Christmas. A time for "Peace and Goodwill" to all men. A time for reconciliation. A time for understanding. A time of tidings of great joy, for all the people.
Well, so you may think; but the highest ranked Catholic clergyman in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols (pictured above) used his Christmas Homily at last night's Midnight Mass to launch another broadside at the Government and at Equal Marriage. Furthermore, he attacked those who wish to enter into a marriage which isn't "creative of new human life."
I've generally kept out of the religious aspects of this debate: my own experience of faith is the subject of a separate (long-intended but still unwritten) blog-post. I've no problems with churches teaching that Homosexual acts are wrong - if that's what they (as I) believe scripture teaches*. I've no problem with them not wanting to perform marriages for gay, lesbian or bi couples, if that's what they believe is right - or is God's will. But I do have a problem with them - effectively - seeking a veto over the civil definition of marriage.
Marriage is a social and civil institution - and one in which churches have a big part. Indeed, the churches are part of the reason that marriage has been - and remains, despite falls in numbers conducted over the years - such a popular state. There is an irony then, that they wish to deny access to an institution which they believe is central to society to a chunk of society who want to also share in it. That an institution they believe is essential to a strong society should be exclusive to Heterosexuals only.
But this is the crux: Marriage is a civil institution as well as a religious state. Religious groups (and primarily the churches) come at marriage from a theological viewpoint. They seem unwilling (or incapable) of separating the civil from the religious aspect of marriage. As a result, their arguments against are either irrelevant to the issue of Civil Marriage or spurious.
I believe, therefore, that the Archbishop - and other prominent church figures - would do well to remember the words of Christ when commenting on the issue of Civil Marriage:
"Render unto Caesar, the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's."
- Mark 12 v17
But so much of the debate on Civil Marriage - what about the terms of the debate within the church. What understanding is there of those who juggle their faith and their sexuality?
There are many people of faith, that clearly wish for any commitment of marriage to be performed before their God(s) and not just the state, family and friends. For those in churches whose teachings prohibit this, then they must continue to argue their views inside the framework of those institutions. There are, of course, religious organisations that do, which may provide an alternate home for those who feel marginalised in their current spiritual homes.
As an outsider, it strikes me that the leaders of the major churches would do well to acknowledge that there are those in society - and in their churches - whose lives have taken a different direction form what they consider the "ideal". And that what they expect from the church - especially if they are a believer - is sensitivity, understanding and respect.**
The Archbishop has used a chance to do this in such a way as to rub yet more salt in the wounds of those already struggling with the teaching of the Catholic Church - and to insult those of us outwith it. In speaking of the true meaning of Christmas, he says:
"...Surely it means that all true human loving is now seen to be rooted in, and expressive of, the love which is God, which is seen in this stooping low by God to show us the fullness of that divine love. Surely it means that the love of husband and wife, which is creative of new human life, is a marvellously personal sharing in the creative love of God who brings into being the eternal soul that comes to every human being with the gift of human life." (emphasis mine)
And he goes on to say:
"Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young." (emphasis mine)
If this issue had any place in the Christmas message - and one has to question how it does - it should be to seek to reach out and heal some of the hurt that the debate has caused. To acknowledge that strong words do have the power to cause real pain and seek to provide some salve for the wounds. Instead, the Archbishop has sought to carry on the fight against a change in Civil Law which will not affect the Catholic Church this side - one suspects - of Hell freezing over. And, additionally, to steal some Christmas cheer from many within the church, and outside.
*I'm not in favour of them teaching this in Schools, but then I'm also not in favour of state-funded religious schools.
**Such sensitivity and respect should be two-ways: something that is often forgotten on my side of the debate.