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Bishop of Exeter: 'Gay marriage is not a faith issue – it is a challenge to our society'

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 29, 2012

The Bishop of Exeter

The Bishop of Exeter

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The Bishop of Exeter the Rt Rev Michael Langrish debates redefining marriage.

Humpty Dumpty sat on his wall talking to Alice: "There's glory for you," he said. "I don't know what you mean by glory," Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't till I tell you. I meant there's a nice knock down argument for you." "But glory doesn't mean a nice knock down argument," Alice objected. "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

That is precisely how it appears to be with the Government's use of the word 'marriage'. A shared common meaning, with its roots deep in all cultures and faiths, is to be thrown aside and the term re-fashioned to mean what they wish it to mean, though reading the Government's response to the Consultation and the Secretary of State's Statement to the House of Commons, so many questions are left unanswered that I am not sure that the Government knows what it wants to mean!

Maria Miller has spoken of how marriage has evolved through human history; and it is true that it has, but one thing and one thing only has remained constant and that is that it relates to the union of a man and a woman. There have been many other restrictions on such unions which have varied from time to time and place to place with different laws relating to age of consent, number of permitted spouses, termination and what is allowed or prohibited or allowed between members of the same family group. What has stayed constant is an understanding that marriage is between male and female, based on the complementarity of the two sexes.

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Those who advocate 'same sex' or 'equal' marriage have sought to define opposition to this development as a 'faith' issue. That is simply untrue. It is a societal issue, as it redefines marriage and that will have consequences for us all. For example, common to the definition of marriage up until now accepted by both Church and State, has been an understanding that the making of a marriage is not completed in the marriage ceremony – wherever that may take place. It must be 'consummated' in the sexual union of male and female, an act which also brings with it the potential for the creation of new life. Failure to consummate has been one of the grounds on which a marriage may be declared as invalid and annulled. What does consummation mean in the case of two people of the same gender? The Government has said that this is a matter that will be left to the courts. But then either there must be two separate definitions of marriage, which ministers say there cannot be, or else these judicial decisions will shape how any marriage including those already in existence, will be said to be a true marriage. In spite of this huge difficulty, until this point I thought I could see where the Government was coming from. Why was it that civil partnerships were insufficient for those of the same gender who wished to make a public commitment to a permanent sharing of their lives? As we know, the law already provides for those in civil partnerships to share in the same legal benefits of marriage, and if there are remaining differences, it is easy to tidy up the law. However it seems that something more is being sought here because a civil partnership is simply an act of registration. Marriage however, in law, is seen as a 'performative act' bringing something new into being, something that until the exchange of vows and consummation did not exist. A desire for such a performative, celebratory act are aspirations I can understand and there are ways in which the law could be changed without depriving the concept of marriage of its single, central meaning.

But then Maria Miller suggested that an existing civil partnership could be transformed into a 'marriage' simply by signing a register. And if one marriage is simply a matter of civil registration with no vows, no performative acts and no criteria for consummation, then for every other marriage it must be the same; and each of us who is married will have seen that to which we have committed ourselves – some of us over many decades – irrevocably changed.

The Government has been keen to portray any difficulties with what they are proposing as an issue of faith, but it is a matter that touches one of the key building blocks of our society and therefore affects us all. It is not just a matter of special provisions for churches and other faith communities. Exemptions from conducting 'gay marriages' are being offered to churches, but nothing is being said about the education that is to be offered through Church schools. In Devon 30% of Primary School pupils attend Church Schools, and our presence in the Secondary sector is growing. Are Church schools to be allowed to teach a traditional understanding of marriage while in non-church schools a different understanding is to be taught? Or will Church Schools be forced by law to conform to a new understanding which has no roots in the doctrines of any of the major faith communities? If so this sets an extraordinary precedent for the State's power to determine articles of faith, unparalleled in history apart from in those repressive ideological states of the extreme right and left. At this point we will have left the realm of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland for the land of George Orwell's 1984.

Whatever the humane desires and good intentions that may have led Mr Cameron to embark on this project, there are so many unanswered questions and unforeseen consequences that ought to suggest caution before serious damage is done to the very thing that has been so precious a part of our social fabric – the lifelong union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others for the creation and nurture of the generations to come. It is possible that what is created may not even end up fulfilling the hopes of those couples it was intended to serve.

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  • Gh0sty  |  January 05 2013, 5:57PM

    Its about time you and the rest of the church removed its head from its own backside and started realising there is a real world out there instead of doggedly following what is essentially a work of fiction (like all the major religious txts) written when peoples views were so bigoted that they stoned people for looking at them the wrong way. If to people love each other and want to get married, be they black, green, gay, straight or otherwise you should be condoning and supporting their decision instead of condemning them out right because it doesnt fit in with your bigoted outdated religious beliefs. Is it any wonder that religion is the biggest excuse for causing pain and suffering in the world today when its still thinks its living in the dark ages!!

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  • larryfroot  |  January 05 2013, 2:02PM

    The church can choose between (the harsher and more hateful) laws of a nomadic desert dwelling confederation of tribes from thousands of years ago, or human rights. They have made their choice; goodbye human rights, hello increasing irrelevance that comes from contradicting one's own mission statement. And I speak as one who has endured exorcisms over his sexuality. Me and the church have personal history, too. Nor Good.

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  • sparklytom  |  January 05 2013, 12:40PM

    How dare this ridiculous man presume to think he is the "authority" on what "defines" marriage? He is a figurehead of an organisation (the Church of England) that was created simply because the King (Henry VIII) wanted to "redefine" his own marriage because the Church of Rome didn't approve! It is only in comparatively recent times that marriage ceased to be simply a matter of the transfer of ownership of a person and property from the bride's father to her husband. The world moves on, mister Langrish. The vast majority of people agree that marriage is a public and legal declaration of love and commitment. It is high time that the CofE was disestablished, that publicly-funded schools cease having "a religious character", and bishops are removed from the House of Lords.

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  • Tattygrass  |  December 29 2012, 5:02PM

    I personally think that churches should not be able to legally marry people. All marriage should be a legal partnership only. Then if those who are religious want a religious ceremony churches would be able to provide this to those they thought suitable. However marriage between two people whatever their gender/sexuality should have nothing to do with the church. In some other countries although couples can have a marriage ceremony in a church this does not make their marriage legal - it has to be registered with the authorities.

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  • tuftyaurelius  |  December 28 2012, 8:00PM

    If as the "learned" bishop says gay marriage is not a faith issue or a religious issue but a SOCIETAL one then he believes that same sex couples should be able to produce children NATURALLY? ...but man-man OR woman-woman sex cannot produce children so artificial means must be used so can the bishop explain then the rights of children in these cases OR DO THEY HAVE NONE??

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  • NickNakorn  |  December 28 2012, 5:17PM

    Dear Rev Langrish, you claim that "Maria Miller has spoken of how marriage has evolved through human history; and it is true that it has, but one thing and one thing only has remained constant and that is that it relates to the union of a man and a woman." but your assumption, perhaps clouded by prejudice or a lack of curiosity, is untrue. In China, ancient Rome and in other cultures this debate has waxed and waned for centuries and the legislation has changed with the social mores and prejudices of the time. Currently, there are about a dozen countries in which equal marriage is now the law and it is being discussed by many more legislatures. So not only is your appeal to history and tradition a fallacious argument, it is factually incorrect. It would be helpful, as a person who has some authority within your organisation and as a representative of an 'established' organisation within our State, if you could publish a retraction of the incorrect information and write a corrective paragraph to put the record straight. It would be sad if a Bishop felt unable to present the facts correctly just to provide 'spin' as I'm sure you will agree. Sincerely, Nick Nakorn

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  • Nick_P2010  |  December 28 2012, 5:15PM

    Odd the bishop complains when he thinks one time honoured tradition is under threat , while being quite happy to ditch another - the traditional season of good will to all - to instead indulge in some crude homophobia.

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  • kdenby  |  December 28 2012, 1:55PM

    The Bish is correct in pointing out the muddle that Maria Miller and the Cameron Government have got themselves into over the issue of gay marriage but he seems (for some reason) to be unwilling to state the obvious solution that the Government should not be interfering with the beliefs of the churches and should leave it up to those churches to have a battle royal with their own gay followers (nobody else cares) - but that would mean disestablishing the Church of England and removing all schools from church control. Now that would be MY solution ......

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  • DocTorre  |  December 28 2012, 1:01PM

    It may be worth pointing out to the Bishop that the legislation will make Equal Marriage possible and not compulsory. Those with a strong faith-based belief system will still be able to avoid marrying someone of the same gender. Meanwhile, those of us free of a religion should be able to carry on with our lives without interference from a declining institution that appears to be way out of touch with our modern nation. Consequently, it may not be surprising that the numbers of Christians are declining at over 1% per year; and that the majority of Britain's Christians are over the age of 55. According to YouGov polling, people support equal marriage by 56% to 36% who are opposed. Significantly, young people are MUCH more supportive than the over 60s. So, some of the 54% of Exeter's population that describe themselves as Christian can continue to refrain from marrying someone of their own gender if they don't want to. Yet, it's worth pointing out that there are many Christians - such as the Quakers - who don't believe that society will unravel if two people who love each other can marry. Incidentally. from the outside it looks like the Church is unhealthily obsessed with what other people do in bed and is deeply suspicious of gay people. Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be treating too seriously the head of an organisation that believes that women are so inferior that they cant be trusted with the same job as himself...

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  • Binary_Sleuth  |  December 28 2012, 12:13PM

    Utter nonsense. If marriage were all about consummation (i.e. the "emission of seed") then is he really suggesting that men who've had a vasectomy or who'd had testicular cancer be banned from getting married? Does he really expect, say, 90-year-old newly-weds to consummate their marriages? And as regards his scaremongering about learning in faith schools, teachers should simply be expected to teach the FACTS. There would be nothing wrong with saying that opposite sex and same sex couples can legally get married but that Christian teaching is that marriage should be limited to opposite sex couples. Christian science teachers don't seem to have a problem teaching about evolution rather than the world being created in seven days. I really do not understand the Bishops assertion that extending the opportunity to get married to same sex couples will somehow "seriously damage... the lifelong union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others for the creation and nurture of the generations to come." Straight people will still continue to get married to each other and have children together.

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