Guest Post: Beth Routledge on the Grosvenor Essay on Marriage and Human Intimacy

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.

[…] the Scottish Episcopal Church […] 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 […]

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 – I was at two meetings within my own diocese at which I saw well-articulated debate and diversity of opinion – 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 clichéd 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 – 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 – 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 […] 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.

Comments

  1. David Coleman says:

    Thanks for those interesting points : as convenor of the URC’s Church & Society Committee, which returned a positive response to the govt’s drafts, I find it interesting that what is a hugely pastoral matter was referred by the Church of Scotland to their legal people, and by Piscies to Faith & Order. Possibly we need a heavyweight Latin tag similar to ‘lex orandi’ which deals with pastoral realities as the demonstrable authority which should determine all the rest. I will now read the paper you refer to, as homework for a meeting with the govt’s Simon Stockwell later this week.

    • I can’t comment for the Church of Scotland, obviously, but I imagine that the rationale behind using the Faith and Order Board is very much related to the fact that the SEC have focused in on the implications for the Canons to the point where they’ve become unable to see how this is a much much bigger picture than that.

      At one of the consultation meetings last year, a straight member of the clergy made a passionate case for why they see this as a pastoral issue, a view that is presumably shared by many other clergy, but it doesn’t seem to have penetrated much.

      • Actually, I don’t think that the group who wrote this paper engaged in any consultation at all.

        I think Beth is thinking of a meeting that Bishop Gregor called. That was local to this diocese and not part of a provincial process.

    • I had been thinking of that. I had been under the impression that there were a series of meetings around the province. I am saddened and yet not that surprised to find that there weren’t.

      • David Coleman says:

        I have just been calming nerves at synod and local church level, due to people having assumed that the odious ‘Christian’ Institute’s ‘legal opinion’ was commissioned ecumenically, and authoritatively raised the spectre of those who say no being prosecuted, which goes utterly against the intention and the drafting efforts of the Scottish government.

  2. David Coleman says:

    Could do with a paracetamol for the head after that, however, one or two comments.
    Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-9 needs to be freed from the burden of traditional interpretations which are here taken as read.
    The reabsolutisation of metaphor onto the relationship which has itself supplied the metaphor could be further drawn out. I do agree with your comments on the ‘scientific’ section, comparable to a regrettable ( but at least shorter) URC document. I would also respectfully enquire why, given the EMU, persepctives from Methodists and the URC were not mentioned, rather than just the CofS?

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Well said, Beth. Amen. We are all affected by this debate because, as you say, it’s a matter of religious freedom and oppression and what kind of church we are a part of, but for those whose personal freedom is directely affected and who have to bear the cost, it must be deeply wearying indeed. I for one am glad that you and others are continuing to talk about this.

  4. Calum Wyllie says:

    Thank you, Beth. You say things much more eloquently that I could attempt to.

    “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.”

    A thousand times, yes.

  5. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Well said, Beth. I fall into the category of ‘people not directly affected.’ That is to say, I fall into the category of people the authors of this report imagine fall into that category. But I think I AM directly affected. This affects my friends, my family, my children. It affects my congregation, my denomination and the reputation of my Lord in the world (very adversely) It hugely limits (as things stand) my ability to witness for Him in the world. It is utterly absurd to imagine that because I am highly unlikely ever to marry anybody of my own sex that it does not affect me directly.

    I would also have expected a Doctrine committee to have a much clearer view of the differences between innate behaviour and moral behaviour. The two are not in any way (positive or negative) linked.

  6. Thanks Beth. It’s a really helpful post. I think I would also want to challenge the idea that there *are* ‘many Christians not directly affected by the debate’. We are all a part of this, whether we choose to be or not. What the church says about relationships, equality, diversity, sexuality, biblical interpretation, learning from the world around us, interpreting the tradition, proclaiming God’s love and blessing, seeing Christ in one another — all of it forms and speaks of who we are. What we say and how we say it also shapes the image of God we proclaim — for good or for ill — and it will attract or repulse people accordingly. I think you are right that danger hides behind mild, non-committal tolerance. I’m glad that you also give voice to the church and show us a better way.

  7. Great response Beth…I noticed one of the authors was a certain Andrew Adam. Would that be the very same AKMA, one of our St Mary’s clergy team?

  8. Seph says:

    Very well said.

    You may be delighted to hear that the first two Google results for “grosvenor human intimacy” are, respectively, this post and the post on your own blog linking to this post. The page on the SEC website containing the Grosvenor Report itself is only third on the list.

    • Well, given that I’m in charge of the SEC website too, I probably shouldn’t get too uppity about it.

      However, this website gets more hits than the SEC website and has done for quite some time. The reality is, if people are searching for stuff about the SEC they are quite likely to find members of the SEC before they find the official pages. This is unusual for a church but not something that I think should trouble us. People trust people rather than institutions these days anyway.

  9. Lavender Buckland says:

    Others have voiced comments I gladly support: we are all affected by this; it is indeed our Gospel… how we all long for the discussion to be over.
    I’d only add that among the insidious influences is that ability to use such a paper among discussion groups, imagining tolerance but without true comprehension.

  10. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Would there be the talent, the will, the time for – well for a different essay? With proper references, with a balanced selection of contributors, or would such a thing be either impossible, or a cause of unnecessary friction?

    • There would be the talent and the will and I suspect a great many of us would make the time, but (and Kelvin can correct me if I’m wrong) such an essay would not be officially endorsed by the Church, and so long as essays like this are and essays like that aren’t, therein lies the deeper issue.

      • Rosemary Hannah says:

        Um. On the one hand, one does not want to alienate people who might be broadly speaking sympathetic. People who may well have done their best in difficult circumstances. On the other, I am not totally convinced that most people can distinguish between official responses, and calm authoritative broadly-based responses from people within the church, and such-like. As cf the comments above by David Coleman. (And in Scotland no clergy can be forced to perform a marriage ceremony for anybody at all). However in all fairness, any attempt would need to recognise points of view which did not accept equal marriage.

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