What principles of moral reasoning come into play in the debate about same-sex marriage? I stress “principles of moral reasoning” because it is all too easy for the matter to degenerate into an airing of people’s predispositions, personal preferences and prejudices – on both sides of the argument. How far can ethical reflection take us in helping to work out an appropriate response?
Let’s begin with the role of the State, or government. Marriage is a social institution. It does not belong to the Church, even though Christians have invested it with layers of theological meaning and symbolism. When a Church of England priest conducts a wedding, he or she does not ‘marry’ the bride and groom. They marry each other. The priest pronounces the couple “husband and wife” in his or her role as a Registrar on behalf of the State. That’s one aspect of what having an Established Church means: the State delegates certain functions to Church of England clergy.
It is the State which sanctions the clergy role as Registrar. It is also the State which sanctions who may marry. In theory (as happens in a number of countries in Africa) the State could sanction polygamous marriages (and several African dioceses have for decades come to the Lambeth gatherings of Anglican bishops asking for continuing dispensation to recognise such marriages on behalf of the Church because of the prevailing cultural situation). Equally, the State could in theory choose not to sanction any marriages at all, leaving marriage to be a completely private affair. But once the State decides to sanction some marriages, two things follow: one, it can if it so wishes enlarge or reduce its definition of marriage (up to the point where public opinion will simply not tolerate the new situation); two, in sanctioning some marriages it is expressing a moral view about the worth and value of those relationships it honours by conferring social recognition on them. In doing so it begins to raise questions about the purposes of marriage, and what Aristotle called the “virtues” the social institution of marriage seeks to reward.
The purposes of marriage for the Church of England are set out in its Marriage Service. They haven’t in essence changed, though the weight given to each of them has altered since the 17th century. Nowadays the emphasis is on marriage as a committed relationship in which the partners find companionship and love. Procreation, and seeing marriage as a way of controlling the sexual instinct, is seen as less important today than it was four hundred years ago. All understandings of marriage see it as a gift in which the grace of God may be made known.
So the question the Church has to ask is: are same-sex relationships capable of enabling the partners to find that same grace of God, and of committing themselves to that same life-long companionship and love?
Christians for whom same-sex relationships are automatically to be regarded as sinful will say that is by definition morally impossible. Christians who take a different view of same-sex relationships will say the question is at least an open possibility. Those who take the former view include people like the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Chester. People who take the latter view include the Bishop of Salisbury and the new Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and will say that same-sex couples in a stable, long-term relationship should be permitted to have that relationship publicly recognized as a marriage. So in one sense the whole matter becomes not so much a debate about marriage, but about how same-sex relationships are viewed in themselves. If we believe, it is argued, that such relationships can reveal many of the characteristics of a good marriage, should we not extend our understanding of marriage to include them?
I suspect where we shall end up some years from now is something similar to the situation regarding the re-marriage of divorced people. That’s to say, the legal right for clergy to re-marry divorced people has long existed. The Church, after initial refusal, came to allow those clergy who wish to carry out such weddings to do so, but allow those who do not the right not to be compelled to do so. But much water will go under the bridge before then.