During this blessed time of sabbatical, I’m going to let other people do some of the talking on this blog. I’ve not done any guest posts before but it seems right now. The first of these is this piece from Beth Routledge who is a doctor working in the NHS and an altar server at St Mary’s. Beth blogs brilliant things at The Road Less Travelled
This week, the Grosvenor Essay on Marriage and Human Intimacy was published online [having been presented at General Synod in June]. This is a euphemistic title for a report into how the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church feels about same-sex relationships. If you follow me on Twitter, you will be unsurprised to know that I was one of the alleged Twitterati who read it on Tuesday and ended up live commentating on all of the many ways in which it managed to offend me.
In my opinion, it is poorly written, badly referenced, and riddled with factual errors, and on that basis, irrespective of what it actually said, I find it difficult to understand how the SEC allowed it to be freely released to the public.
However, moving onto what it did say. My view is that the content of this report is what we will be fighting when it comes to having a conversation about equal marriage legislation within the Church. Indeed, in the report’s preface, the Committee talks about the response made by the SEC to the Scottish Government’s consultation process last year.
[â€¦] the Scottish Episcopal Church [â€¦] responded negatively to questions about the religious celebrations of civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. The response was formulated by the Faith and Order Board of the General Synod of the SEC and so constitutes the nearest thing to an ‘official’ whole-church answer [â€¦]
I disagreed with a great many things in the response that was formulated by the Faith and Order Board and I disagree with them still, and I challenge any statement that even implies that this was a response endorsed by the “whole church”. I am part of the whole church. A certain amount of time and effort was invested into engaging members of the whole church on the matter before the response was submitted â€“ I was at two meetings within my own diocese at which I saw well-articulated debate and diversity of opinion â€“ and yet the views of many of those members were never featured in the published response. It was, so far as I can tell, the response of the members of the Faith and Order Board and the people who agreed with them. And that’s fine, but you can’t call it the answer of the whole church.
This essay reiterates, as the SEC has been reiterating for some number of months now, that the Church’s definition of marriage is based on Canon 31. Canon 31 is the one that talks about marriage being a physical, spiritual, and mystical lifelong union between one man and one woman. Bizarrely, they acknowledge that that part of the Canon was only written in 1980 and was only written to deal with the advent of divorce law, thus presumably recognising that the canons can and have changed, but then they go on to characterise Canon 31 as the “official mood of the church” and say that it will remain so until such time as General Synod chooses to change that particular canon. I used to be a Roman Catholic, and I left the Roman Catholic church partly because I didn’t like being told what to think. In an institution like the Scottish Episcopal Church and a community like the Anglican Communion, where we hopefully recognise our diversity and thrive because of our individuality, I don’t think you can have an “official mood” and I think that calling it an official mood in the way that they have done tries to throw up barriers to even having that conversation.
The bulk of the middle part of the report is given over to talking about the historical and Biblical perspectives on marriage. There is a confusing amount of discussion in the section on historical perspectives about whether it is or is not appropriate that some people in the current century choose not to become parents. This is confusing largely because it’s an argument that I thought we had settled decades ago. It manages to alienate me by suggesting that because I choose not to have children, a choice that has nothing to do with my sexuality, I am somehow a lesser person and my relationships will be lesser relationships. As for the discussion of Biblical perspectives, the thing that strikes me most is how very much they’ve managed to say without really saying much of anything at all. They talk about how Biblical marriage bears no real resemblance to anything we might call marriage today. They talk about how most of what Paul wrote was based on Jewish ethics and Jewish secular law. They talk a lot about divorce. In fact, they skirt so much around the topic of what they really think about same-sex relationships that the only conclusion they manage to draw is that perhaps we should stop talking about sex altogether and focus our energies on non-sexual relationships. This is both disingenuous and exhaustedly clichÃ©d in its implied assumption that the only important thing about gay people and their relationships is what we might happen to do in bed.
The authors have also seen fit to write a whole section on the factors that are believed to determine sexuality. This contains a series of statistics about weight, occupation, eye-blink patterns, hair-whirls, and sweat — I am not remotely offended by the suggestion that men of different orientations respond differently to different pheromones, but I am offended by the fact that someone decided that in an apparently serious report it would be appropriate to call this “gay sweat and non-gay sweat”. I have read all of these statistics three times now and I cannot for the life of me see what the point of including them was supposed to be.
I can’t verify any of their scientific claims, because the Committee has chosen not to properly reference any of this section. Nor can I verify their claim that sexuality is bimodal, which I’m sure will come as a surprise to bisexual people.
Finally, after discussing all the biological influences on sexuality, they reach the conclusion that sexuality is an inborn trait and is not something that can be chosen. I’m willing to believe that this was written with the very best of intentions â€“ one of the arguments against equal marriage, and indeed against any legislation that might aim at treating gay people as equal citizens, is that homosexuality is unnatural, and there are an alarming number of people who still think that ex-gay therapy is a viable option, which is even more alarming when you consider that some of them are parents of gay kids. For those reasons, I too used to think that it was important to find out why gay people are gay. Now, I mostly worry that that way lies eugenics.
And the thing is, I believe that I was born who I am. I don’t think I chose it and I don’t think I can change it. But, in the end, does it matter? Because even if I did choose to be gay, I don’t think that that would have been an immoral choice to make.
This is not a positive report. It isn’t screaming homophobia, mind you, but I’m not sure that in a lot of ways it isn’t more dangerous than that â€“ it’s the kind of insidious injustice that is so dangerous precisely because it presents itself as being terribly reasonable. For me, reading this report as a gay Christian woman, the most painful part of the whole thing is that, as you read through the fifty pages, you can see how the committee honestly think that they’re being incredibly tolerant, which I suppose is what happens when you write a report about gay people without talking to any actual gay people about it.
At the end of the report, when laying out all the reasons there might be for not changing Canon 31 (curiously, despite claiming to have presented a balanced view, they present no such list of reasons in favour of changing Canon 31), the Committee says this:
Many Christians who are not directly affected by the debate may express weariness that the church appears to be obsessed with sex [â€¦] Of course, the church has a pressing pastoral need to those who are wearied by the debate too.
I don’t know why they think that only those Christians who aren’t directly affected by the debate are wearied by it. I get fed up with this, too, and I can hardly wait for the day when I can stop talking about it because it has stopped being an issue. But, for now, it is an issue. This is my Church, my Gospel, and my God. I believe in them and love them as deeply as I’m sure do the people who wrote this, and I choose not to sit and let the people who claim to represent me write reports about me as if I am Other. It’s an issue because equality is being denied and religious freedom is being oppressed, and, as long as those things are true, I will keep talking about it, no matter how wearied I am.