranty, no, but no Biblical prohibition either: a victory by default. In time the majority, which generally in cases of radical change demanded by minorities, once it gets bored with or worn down by the incessant campaigns of the innovators, comes round to accepting whatever is proposed, came to terms with priestesses as part of the Anglican landscape, though the price has been a permanent division in the church.
So, in the wider community, will the advocates of gay marriage get their way. Their most persuasive argument against the assumption that only men and women can marry because only men and women can procreate is that since marriage is available to male-female couples who can't have children it is unjust to deny this right to same-sex couples. And there is always IVF or adoption to turn to to render the gay marriage a parental union as well. Proponents of the rights culture are doing their bit by claiming that it is "discriminatory" - a cardinal sin in our times - not only not to allow gays to marry when other non-procreating couples can but to deny them the opportunity to "celebrate" their love in public.
Gay marriage will in due course contribute to the thriving divorce industry with attendant rows over property and (if there are any) children from which only lawyers will benefit. But that happens already between unmarried couples when their idyll is rent asunder and is irrelevant to the debate.
At a time when marriage between heterosexuals is in decline one suspects that the campaigners for gay marriage are interested not so much in marriage per se as in the seal of community approval of their lifestyle that the right to get married will confer. If and when they get that right will it be a nine-day wonder? Will marriage eventually become old hat for gays as it has for many straights? Will the passage of time reverse the demand for public recognition of gay love so that from gays too we shall hear all the anti-marriage arguments about not needing ceremonies or pieces of paper to live out their commitment to each other? Probably. But before that can happen one of the shared assumptions on which our civilisation has rested will have been lost and our already confused sense of who we are and what we believe weakened that little bit more.
20 January 2012