Nick Holtam’s Case for Polygamy

There is nothing new under the sun, and that goes without saying for Bishops attempting to make an argument for same-sex marriage. The latest to have a go is Nick Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury. In a letter to Lord Ali, and printed in the Telegraph today, he makes the following argument.

Nick Holtam - Bishop of SalisburyWhilst marriage is robust and enduring, what is meant by marriage has developed and changed significantly. For example, the widespread availability of contraception from the mid- twentieth century onwards took several decades to gain acceptance for married couples by the Lambeth Conference in 1958. The newer forms of the Church of England’s marriage service have since recognised that the couple may have children. Over the last fifty years the Church of England has come to accept that marriages intended to be lifelong can break down and that on occasion marriage after divorce can be celebrated in the context of Church. It is also the case that most couples now live together before they marry. This happens without censure from the Church which continues to conduct these marriages joyfully even though the Church’s teaching is that sexual relationships are properly confined to marriage.

The desire for the public acknowledgement and support of stable, faithful, adult, loving polygamous sexual relationships is not addressed by the many Biblical passages about polygamy which are concerned with sexual immorality, promiscuity, idolatry, exploitation and abuse. The theological debate is properly located in the Biblical accounts of marriage, which is why so many Christians see marriage as essentially about two people only. However, Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience. Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience. For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation. Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has.

Did I say same-sex marriage? Sorry, I meant polygamy. Sorry, I meant same-sex marriage. Sorry, I meant the relationships that I approve of and which don’t make me go “Ick”.

The ultimate irony of this line of argument (“stable, faithful, adult, loving” – SFAL) is that it’s proponents blatantly do not believe what they say. If Nick Holtam really thought that all that was needed for marriage was stability, faithfulness, adults and love, then he would have to support such polygamous relationships, let alone familial sexual relationships which meet the same criteria. But in actuality, Bishop Nick would probably happily say he doesn’t support such marriages.

If that’s the case, can the good Bishop please amend his argument? If it is only about SFAL, then why condemn other relationships that meet this criteria? Looks like plain old-fashioned bigotry to me. If it’s about more than SFAL, why make an argument for same-sex marriage which is only based on those four factors?

As it stands, the Bishop of Salisbury has made a magnificent argument for polygamy. I wish him much success in convincing the House of Bishops of its merits.

7 Comments on “Nick Holtam’s Case for Polygamy

  1. What I find disappointing is the way things are elided. For instance, is joyfully marrying people who have lived together really the same thing as celebrating extra-marital relationships? We could be celebrating the fact that they’re now putting that relationship right through marriage. The contraception and break with children argument is a lot stronger, but there again, the understanding in Protestant circles does tend to be that contraception is being used to plan the family, not to prevent it altogether. When couples simply don’t have any children at all the assumption in conservative Christian circles is that ‘there must be a problem’ and everybody feels sorry for the couple.

    It’s this kind of carelessness, rather than the polygamy point, that makes me distrust this kind of ‘we’ve changed our beliefs before so why can’t we change them again’ argument.

  2. ‘I wish him much success in convincing the House of Bishops of its merits’

    Careful what you wish for! There’s certainly a greater acceptance of polyamory in general society and -on the sort of arguments we’ve seen for SSM- as you’ve noted, why not? It’s pleasurable, consensual, stable -and a few extra incomes in a household wouldn’t go amiss!

  3. Ha! Ha! Nice fisking. Polygamy will come to the UK when the Muslim majority demand it. After all, it’s part of sharia.

  4. The State may choose to legislate in support of same-sex marriage, but the church has no mandate to follow suit.

    The church marriage ceremony is an act of representative affirmation based on scripture. it is not apartheid, to assign greater privilege and duties on society to recognise a behaviour that is more crucial than others to the development of society. Same-sex marriage imposes a duty on others to recognise homosexual acts as equivalent in importance to society as unions that have the potential to provide children who need parents to survive. Such a duty is undeserved.

    Race is not behavioural, homosexual acts are. Homosexual acts are not equivalent in societal importance to heterosexual acts as the latter can normatively result in children. It is of considerable benefit to society to privilege those who pair with each other with a readiness for the potential impact of this important natural outcome. Therefore, by the apartheid comparison, he is mere piggy-backing a duty to endorse homosexual acts on the duty to support a non-behavioural identity, like race.

    In respect of church affirmation of homosexual acts, with a few strokes of his pen, the bishop dismisses as inapplicable any NT reference that condemns homosexuality by claiming that only those homosexual relations that exhibit concomitant ‘sexual immorality, promiscuity, exploitation and abuse’ are within the scope of denunciation. It’s called question-begging when you asssume the morality of modern homosexual relations is beyond the scope of scripture, when it is that very question that is under examination.

    In contrast to his position on scripture, in Romans 1, St. Paul condemns homosexual acts as contrary to our originating nature: ‘para phusis’. Consonant with this, when challenged on the nature of marriage, Christ said of concessions under Moses: ‘It was not so from the beginning.’ There is no basis for exception by means of the presence or absence of other moral failures that Paul mentions. He simply identifies a range of symptoms that result from Man’s departure from our originating nature.

    Jesus also endorsed the originating nature and purpose of human sexuality as the basis for marriage, in challenging the Pharisees’ trivialisation of divorce. The scripture he quoted present marriage as a binary and permanent partnership that furthers biological kinship. A homosexual relationship cannot deliver this.

    The bishop simply holds to a special pleading for an exception on account of his liberal views about sex.

  5. Well argued comment (I thought anyway) on the Telegraph site by Ros_Power (7.43am)….I’m not sure if the rules allow me to paste it so I won’t.

  6. The “if gay marriage, why not polygamy and incest” argument is well-used, including by me. However, as Lazarus suggests, there is a problem. As and when society (or the part of society that we are addressing) decides that one or both is not abhorrent after all, then our argument falls flat. It looks like we are simply intolerant of tastes which differ from our own.

    I think Christians largely missed the boat on divorce and gay sex. Let’s not do the same with gay marriage. Can we start now with an argument that could withstand further degeneration in our society? I think we need to talk in positive terms about marriage and sex, and what they are for. And I think we need to refer to God, since we can’t trust society’s morals to provide a basis. Any suggestions for a brief way of expressing this clearly?

    • ‘I think we need to talk in positive terms about marriage and sex, and what they are for’

      That’s true, but society could still decide that positive statements about marriage and sex are irrelevant to society.

      What I do think is that underlying much of our relentless Christian apologetics in this regard is the belief that eventually a thoughtfully constructed argument will find political acceptance, once it is presented with rational, ather than theological underpinnings.

      Yet. all of the reasoning in the world could not persuade Herod Antipas to respect the Mosaic prohibitions that would prevent him from marrying the ex-wife of his brother, Herod Philip.
      As with the hardening of the Pharisees opposition to Jesus, especially after the raising of Lazarus, Abraham’s summary of reprobation (in Jesus’ parable) continues to ring true:
      ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even
      if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:29)

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