The Revd Brutus Green
What does it mean to be a Christian today? Some Christians would have you believe that our way of life is under attack. Christian symbols and prayers are banned in public, the Lords Spiritual are being pushed out the House of Lords, and the noble institution of marriage is being usurped by a secularist agenda. Against this background of affliction, hardship, calamity, riots and sleepless nights we must, like the Corinthian church, hold fast with purity, patience, holiness of spirit and all the weapons of righteousness.
Well, even if W2 isn’t, generally speaking, consumed with lawlessness threatening us daily with martyrdom, I wonder how many of us feel confident in our faith? You know so that if someone gives you a funny look when you confess you went to church this morning, you don’t say ‘well they do provide a socially acceptable form of drinking before noon’, or ‘it gives the kids something to do’ or ‘I really like the singing’. Not that these aren’t perfectly good reasons to come to church, but would we be embarrassed to tell someone that we believe in Christian values, that we find prayer meaningful, helpful; that worshipping God is something humans ought to do - and not for some pragmatic or self-help reason, but just because we believe in the truth of the revealed faith. Would we seem a bit simple? Superstitious? Backward? One of the great advantages of wearing a clerical collar is that people rarely sit next to you on the train. Perhaps a little more anarchy would re-establish Christian confidence...
Of course the Church doesn’t always help itself. The near universal condemnation of the Church by the media over the gay marriage issue suggests that the hierarchy is out of touch with all but the picket-fenced suburbs and sliding comfortably down the wrong side of history to disestablished obscurity.
But is this fair? It seems to me that there are two different conversations going on here which have unhelpfully got mixed up. The first is one of human rights - that gay relationships are equally valid and society should recognize this. The second is about what marriage actually is, what are its purpose and terms? The overwhelming reaction has been a forceful push for the rights of gay people, but if we haven’t established what marriage is about this puts the cart before the horse; we might, for example, demand the equality of men and women as a principle of human rights, but this will not allow men to bear and give birth to children. The church’s argument is that marriage has nothing to do with gay people, whatever you think of them. On these terms the arguments of activists are the equivalent of demanding the freedom of speech for foxes.
On the other hand, though, the Church’s definition of marriage seems to fall woefully short in historical and theological terms. Their insistence on maintaining an untouched institution neglects the significant changes that have occurred over divorce and remarriage, not counting the founding moment of the Anglican church with the various shenanigans of Henry VIII, annulments, bigamy, double weddings and uxoricide. The liturgy has also undergone several revisions - even Wills and Kate in their traditional service did not include the line about satisfying ‘men’s carnal luſts and appetites, like brute beaſts that have no underſtanding’. Nor are children essential to marriage - many of the church’s most prominent theologians argued that a chaste marriage was a holier state than a regularly consummated one. Nor have I ever heard of the church refusing to marry people because they were too old, or didn’t want to bear children. And all their talk of complementarity flies in the face of the modern biological understanding of sex and the sociological understanding of gender.
My point, however, is not so much to wade into the frustrating factionalism of the Church of England but to suggest that the Christian faith is not something to be embarrassed about, and that just as it has been a major source of social reform and justice in the past, it still has the potential to continue this, insofar as Christians remain faithful and committed to worship, prayer and seeking the common good.
Actually society is in the process of re-examining how it perceives relationships and our faith has got something to say about this. Many people doubtless prefer the idea of a civil partnership, untainted by the long history and ideology of religion. You don’t have to worry about your marriage symbolizing the relationship between Christ and the Church, you don’t have to feel compelled to view it as a lifelong condition but simply a legal contract, and there is no necessary promise of sexual fidelity, if you prefer the thrills and spills of an open relationship. Adultery after all is not a reason for dissolving a civil partnership (though it might be cited as an example of ‘unreasonable behaviour’).
But what are we to say then about Christian relationships? Well it has to begin with that opening line of the marriage service - that our relationships aspire to signify the relationship between Christ and the Church, where both dwell in each, where each gives itself for the other out of love. As St Paul says this takes ‘great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships and calamities’, that it requires ‘patience, kindness, holiness, genuine love, and truthful speech’. The Christian faith sees relationships as part of the development of a virtuous life, part of our imitation of Christ in developing the kingdom of God through love of our neighbour. As such it is only dimly concerned with a legal or pragmatic contract of mutual benefit. Its nature is sacramental - as all our relationships should seek to disclose something about the nature of God to the people we’re involved with and the world at large. That must seem like a lot of pressure when you’re fed up with clothes on the floor, two rooms full of washing up and hellish in-laws, but it also points to the seriousness of our lives and relationships. St Paul did say it was easier to stay single! The real question, then, that faces society on the issue of gay marriage is not whether gay people have the right to marry, but whether these relationships are sacramental - do they exhibit the virtues St Paul is describing? Do they point to God?
The danger society really faces at the moment is that all our relationships tend towards civil partnerships rather than marriage. Which is not to join the lament of the decline of Christian Britain or complain about divorce rates. After all an abusive marriage on these terms constitutes not just a social evil but blasphemy in bringing violence into a symbol of God’s love for the church and divorce may be preferable. But it would be a tragedy if we stopped seeing relationships as somehow sacramental. One of the most surprising things about our society is its absolute love for romantic comedies. Obvious, formulaic, often-repeated plots still get audiences of millions because we do not allow ourselves to stop believing in the transcendent value of true love. So even when our experience of love is sour or mediocre, when your first girlfriend kisses Ben Tonner in the chemistry classroom during lunch break, falling in love still refuses to lose its magic, and this lends marriage part of its sacramental quality. It speaks of the highest aspects of human character - of honesty, sacrifice, repentance, faithfulness and generosity. This is a vital part of the Christian life - as Paul commends his church - ‘widen your hearts’!
It has become a repeating refrain in recent years that we are more and more a market society, where everything is for sale and good behaviour requires incentivising. In America you can buy prison upgrades and pregnancy surrogates, while you can get paid to lose weight, stop smoking, stand in a queue, and get sterilized. What message are we giving if we pay children to read books? What values are we instilling? The love of culture or the love of money? Is it all about the Ca-ching, ca-ching and the ba-bling, ba-bling? I read in the paper yesterday that a politician, criticising the singling out of Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance, had written ‘Moral prescriptions are best left to priests and philosophers’. But if our policy-makers and lawmakers do not believe in making moral prescriptions where is the ethical foundation of our society going to come from?
When Jesus performs his miracle in today’s Gospel he is showing the enchanted nature of the universe; that the universe knows its creator. He is demonstrating his authority which is a vindication of our worship and prayers here. It is also a reminder that our lives and actions matter - that the universe is a moral sphere - it is God’s world. The early Church did not have it easy. The persecution and suffering they underwent felt apocalyptic. They were also standing against the logic of their day: ‘in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’
These are words of great encouragement. It takes faith to try and live a good life; to keep on giving; to not write people off, to say your prayers when you receive no encouragement; to praise God when you only half believe in him; to believe in the church when it appears bigoted and reactionary. And yet plus ce change, plus ce meme chose - it has ever been thus. Only by prayer, by worship, by seeking the common good, we hope to do what we can to remain true to the Gospel and the God of love in whom our faith hopes.
Open wide your hearts.