Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

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.


Raybeard said...

Yes, your opening words here were EXACTLY my thoughts when this item kept cropping up as a prominent item (often being the headlines) on yesterday's news - and the wretched thing is still there today! Goodwill to ALL men? Hmmm, quite!

And if I were further to write to comment on the interminable equation of equal marriage support to Nazism I'm afraid I'm going to burst a blood vessel. So for my own health's sake I won't.

John McKeown said...

“the love of husband and wife, which is creative of new human life” - and it sounds like Vincent Nichols is defining marriage by its role in reproduction, which to my ears devalues marriages where the husband and wife have no intention of having children. @jpmckeown

J.E.S.Bradshaw said...

Andrew Brown, the three most significant words in your blog are 'As an outsider'... I'm sorry that the Catholic Church's message on this issue has still not been made clear to you, though I'm not going to take on that role here. And while you sum up your view of the purpose of Christmas with a few well-turned cliches, Christmas is also time for Church leaders to speak to the faithful on important spiritual and social issues. The problem with Archbishop Nichols' choice of Christmas for this particular message (one, incidentally, that I otherwise applaud and welcome) is that 'outsiders', in your word, who don't like it will be distracted by and try to make something of the timing. One final point, though; the role of the Church - any church but especially the Catholic Church - is to state clearly its views on the issues of the day, whether or not those views accord with general opinion, or, as in this case, the opinion of a vocal and skilled minority. And the Church is certainly not here to follow general opinion, least of all when it believes that opinion to be wrong.

Andrew Brown said...

@ J. E. S. Bradshaw

I may be an outsider to the Catholic church, but as a former active Christian I'm not an outsider to the meaning of Christmas - indeed, I used scripture in my introductory paragraph - even if you did feel this was clichéd...

Of course the Church should espouse it's teaching - but I was taking issue with the timing. The Archbishop took the opportunity to shoe-horn his comments on the subject into a Christmas Homily on the basis that it would reach beyond the "faithful" to the once-a-year churchgoers and would be reported widely in the media.

What irks me most, though, is the way that the churches put up spurious argument after spurious argument on an issue which does not affect them. Homosexuals being able to marry - either Civily or in churches which opt-in to the system - does not affect the integrity of the marriages of heterosexuals or those who opt for religious ceremonies.

Finally, I'd take issue with your statement that, in this case, the church is at odds with a "vocal and skilled" minority when latest polling suggests that the majority of the public are in favour. NOT, of course, that that is ever a reason to follow a given course of action but merely to say that, generally, the populace don't see what the churches' issue is.

Anonymous said...

In July 2011, the Archdiocese of Westminster agreed to host a conference in its diocesan pastoral centre (All Saints, London Colney) for an organisation called Quest, which describes itself as aimed at gay people "seeking ways of reconciling the full practice of their Catholic faith with the full expression of their homosexual natures in loving Christian relationships".

J.E.S.Bradshaw said...

The word 'outsider' was your choice, not mine.

For entirely different reasons from yours I question the Archbishop's choice of Christmas for this statement. I cannot, of course, tell you why he spoke now, but I am certain it's not for the reasons you proposed. The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, a large, significant and influential (whether you like it or not) denomination of Christianity known to have strong views on social/sexual issues, doesn't need to 'shoe-horn' the issue into his Christmas Eve Homily, and he didn't. It was an integral part of the Homily. Ex officio he is assured of blanket coverage, especially of his views on this and similar issues, and I note when Googling this yesterday that among the first to spread his word were the multifarious homosexual lobbying/pressure groups. A little ironic, that...

My preference would have been for the Archbishop to have spoken sooner, as soon as the government announced its daft and cynical intentions, rather than waiting until Christmas when his timing can be misinterpreted and misrepresented by his opponents. I note that Lynne Featherstone MP, in her usual shallow, gauche way, also rushed to make something entirely unnecessary and irrelevant of the timing.

The Churches' interest in the issue is precisely because homosexual 'marriage' would redefine the institution, from one with historic and universal recognition, in civil and canon law, ie one man and one woman, to one dependent on its definition and even its validity to its time and place. And if you doubt my thesis that homosexual 'marriage' would lack universal recognition, let's see a few homosexual partners plan to have a 'honeymoon', or perhaps live, somewhere in the Islamic world.

The Churches have a legitimate interest in the definition and nature of marriage, as do the civil authorities, and have the same right to object to attempts to redefine it. And when, as in the Catholic church, marriage is regarded as one of the Sacraments, the church will defend its position vigorously, despite the sneering, the misrepresentation, the outright lies, the anti-Catholic bigotry (just as poisonous and pernicious as homophobic bigotry) that always rises to the surface on these occasions.

I doubt if we'll ever get an accurate measure of public opinion on this matter. However, my gut feeling is that the majority of the population would place homosexual 'marriage' somewhere near 83rd in a list of 100 priorities for government, well behind other issues of importance to the majority, not a small minority, of the population. For example, homosexual right to 'marriage' would affect lower single figures percent of the population, while getting a grip on a collapsed economy affects 80% of us. And the majority, certainly outside liberal centres like London, don't care tuppence for the issue - it simply doesn't register, as it's so far outside their experience and interest. As a result you'll find it difficult to find strong views either way other than from people already committed. And you can't deny that the homosexual rights lobby is vocal and skilled...