John Shepherd: Marriage shouldn't be clergy's business
By John Shepherd

28 May 2001

SHOULD the Christian church bless same-sex relationships? Should the church marry gay couples? These questions have recently received considerable publicity in response to a compassionate and essentially conservative document prepared by the Anglican primate of Australia, Dr Peter Carnley.

There is scope for further discussion of this question, taking into account the biblical imperatives to which Christians adhere.

The first point that needs to be established is that the biblical writers were conditioned by their culture.

The fact that their writings afford us special insights into the foundations of our faith doesn't mean they are relevant to contemporary culture. The biblical writers faced different questions to those we face today and they produced answers that don't necessarily have any relevance for us now.

What's important for us is not so much the actual answers they gave, but the fundamental principles that originally prompted those questions and answers. Our job is then to apply these principles to our contemporary situation in a meaningful and relevant way. And we are free to do this because the biblical writers themselves did it. Take Paul, for example. He advocated abandoning the food laws, relinquishing the observance of the Sabbath, and dropping circumcision - all, to his mind, products of a different culture, and irrational as necessary signs of faith in his contemporary situation. For him the gospel was liberty. We must continue to follow Paul's example.

In about 1940 the archbishops of Canterbury and York finally said it was permissible for women not to wear hats in church, despite Paul and the First Letter to the Corinthians.

We've lived through the Anglican Church's decision to allow divorced people to be remarried, to ordain women to the priesthood and to allow divorced people to be ordained. And if we are to continue to live in the freedom that Christ has brought - that is, in the life of love that the Gospels proclaim - I believe we should be accepting and supportive of same-sex relationships and homosexual male and female clergy.

To the question "Is it all right for a Christian to do this?" the answer must be yes. We are free to love as appropriately in our culture as Paul was free to love within the framework of his.

The second point relates to the church's role within the institution of marriage.

In the history of Western Christendom, it wasn't until the 11th century that the church made its colossal takeover and claimed that marriage was its special preserve (as in a dim sort of way people still often suppose). Even then, it continued to recognise the validity of marriage without the benefit of clergy - simply, that is, by mutual consent.

The stultifying and ultimately absurd dogma that marriage without the services of a priest was no marriage didn't emerge until the 16th century, which makes it a pretty recent development in the history of the church.

The time has long passed for us to be liberated from the medieval notion that it is the church's role to be the moral arbiter of relationships, or somehow to possess the authority to grant or withhold approval for those couples who come seeking God's blessing upon their relationship. It is the ultimate absurdity for clergy to be blessing inanimate objects such as restaurants, boats, pharmacies and cricket bats, yet to deny a blessing to a couple who are concerned enough to request one, divorce or sex notwithstanding.

To be freed from the notion that it is the role of the church to be responsible for the legalities of marriage would go some way, I believe, in encouraging the church to shed the judgmental frame of mind that such attention to legalities seems inevitably to encourage. Clergy would then be more likely freed to concentrate solely upon their authentic role - that of providing blessings to all who request the assurance of God's grace. Such a step carries with it the additional benefit of being able to bypass the complex and, one suspects, ultimately fruitless task of trying to distinguish between the state of marriage and the state of friendship in order to accommodate the issue of gay relationships.

It is the role of the church to facilitate mutual expressions of love, to affirm responsible and caring partnerships, and to assure all couples of God's blessing upon their life together, not to sit in judgment upon them, nor to have the temerity to assume the role of self-appointed watchdog of the so-called moral climate of a particular culture.

It is not the business of the church to arbitrate, to judge, or to impose restrictions upon human relationships. And it is not the business of the church to arbitrate upon issues of gender, but rather to affirm the promise of God's love in the context of loving and responsible relationships.

For the church to be able to fulfil its proper function, it needs to get out of the business of administering those procedures of marriage that bestow legal status with regard to rights and benefits, and which carries with it the opportunity to discriminate and reject, and concentrate on its fundamental purpose - the assurance of divine love upon a co-operative partnership entered into by people brought together by their God-given capacity to love. It's time to get back to basics.

Dr John Shepherd is the Anglican Dean of Perth

Your feedback: At last! Commonsense! Keith Gill

Whilst biblical writers were conditioned by their culture, God is not. God was not conditioned by the culture of the time when he destroyed Sodom and Gemorah. God was not conditioned by the culture of the time when he punished the Israelites for brief periods of sexual immorality. Holiness and sexual holiness are high on God's agenda. I agree that the message of the bible is about love, but it is love based on biblical principles of a self-sacrifical nature, not love influenced by the culture of the time. Julian Gamble

I readily agree with the enlightened article of John Shepherd. I am a civil marriage celebrant. I was for many years a Roman Catholic priest. Having been part of religious and civil ceremonies since 1967 it has become obvious that a triumphal church has lost a power that it saw as belonging to its mission. The christian churches have readily focused on their role as custodians to the legalistic way society works. All of this was in the name of supposed morality. This has been at the expense of assuring their followers that the unconditional love of a personal God was the reason for the existence of the institution in the first place. Now the opportunity is before the churches to gladly shed themselves of the legalistic baggage that has nothing to do with the Gospels they purport to acknowledge. J. Hill