Richard Coles on Gay Marriage

The Reverend Richard Coles (who we interviewed over at the Twurch last year) has written an opinion piece for the Independent responding to Cardinal O’Brien’s “rant” (come on, let’s be honest folks) in the Telegraph on Sunday. It’s an interesting piece that deserves to be dissected because there are a number of assertions that need to be challenged.

What puzzles me most about Cardinal O’Brien’s comments concerning “gay marriage” in the Sunday Telegraph is that they suggest he lives in a world so radically disconnected from mine that we might as well be living in different centuries as well as denominations. I am not surprised that he should seek to defend the institution of marriage – on the contrary – nor am I surprised that he should seek to uphold the Church’s right to decide how it administers the sacraments.

I am surprised, however, that he uses words like “harmful” to describe civil partnerships and the moves to offer civil marriage to same-sex partners as “grotesque” and a form of “madness”. I am surprised because the Cardinal lives, in fact, in the same world as me, a world in which gay couples and colleagues and family and friends are not even unusual, let alone bizarre, a world which, since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, has not fallen apart, but simply showed what we had long suspected: that gay people are not that different from everyone else, and gay relationships are not that different either.

Richard is right that Cardinal O’Brien overstates the case when he calls Civil Partnerships “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”. Whilst I would agree that in some cases they can be harmful spiritually (because to order one’s life against God’s will is by definition spiritually harmful), I can’t see the argument that they are harmful mentally or physically per se. Take for example a celibate gay couple who enter a Civil Partnership to provide each other non-sexual companionship and secure inheritance rights. I can’t see the mental or physical harm in that. What Richard Coles does here is effectively show (without saying it, or actually I think even realising he’s doing it) that for some conservatives the objection to same-sex partnerships is obsessively linked to assumptions around sexual behaviour.

But what’s interesting about what Richard Coles picks up from this section of Cardinal O’Brien’s piece is what he doesn’t refer to. In the same paragraph Cardinal O’Brien makes the very valid point that,

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership … warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

Quite true.

Richard continues,

This seems to be more and more widely understood, if surveys of social attitudes are anything to go by. I suspect Civil Partnerships have played a part in this, making it difficult for people to sustain a caricature of gay people as ‘disordered’ and “intrinsically evil”, as Roman Catholic teaching puts it, if what they encounter is not something sulphurous from the last days of Sodom, but two people celebrating their exclusive and faithful commitment to each other with a slice of cake and a glass of Prosecco thrown in.

This is where Richard Coles is sadly at his most disappointing, because he either (hopefully) unwittingly or wilfully grossly misrepresents that teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue. The Roman teaching is that it is homosexual acts which are disordered and intrinsically evil, not homosexual people. It is the classic behaviour / orientation split, and whilst Richard might reject such a split it behoves him if he wants to be taken seriously to represent accurately the position of those he opposes rather than caricaturing it to make a weak point.

The exact Roman position is,

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

which is not at all what Richard Coles was arguing it was. The Roman Church isn’t saying that gay people per se are disordered, rather that this one aspect of their emotional life is disordered. That’s a huge technical difference.

I appreciate how difficult this emerging truth can be for some to deal with, not least religious groups with traditions which have long denigrated homosexuality and overlooked the God-given dignity of those who find themselves so oriented. I belong to one. I think I appreciate too how religious leaders feel threatened by aggressive secularism and seek to resist what they may interpret as its challenges. But it will get more and more difficult to sustain the former as we get more and more used to the reality of gay relationships; and as for the latter, I fear the Cardinal with this intervention has not halted the onward march of aggressive secularism, but strengthened it.

What do we mean by “emerging truth”? That gay relationships are good? That homosexual acts are not sinful? Interestingly, Richard Coles doesn’t actually engage at all with that theological issue, but this is typical for many in the church who take his position – the argument made is one that is primarily sociological and emotional. Perhaps that is a lesson for conservatives – if we think liberals are light-weight and dodging the issue if they won’t do the theology, why do we put up with those from our own camp who seem to want to make sociological and emotional issues the cornerstone of their own respective argument.

Perhaps the way to handle such an argument is to stick our hands up in the air and say, “Yes, some people in the church have denigrated homosexuals and overlooked the dignity of such people. This isn’t news”. We can then move on and say, “But does accepting people’s intrinsic worth mean that you have to automatically approve of everything they do, that you have to accept that those things are not sinful or be labelled a bigot?” Surely these are two separate issues, the innate worth of every human being made in the Imago Dei and yet at the same time the universality of the Fall and our corruption?


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