Mike Higton on the Bishop’s Statement

Mike Higton (new to me but really interesting) has written some very incisive stuff on what the House of Bishop’s statement on same-sex marrriage is actually about.

Mike HigtonThe argument of the document (which, let me stress, is not my argument!) can, I think, be set out as follows.

1. There is an essential complementarity between men and women.

2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human society.

This complementarity has been recognised and expressed in societies down the ages; it is ‘enshrined in human institutions throughout history’ (Summary), and this acknowledgment serves ‘the common good of all in society’ (§4).

3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central to the purpose of marriage.

‘Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.’ (Summary.) This is what the document means when it speaks of the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman’ (Summary), and says that ‘marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman’ (§1): the emphasis falls firmly on ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Of course, there are other goods proper to marriage – mutuality and fidelity – but these are not at issue in this debate, nor are they unique to marriage (§9). ‘[T]he uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women’ (§10). This understanding of marriage is ‘a matter of doctrine’, ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (§1), ‘derived from the Scriptures’, and ‘enshrined within [the Church of England’s] authorised liturgy’ (§2).

4. Marriage is the primary social institution by which our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.

‘Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.’ (§11)

5. If marriage ceases to be a way for our society to acknowledge and express this complementarity, our society’s capacity to acknowledge and express at all will therefore be seriously reduced, and society as a whole will be harmed.

This is why the problem can be seen as the government’s attempt ‘To remove the concept of gender from marriage’ (Summary). And this is what is meant by the claim that the proposals would ‘change the nature of marriage for everyone’ (Summary). It’s not that the authors of the report think that the strength of my marriage will be undermined if other people enter into a union of which I disapprove. Rather, they think that marriage as an institution will be less capable of performing one of its most important social functions if it ceases to be clearly defined in gender terms. And this is also what the authors of the report mean when they say that the legislation will involve ‘imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage’ (Summary). The ideology in question is one where ‘men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ (§12) – which is the only alternative the report imagines to its own account of essential gender complementarity. And all of this is why the report can plausibly say that this is not (directly) an issue about the acceptability of homosexual sexual activity, but about the fact that ‘the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good’, and that this will be lost, ‘for everyone, gay or straight’, if ‘the meaning of marriage’ is changed (§5). ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage’ (§13) and ‘the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole’ (§8).

6. The essential complementarity is biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to, capacity for procreation

It is, according to the report, fundamental to the definition of marriage that the couple be ‘open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment’ (§25); it quotes the Common Worship liturgy to the effect that marriage is the ‘foundation of family life in which children may be born’ (§2). More precisely, marriage relies upon a ‘biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation’ (§6); more precisely still ‘This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation’ (§10; my emphasis). ‘And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning’ (§10).

7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in all social institutions.

The report states that ‘a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender’ (§12). After all, this is a fundamental reason for supporting ‘the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions’ (§12). In other words, marriage is the means by which we recognise and celebrate an essential gender complementarity, which needs to be recognised and affirmed for the sake not just of marriage but the sake of ‘all social institutions’, which will flourish more fully if the ‘specific and distinctive contributions from men and women’ are given full expression in them.

And in a prior post.

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.

It’s fascinating stuff and some of those who comment here are already engaging.

15 Comments on “Mike Higton on the Bishop’s Statement

  1. You CoE people would know better, but I don’t think this is a new theology of gender for the Church as Mike Higdon seemed to imply on his blog. And I, as an egalitarian, like this. It may use the word “complementarity” but it’s not defining roles with it. A CoE report from last year (here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1715479/faoc%20marriage%20doc.pdf) said this: “the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of
    God, who ‘created humankind in his image… male and female he created them’. It
    is on male and female that God gives his blessing, which is to be seen not only
    in procreation but in human culture, too (Genesis 1.27-8).” And this:
    “For individuals to flourish, men and women must relate well in a society, offering emotion and perception differences to each other.” There may be other documents in the past that also relate. But I don’t usually follow CoE stuff.

  2. It’s interesting, but it misses the main point: the bishops position is driven by politics, not theology. The conclusion precedes the argument. They’re terrified that, if they affirm gay relationships, both the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion will break apart. Unity is their god.

    I doubt most bishops could care less about complementarianism or gender roles. They’d put their name to most anything that stops rich congregations walking.

      • Don’t worry, ships in the night, you’ll disagree again in short order. :D

        (I get this a lot: think it’s ’cause I frame things in political terms.)

    • James, you are, I think, falling into the common trap of projecting your own sins onto Your opponent. Money, Sex and Power are the gods of liberalism.

      The Bishops are merely defending the historical belief of the Church that marriage is between a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of all others (while adding some sympathetic comments on same sex relationships).

      It is Prof Woodhead’s liberal protagonists, many of whom she says are not even Christians (Prof McCulloch admits he isn’t), who are playing politics with their arguments – by refusing to recognize the other side’s understanding of what constitutes the essentials of marriage.

      • The bishops oppose the whole thing in terms that are now quite different from those alleged in the 70’s, 80’s… They just pick up arguments to suit their end. That’s the very definition of politics to me.

        • Lorenzo, if that is indeed what the Bishop are doing, then it is no worse that the liberal protagonists who pick and choose their principles depending on the outcomes they want.

          However, I think that the discussion regarding divorce and marriage was very different to that on homosexaul relationships – to approve the latter you have to construct a way round the consistent Scriptural condemnation… and probably ruin your faith in the process.

          • Money, sex and power, eh: if they’re the gods of liberalism, they’ve been well hidden!

            If the bishops were merely defending the historic belief of the church, they’d be campaigning against the remarriage of divorcees. And, for that matter, various amusing combinations from the Table of Kindred and Affinity.

            But no, they focus on same-sex marriage. Which, by strange coincidence, is the very issue that excites the Global South & rich evangelical congregations back home.

  3. Abolishing the legal institution of marriage would remove from man-made law all recognition that there are two sexes. That wouldn’t be so bad. But redefining the institution actively legally declares that there are no differences between male and female. That’s insane.

    • I don’t think anyone is saying there are no differences…if there were no differences then homosexual people would be quite happy with people of the opposite sex.

      • Because of what a marriage is – and because of what marriage is legally understood to be – a redefinition is indeed a legal statement that men and women are the same thing. Your second point is true – if men and women are actually the same then sexual difference and sexual sameness are the same. That makes it contradictory to erase “hetero-normativity” by promoting homosexual sexual behaviour – how can the State erase one thing by promoting another when, according to the law itself, there is no difference between the thing being erased and the thing being promoted?!

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