These are the words that Peter Cowell and David Lord used to wed each other at the Church of St Bartholomew in London, on Saturday 31st May 2008:
I N take thee M as my partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, and thereto I pledge thee my troth.
With this ring, I thee bind, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The Reverend Martin Dudley married them, and says he did nothing wrong and would do it again. This is by far from being the first time that two Anglican priests have wed in church, but two things make this different.
Before 5th December 2005, there was no legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the UK. Civil partnership is legally different from marriage (primarily, it has a different name: but there are some small legal differences, too). But the differences are not big enough to make the legal recognition comfortable to the Church – indeed, it’s hard to see what differences would be. In common parlance, civil partnership is regarded as gay marriage.
The other difference: past ceremonies were carried out in secret. The Church of England has never objected to having gay bishops and gay priests so long as they lie about their sexual orientation to the laity: but honest priests who make no secret of their sexual orientation are distrusted, and honest bishops are very nearly anathema. Secrecy, shame, and concealment make being gay or bisexual all right: honesty, openness, and unashamed love are what the Anglican Communion cannot bear.
Giles Fraser spoke in the BBC Thought for the Day on 18th June:
So what, then, is the Church of England’s theology of marriage?
Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Book of Common Prayer was being put together, marriage was said to be for three purposes:
First, it was ordained for the procreation of children. Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication. Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
As Fraser notes, the Church of England does not bar mixed-sex couples from marrying who cannot have children, and makes no intensive inquiry into whether couples wed in church intend to “procreate”.
Why, then, does the Church of England object to same-sex couples marrying? (The argument “marriage is about procreation” can only be taken seriously when consistently applied: when it is used to ban mixed-sex couples who cannot have children together.)
The Bishop of London takes the Rev Dudley’s action very seriously: he has issued a public rebuke where he says:
The real issue is whether you wilfully defied the discipline of the Church and broke your oath of canonical obedience to your Bishop.
In short: Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, says the problem is not that God is homophobic; is not that Chartres himself is homophobic (Chartes claims that “homophobia is not tolerated” in his dioscese): the problem is “the discipline of the Church”.
The problem is that 300 homophobic bishops are declaring that if the Anglican Communion continues to tolerate openly gay bishops and priests, instead of requiring a gay person who is ordained to be dishonest and live in the closet, they can no longer be part of the Anglican Communion: they will walk away from it.
As Haaretz reports:
Some 300 bishops – a third of the Anglican bishops in the world – arrived in Jerusalem this week to attend the Global Anglican Future Conference, organized by the traditionalist wing of the church, which is opposed to ordaining homosexual bishops. GAFCON is being staged as a rival to next month’s Lambeth Conference in London, the Anglican Communion’s main event held every 10 years.
GAFCON has drawn some 1,000 participants: bishops, clergymen, and activists from Anglican congregations in 28 countries, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria.
These people believe that God hates queers, and that the Episcopalian Church ought to enforce celibacy and lies on gay clergy. When an openly-gay priest was appointed to a bishopric in 2003, they went mad: when civil partnerships became law in the UK, and gay priests who had been living together for years or decades began cautiously to wed, they screamed. They know God hates where they hate, and they can’t understand why the rest of the Communion can’t see it.
I’m an atheist, and before I was an atheist I was a Quaker, which is fairly far removed from the angst and ceremony of the Anglican Communion. (In the UK, Quakers decided some years before civil partnership that if a same-sex couple wanted to marry in a Meeting for Worship, they should make application to their local Monthly Meeting, just as a mixed-sex couple would, and it would be up to that Monthly Meeting to say yes or no. This is a very Quakerly solution: unlike most other Christian sects, the Religious Society of Friends doesn’t just say they believe in freedom of conscience, they work to ensure that all Friends do have freedom of conscience. There is no hierarchy, and there can be no demand for ritual obedience.)
So why do I care about the Anglican Communion? Well, in 1986, I made a friend whose friendship I still treasure, though he died nearly 16 years ago. For his sake, in his memory, I still go to the church where he was ordained a deacon, for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and other times when it occurs to me. I even take communion, though I never did when he was alive: I used to tell him that as I had never been baptised, and had never been a communicant member of any Christian congregation (Quakers don’t do baptism and don’t do Holy Communion) I could not possibly take communion as part of a Church of England service. I wish he were still alive to argue with me about it. But he died, and so I eat the bread and drink the wine and remember my friend, who unfairly won the argument by leaving it. He had a partner: they were never married, of course, but “for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” they were an admirable couple.
So I care. In a sense, of course, as an atheist and a believer in religious freedom, if Peter Akinola and his homophobic cohort wish to uphold their belief that God hates where they hate, I see no reason why they shouldn’t – I would wish it otherwise, but Nigeria is one of the countries in Africa where gays are actively persecuted, and an Archbishop who believes that Christians ought to persecute and humiliate gays is simply going along with mainstream opinion in his country. It would take enormous courage and steadfast principle to oppose the violent mainstream even if Akinola believed that God is love, but there’s no indication that Akinola is anything but sincere in his belief, shared with many other Christians, that God hates and the Church should enforce God’s hatred.
In the UK, Christians arguing that they have a right to incite hatred are mainly arguing they should have the right to abuse and intimidate schoolchildren, not for a right to incite lynch mobs. It’s easy for me, living in the UK, not a schoolchild, to say “This is a matter of religious freedom” because it is not my life or my wellbeing on the line.
Nevertheless, in a detached kind of way, if you don’t look at or care about the homophobic violence (and the Archbishop of Canterbury prefers not to) the situation becomes:
One third of the Anglican Communion has decided it cannot tolerate the majority. They are threatening to leave, if the majority won’t support their homophobic beliefs and persecute lesbians and gays as the minority believes we should be persecuted.
The Anglican Communion survives on tolerance – on accepting, however reluctantly, that within the Church of England there can be a diversity of belief and opinion. If a significant minority of that Communion now finds the tolerance of the majority intolerable, they should leave.
What they shouldn’t do is blame the objects of their bigotry for their leaving. Akinola’s complaints are chiefly directed at the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: because Williams has failed to persecute the openly-gay priests and bishops of the Anglican Communion with the rigour that Akinola believes God wants. Williams and others like him seem to blame the victims for being there – for being open and honest and in love.
At the press conference [for GAFCON] Iain Baxter of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) from the UK asked the Archbishops how they reconciled their faith with their support for jailing lesbian and gay people, which had led to cases of rape and torture.
He also asked why they had refused to speak out against such incidents which had taken place in their respective countries.
In response Archbishop Peter Akinola said that he was not aware of any such incidents anywhere in Africa. He also said he was unaware that anyone had been imprisoned for being gay or lesbian.
When given the example of a lesbian women from Uganda [Prossy Kakooza] who had applied for asylum in the UK after being jailed, raped in the police station, and marched for two miles naked through the streets of Uganda, Archbishop Akinola said: “That’s one example. The laws in your countries say that homosexual acts, actions are punishable by various rules. I don’t need to argue.”
“If the practice (homosexuality) is now found to be in our society” he continued, “it is of service to be against it. All right, and to that extent what my understanding is, is that those that are responsible for law and order will want to prevent wholesale importation of foreign practices and traditions, that are not consistent with native standards, native way of life.”
It’s quite clear: for Akinola, God is hate. More on this later.