A letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury: have we read the same history books?

Your Grace,

I certainly don’t except us to agree on everything when it comes to religion. After all, you believe in God and I don’t.

But I am surprised how different the view of our country’s history seems to be. You and your colleagues talk about the prospect of equal marriage – a prospect it is worth remembering that other strands of the Christian family are welcoming, not to mention many members of the Church of England – as if it is one of the greatest threats to the Church of England in the last 500 years.

Really?

Greater than the threat of being conquered by a Catholic nation and having the Catholicism imposed by force on the country? (I give you the Spanish Armada.)

Greater than the dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of all their assets? (I give you Henry VIII.)

Greater than the scientific discoveries that upended completely the literal chronology of the Old Testament? (I give you the creation of geology as a field of study.)

Greater than the idea that God may not be required to explain the emergence of humans? (I give you Charles Darwin.)

And that is without getting into other threats such as other invasions, the spread of secularisation, the declining Church attendance numbers or the rise of other religions in the UK.

I am sure before entering into such a grand and sweeping statement you will have given it careful thought. After all, chasing a headline with a piece of hyperbole wouldn’t really be fitting for such an important issue.

So please – would you mind explaining?

Thank you.

Yours etc.

UPDATE: It looks as if the specific 500 years reference was a phrase coined by a journalist, although it has been widely quoted in the media as being what the Church of England has said. The more general point about relative threats still stands of course.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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23 Comments

  • Liberal Neil 12th Jun '12 - 1:18pm

    Surely the biggest threat to the CofE is the bunch of homophobic dinosaurs that run it?

  • Both sides in this one are as guilty as the other in using hyperbole and exaggerating their case. Let’s not forget that Lynne Featherstone, the Government Minister responsible for the consultation has termed opponents of same sex marriage “bigots” and claimed that they are “living in the stone ages”. I usually have a lot of time for her but the language she has used is only encouraging the polarised tone of the debate and is far from liberal. I know we will never agree on this issue but I can’t think of any other issue where we would encourage or condone that sort of language on our opponents; let’s remember that a Feb YouGov poll had less than 60% of Lib Dem voters supporting these plans (although clearly a vast majority of activists.)

    What I’ve picked up from the CoE response this morning is how the proposed change will heighten the differences between civil marriage and religious marriage. By having classes of marriage which can / cannot be celebrated in churches and other places of worship, the proposed changes in the name of equality risk dividing marriage rather than strengthening it. I’ve long proposed that we would be better reviewing civil partnerships legislation to see where it needs strengthening to remove differences (such as grounds for annullment) and still hope this will be possible.

  • It’s worth having a link to the CofE response near the top of the comments to save people searching..

    http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1475149/s-s%20marriage.pdf

  • As a committed Christian, and member of the CofE I have read the response and feel it is in most places utter [email protected]@x and for me hugely infuriating.

    Many within the Church do not hold the views contained within this response, a recent letter to the Times is gives a flavour of this. As it was behind the payroll there is a copy here:

    http://inclusive-church.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/Letter%20to%20the%20Times%20-%2017th%20April%202012%20-%20Same-sex%20marriage%20_2_.pdf

    I’m sure this thread has the potential to descend into a religion bad / equal marriage good split as has happened before. All I would ask is that people understand that, like the debate on women bishops and the disgraceful treatment of Jeffrey John, the “leaders” of the church do not represent the settled will of the membership of the Church.

    The sooner it is disestablished the better. One point they make is that the role of providing Weddings for all parishioners may have to change, Good. The Church should not provide a pretty backdrop for any wedding. But it absolutely should provide a loving service for it’s members who wish to marry, whatever their sexuality.

    As for the comments about consummation etc, the sooner they realise that homosexual people have sex and get over it the better! Defining what represents adultery would be within the capacity of the average secondary school pupil so should not challenge a professional Judiciary. At present the CofE insist their own homosexual clergy either become celibate or lie. This is a farce and to my mind hugely discriminatory and seeks to limit that most intimate expression of love.

    @Caracatus says the teachings of Jesus did not mention equal marriage (or helicopters!) and he is completely right. He also never gave anyone the authority to kill in his name, and he never forced a single person to follow him so burning people at the stake was done in spite of his teachings not because of them.

    He did teach about love and dedication, he did teach that slavish observance to religious rules was not the right path, and he had some great things to say about judging others. I believe the Bishops who wrote this need to spend a bit more time reading the New Testament and less reading the Telegraph or Mail….

  • Rowan Williams really has been the most disappointing Archbishop of Canterbury in some time. At least with George Carey you knew you had someone with a Daily Mail intellect and outlook. One had hoped that someone with the mind and compassion of Rowan Williams might have overseen the production of a less hysterical and more progressive response.

  • Steve makes a fair point, but disestablishment is probably insufficient since any ‘leaders’ will still claim to speak with the full authority of the church.

    The real problem in the CofE is the continued dominance of the ‘high’ church figures in an organisation which pretends to be democratic – where are the representative ‘low’ and ‘broad’ church figures?

  • I think it is overly simplistic to blame this response on ‘high church figures’ larger Evangelical relatively low Churches will have been pushing on this one as well I would have thought.

  • Peter Hayes 12th Jun '12 - 6:46pm

    We need to move to the French model, a state marriage for inheritance and the children and a religious blessing for those that believe. If there isn’t a pretty secular location why should the church have to provide a location for photos when the parties do not believe.

    Pete H

  • Richard Church 12th Jun '12 - 7:31pm

    the CofE’s main point seems to be that gay marriage might lead to disestablishment. They are actually more concerned about their own priveleged status than they are about the issue for consultation. If that’s their attitude, bring it on!

    I hope that every religion and every priest that wishes to conduct same sex weddings responds to the consultation accordingly. The government’s proposal prevents any religion conducting a legal same sex wedding, but it seems even that is not good enough for for an established church which wants to veto what anyone else might want to do.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jun '12 - 12:19am

    Didn’t I read somewhere today that a petition against gay marriage has been delivered with half-a-million signatures? I suggest this warrants more than flippancy as a response. I am no historian, but it seems to me that one of the things that has indeed survived all those things is the idea that marriage is not a single-sex relationship.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-cameron-presented-with-antigay-marriage-petition-signed-by-500000-7844717.html

    Some of those things are anyway not threats as such. Geology and Evolution is just God’s way of creating things. And Catholicism does actually have rather a lot in common with the CofE. Like belief in jesus.

  • Simon Beard 13th Jun '12 - 1:24am

    Richard – half a million signatures? Its not bad I guess, but the whole thing was very well organised and that is still a fraction of the number of committed religious people (Christian and otherwise) in this country. Its a fraction of the readership of the Mail too! Just ask yourself how big that petition might have been 20, 10 or even 5 years ago.

    As a Christian I don’t see marriage as a same-sex thing, I see it as an ordained by god thing. That’s exactly why it has evolved over time, from polygamy to monogamy and from being about property, to being about procreation and to to being about a sharing of lives and getting along together. My church, the Qakers, believe the time has come for same sex marriages to be witnessed to within the church and I just cannot see why the state should be stopping us from doing this.

    Finally, Geology and Evolution are no threat to Christianity of course, but they were and are huge threats to parts of the church who seem to care only about maintaining their power and status, rather than living in the light and love of somebody who put aside all power and status and tried to get people to love one another.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jun '12 - 2:25pm

    @Mark Pack. Ah, I see what you mean, yes, you are right, I was not thinking myself back into the history. But even so, this seems to be far from a non-controversial subject, as the half-million signatures show. Sorry, did I say signatures, didn’t I mean votes? Ah, the Dem in LibDem again, what an irritation! Not.

    I would also point out that human beings have been in existence for many thousands of years (is it 250,000?). I imagine that for most of that time, religion has been the dominant force in developing cultures and in educating, exploring, and improving people’s lives.

    Whatever may have been its sins, religion is largely responsible forour present understanding of society and the world, even for the concepts we may be using in this discussion and the feelings that may guide theirconnections. Religion seems arguably fundamental in science too – but that interesting road strays off topic.

  • Richard Dean 13th Jun '12 - 2:32pm

    Here is a couple of interesting articles from a place I am passing through …

    http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Lawyers_for_Jesus_sound_warning_on_abortion_and_gay_marriage-158275595.html
    http://www.trinidadexpress.com/letters/Gay_marriage_against_God_s_plan-151648875.html

    Trinidad and Tobago is rather more advanced than the UK in many ways, and the feelings expressed here are not likely to be confined to that small country.

  • Helen Tedcastle 13th Jun '12 - 3:07pm

    @Mark Pack: ‘But I am surprised how different the view of our country’s history seems to be. You and your colleagues talk about the prospect of equal marriage – a prospect it is worth remembering that other strands of the Christian family are welcoming, not to mention many members of the Church of England – as if it is one of the greatest threats to the Church of England in the last 500 years. ‘

    I don’t accept the assumptions behind this statement in relation to threats to the Church of England in particular and religion in general.

    Firstly, same-sex marriage is not a ‘threat’ to the Cof E as such but a possible threat to the establishment of the Church in England. There’s a difference.

    Second: It’s not always a reading of history that’s the issue but the conclusions one draws from such a reading.

    ‘Greater than the scientific discoveries that upended completely the literal chronology of the Old Testament? (I give you the creation of geology as a field of study.)’

    The literal reading of the OT/NT was challenged by the Origin of Species but also the rise of Biblical criticism within the field of Theology in the 19th/20th centuries. My point is that the Church met the new evidence through debate, scholarship and reflection. if you actually asked Rowan Williams whether science is a threat to the Church of England, he would tell you that, and he would also tell you that new discoveries reveal even greater opportunities to understand our universe from a religious perspective.

    ‘Greater than the idea that God may not be required to explain the emergence of humans? (I give you Charles Darwin.)’
    Darwin does not claim to have got rid of God although natural selection challenges a literalist reading of Genesis. Yes, there was huge debate in the 19th century Church but the Church met the challenge and has moved on to see science not as a threat but a dialogue-partner.

    ‘Greater than the idea that God may not be required to explain the emergence of humans? (I give you Charles Darwin.)’

    Darwin does not claim to have got rid of God although natural selection challenges a literalist reading of Genesis. Yes, there was huge debate in the 19th century Church but the Church met the challenge and has moved on to see science not as a threat but a dialogue-partner.

    To correct an inaccuracy: ‘Greater than the dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of all their assets? (I give you Henry VIII.)’
    Incorrect. How could the dissolution of the monasteries be a threat to the Church of England? The religious orders were Roman Catholic and the Cof E had not then been firmly established anyhow.

    ‘And that is without getting into other threats such as other invasions, the spread of secularisation, the declining Church attendance numbers or the rise of other religions in the UK.’

    As a theologian, RW may well agree with you that secularisation presents a challenge but so does poverty and ignorance. Church attendance is declining but this does not mean that religion is or even belief in God. This is pretty robust in the UK. The Church of England in fact plays a very prominent role in forging inter-religious relationships in the community, partly helped in its role as the established Church. In other words, religious identity is changing but not the phenomenon of religion. Any ‘threat’ therefore, is rather exaggerated from secularists.

    Finally, on the issue of same sex marriage, the issue is seen as important by the Church for two reasons: the change to our common understanding of what the term marriage means and its role in society; the possible pressure on the Cof E as an established Church in the light of a changew in the law – at present a parish church serves all members of the local community and same sex couples may try to force a change in those churches through resort to law.

    In other words, we might end up replacing one apparently illiberal practice with another.

    ‘I am sure before entering into such a grand and sweeping statement you will have given it careful thought.’

    Quite.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jun '12 - 9:08pm

    I have listened carefully to the arguments on both sides. I wonder how many people have? It seems to me too many people on both sides have listenede very carefully to their own arguments and made up the arguments of the other side in a sort of triumphalist superiority-complex way.

    I am afraid one of the things that swung me was Nick Clegg’s clunky and illiberal dismissal of the opponents, insulting them by abandoning the long standing principle that on matter like this it should be a free vote. Yet another wrong step, Mr Clegg, and yet another clear sign you are an intellectual lightweight.

    I found the case put by the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales that there is a need for a special term for a commitment of two people to produce children as distinct from a commitment of two people to love one another to be intellectually sound. I found the dismissal without consideration of this point, with accusations that opponents were just homophobics to be offensive. I also found much of the anti-religious arguments thrown back to be ignorant and offensive, based in the usual mindless and completely incorrect assumption that all religion is “Here’s the book, it’s based on that”- which is actually a position held only by certain sorts of Protestants and is explicitly opposed by the Catholic Church (and, indeed, by the Bible).

    It seemed to me much of the argument is silly because the more decent elements of Christianity have moved towards the position, which I welcome, of accepting civil partnerships. There has been a quite remarkable shift this way amongst leading Catholics, not that it has been reported by the anti-religious press. So the argument really comes down to one of semantics – not “human rights”. It is merely whether we have two separate words or one, should by force of law the word “marriage” be made to cover someting it never used to? There is no denial of rights, as is being claimed, if civil partnerships confer the same legal rights of marriage. Liberals seems to be obsessed with removing any privileges attached to marriage, so it seems rather strange that in making the case for “gay marriage” they now claim to be so attached to them.

    In the end, I have decided I oppose “gay marriage” because I find the concept to be anti-gay. Whatever happened to “gay pride”? If one is proud to be gay, why should there be any shame attached to the word for a gay partnership being different from the word for a non-gay partnership? It seems to me the message underneath in the “gay marriage” campaign is that gays can only be properly accepted if they ape straights by engaging in some sort of mock heterosexual ceremony. As a liberal I don’t believe people have to be exactly the same to be treated as equal. I don’t think having a different word for a gay partnership as for a straight partnership is a denial of equality. I think forcing the gay partnership to have the same word as the straight partnership IS underneath a denial of gay equality.

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Jun '12 - 10:29pm

    I’m getting very fed up of this constant villification of the church, who are struggling with what is a difficult issue for many of them and seem to me to be expressing their views in a civilised way. I also feel uneasy about the fact that it is only the Christian churches who are being attacked in this way, when other major religious groups have attacked gay marriage in a much more forceful manner.

    Earlier in the campaign, the Bens Summerskill and Bradshaw (who both support gay marriage) were characterised as gay Uncle Toms simply because they each thoughtfully expressed the view that they did not see gay marriage as a priority.

    Though I share a lot of Matthew’s concerns, I am still in favour of gay marriage, but if the government continues to handle this issue in the divisive way it has done so far then I think this will put the cause of gay rights back ten years.

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Jun '12 - 6:13pm

    Can a gay person please explain why it matters so much to call their partnership a marriage? And can a hetrosexual explain why making a gay partnership a marriage is a threat to hetrosexual marriage?

  • Robert Johnston 26th Jun '12 - 5:31pm

    As someone who thoroughly approves of a disestblished CoE. I find the pickle the church finds itself in over gay marriage another reason for it. It is a good thing Rowan williams is stepping down, any appointment of an Archbishop cannot be free from partisan taint and compromise and it takes an extraordinary person to square up to it. As for gay ‘marriage’ I would have thought that the present civil partnership arrangements allow for all property and personal rights. Of course we havent got around to allowing siblings of a certain age make the same arrangements.
    It’s all pretty wierd if you thnk about it what other culture in history has approved of anything other than a legally arranged heterosexual parnership? Whatever next

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 26th Jun '12 - 7:02pm

    Robert Johnson: “It’s all pretty wierd if you thnk about it what other culture in history has approved of anything other than a legally arranged heterosexual parnership?”

    Historical mention of the performance of same-sex marriages date back to the Roman Empire and the Ming – Wikipedia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage

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