This is an ‘excursus’ to the TBLA sequence; it most naturally belongs at the end, but it’s on my mind. I wanted to say a bit more about the gay marriage debate going on at the moment. My views are still evolving, and I want to make explicit what my concern is about the particular nature of the present conversation. As it is a ‘work-in-progress’ it’s still quite clunky, especially in the reliance on barbarous acronyms – sorry.
Our society is deeply confused about sexuality, and this leads into so many other problems. I want to indicate a broad framework for how I see what is happening, and introduce two barbarous acronyms: ‘PEG’, standing for ‘personal enjoyment and growth’, and ‘PROC’, standing for ‘procreation and raising of children’. Much of the confusion about sexuality in our culture stems, I believe, from a lack of discrimination between those two types of relationship, and to try and apply the rules, regulations and expectations with regard to the one straight on to the other, without regard to the differences inherent between them.
Partly this is a fact of history. The raising of children is something in which we as human beings biologically, and any community seeking to sustain itself socially, have a very great and serious interest. It is because of this that sexuality has always been tightly regulated. If children are raised poorly then they do not flourish, they cause havoc, and society suffers. Similarly, on questions of sexual behaviour, something like adultery can cause extreme violence between the adults, causing the breach of the peace and everything up to and including a community breakdown or war – think of Helen of Troy. So the dominant form and understanding of sexuality has been the PROC form. This is what lies behind all the ‘traditional’ marriage values, which regulate the expression of sexuality, which are strict about legitimacy, and which emphasise that rightly-ordered sexuality is principally about procreation. This is the official Roman Catholic teaching for example – so any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful.
Yet this is a reductive and, I would argue, non-Scriptural view of human sexuality. Human beings do not engage with each other sexually purely for the purposes of procreation, but also for the purposes of human bonding and deepening of relationships – see the Song of Songs for the clearest Biblical expression of this. This, I believe, has always been the case. For example, ponder the fact that, unlike other primates, the human female does not overtly signal when she is fertile, and she engages in sexual behaviour even when she is not fertile. Human sexuality is expressed in all sorts of contexts and for all sorts of reasons, and this, I believe, underlies the PEG form of sexuality. Our relationships enable us to grow as human beings, and, sometimes, this involves engaging with another person as profoundly as a sexual relationship makes possible.
The spiritual truth is, I believe, that the PROC relationships are called to include the PEG elements as well. This is how the Church of England understands marriage, and that is why the preamble for weddings is written in the way that it is. The trouble with our present society is that, in responding to things like the development of (generally!) reliable contraceptive technology, and embracing all the ideas around personal growth and so on – ‘the sixties’ as popularly understood – we have allowed such PEG relationships to eclipse our understanding of PROC relationships. This has had terrible consequences. Society has had a stake in PROC relationships for a very good reason; how children are raised is tremendously important, and a stable and loving home environment is an overwhelmingly strong indicator of psychological health in children, and their flourishing in later life. Sadly, because we have elevated PEG relationships into an idol, we have a culture that practices serial monogamy and easy divorce – perfectly understandable and acceptable from a PEG point of view, but anathema to the PROC.
This is why I’m not convinced that there can be such a thing as gay marriage – it is inherently non-procreative, and therefore will always be fundamentally a PEG, not a PROC – and it is PROC-including-PEG that is holy matrimony, as I understand it. (I’m ignoring, for now, the difficult questions around adoption etc, as ‘hard cases make bad law’.) Both PEG and PROC can, I believe, be vehicles of holiness, but in different ways. A PEG can work ‘under its own steam’, because the momentum of personal growth and discovery is so strong. With a PROC it is different – even if the PROC would normally start out as a PEG. I believe that a promise of commitment, such as the vows, open up a space wherein we can learn to become more truly human, one with another. When this is simply between two people, that can be wonderful and life-enhancing purely in its own terms (that is how I understand civil partnership). Where this happens in a procreative context, then God is doing something even more remarkable through it, and it is more essential that the couple preserve the union (and it is more God’s will).
The trouble is that much of this discussion is about semantics – what is meant by a particular word. We’re in an environment where previously-held assumptions have broken down, and we’re still working out what to do with our present situation. What most troubles me about Cameron’s agenda is that he is elevating ‘choice’ to be the key criterion in working out whether gay marriage is the right way forward or not. To my mind that misses some of the most important elements of what has made marriage be what it is in our society – that is, it is an institution which subordinates individual choice to a wider social and human good. That’s what I fear is being recklessly cast aside in his haste to appear acceptable to progressive opinion. We must not make ‘choice’ into an idol – if we do then we are simply joining in with our culture’s worship of Mammon and treating everything in our human and social life as if it is a product in our supermarket for our discriminating delectation. Marriage is more important than this.