Can we talk publicly about same-sex marriage?

by | Feb 21, 2017

This article was first given as a talk for the Centre for Christian Living at Moore College, 19 October, 2016.

Can we talk publicly about same-sex marriage?

Michael Kellahan

Two visions of marriage

I want you to think about the last wedding you attended. It may have been a while ago; it may have been last weekend. Take yourself back there and think about that moment when you saw the vows exchanged.

This next quote is from the television show Four Corners: Terri Butler, the Labour Party Shadow Equality Minister, said this:

I was at a wedding on the weekend—in Kingaroy actually. When you’re at a wedding now, you can feel the hurt when the celebrant is required to say the line about marriage being between a man and a woman. That’s a hurt that is shared by everyone really.

Terri was there at this wedding with the mother of a same-sex attracted child, who was starting to break down. The mother’s name was Sharon Faulkner, and she said, “It was my youngest son’s wedding that put me on this path, because I sat there and realised that my eldest son couldn’t get married. And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts them and it hurts us.” Her pain was all too raw and all too real, and as she broke down in tears, you could see that this wasn’t something set up by the media. This wasn’t some opportunistic moment by a politician. This was genuine pain and hurt.

We need to hear that and not be dismissive of it. We need to know the stories that are taking place within our churches and beyond them as well. We need to see that there are people who genuinely feel, at that moment, when the vows are exchanged—that moment when the celebrant declares that marriage is between a man and a woman—that that moment is a moment for hurt and grief.

Let me take you back to the very first wedding—the very first marriage—recorded in Genesis 2:20-25:

But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
  and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
   because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

“Bone of my bones”. “Flesh of my flesh”. As the Hebrew more literally has it, “Yabba dabba doo!” This is the beginning of poetry. This is where we start, as a race. There’s something deeper here—something good—something that will definitely prove to be so good, it’s definitely worth leaving a father and a mother for, and uniting as one flesh. This is how the earth is to be filled; this is how the world is to be ruled; this is what it means, in part, to be in the image of God. Jesus himself will go back to this passage to explain what marriage has always been about.

So is marriage good? Which vision of marriage are we supposed to go along with? Is the wedding an occasion for hurt and grief? As those vows are exchanged, can we block out the thoughts that this might be some discriminatory, unjust, oppressive moment, when pain is clearly being felt? Is marriage broken? Does it need to be redeemed, liberated and reformed so that it loses that gendered nature? Instead of “this man and this woman”, should it be “two persons”?

Australian Marriage Equality, who are pushing for same-sex marriage in Australia, have a number of liturgies for straight marriages that want to be supportive of same-sex marriage. Their first option is this:

You can say these words [and they suggest that it’s done at the moment the vows are given and before the kiss]: “As requested by Partner One and Partner Two, I think that it’s a good time to pause for a moment and reflect on those couples in committed loving relationships who cannot get married under current marriage law. Our thoughts are with them on this special day.”

You may have been to one of those weddings; there are more and more requests for them these days. Yet at the moment, when you prepare a couple to be married, you have to give them a pamphlet written by the government that reminds them that “in the Family Law Act, marriage is the union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. That’s what the law says. That’s what you have to put in people’s hands. The pamphlet goes on to say,

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. It’s a worthwhile goal for all married people to try to achieve a strong marriage and family life. It’s most important that you pass on your loving and stable family life, your pleasure and your wisdom about marriage to our next generation of Australians.

A church did not draft that; that was someone in an office in Canberra.

So as you can see, we have two very different and competing visions of marriage—visions not easily reconciled. Talk of a plebiscite has shown that there are clear divisions. However you cut the numbers and whatever survey you believe, let’s say there’s about a 60:40 split: 60 per cent of the Australian population want change and 40 per cent want marriage to remain as it is. If the government is going to change the law—a law that affects something so deeply held, so important and so basic to society—it’s going to create a great fissure between the 40 and the 60. What it proposes to do is not say, “Well, you can have that view of marriage, or that view of marriage, or recognise them both”. Instead, it’s taking a position: it’s saying the law will change, and it will change in order to remove gender, so the marriage service will read, “Person 1 and Person 2”, not “husband and wife”.

Talking about same-sex marriage

Now, at the moment, it may feel a little awkward, talking about same-sex marriage. It may even be social death, depending on your postcode and your friendship group. But if the law changes, things will be far worse than awkward: suddenly you will have 40 per cent of the population having a view out of step with the law, and that 40 per cent will include those whose beliefs about marriage have come from a conservative Christian understanding—one that matches the tradition and history of the culture.

So the question is, “Can we talk publicly about same-sex marriage?” The answer is very simple: “Yes, we can”. In fact, I’m doing it right now. We can do it privately. We can do it publicly. That’s not to say that it’s easy. That’s not to say that it’s going to always be persuasive. That’s not to say that it won’t come without a cost or a detriment. But to quote Obama, “Yes we can”. We can talk about marriage.

Why it’s hard to speak

I want to persuade you, though, that it’s worth doing it. It’s worth speaking about it. It’s a good thing that we should do. However, I understand that there is great pressure not to speak. I feel that every day.

Freedom for Faith, the organisation I lead, is a Christian think tank. It’s there to protect and promote religious freedom in Australia. It’s a hard time to be arguing for religious freedom at the moment. But let me tell you some of the reasons why we are doing it.

Firstly, in a post-911 world, most people aren’t too crazy about letting religious people do what they want to do—because they may well fly planes into buildings or do something else like that that would cause terrible harm. In France recently, we’ve seen serious discussions from mainstream parties who have been saying, “Let’s just ban all signs of religious garb. We want to control the security risks around Islam, so let’s just say, ‘No more Stars of David, no crosses, no nuns in habits. It all has to go.’”

Secondly, it’s because of the terrible evil committed in the clerical abuse of children and the ensuing institutional cover-up. Because of this, these are not good days to be saying, “Just trust the church. Just allow believers to do what they want to do.” It’s good that these crimes are coming to light and it’s right that this causes us problems.

But the context in which this debate around same-sex marriage occurs is also one in which there’s been a broad, progressive, social justice movement taking place—a movement that sees Christianity as part of the problem. That movement has captured people who would have traditionally been on the left and the right. So what was at the fringes of academic debate ten years ago (in terms of religious freedom) is now quite mainstream and a part of party platforms. There’s no easy political home for Christians anymore.

No one but Christians are significantly pushing back against this change of law—a change that suddenly sees equality rights elevated in ways they never have been before. Discrimination laws are now being used to recognise not just access or equity issues, but also that people’s dignity, inherent worth and value as people needs to be protected.

At the same time, the stock of marriage generally has fallen. That’s not the fault of the LGBTIQ community. As people enter into cohabiting and de facto relationships, and as less and less people marry, and less and less people marry in churches, there are more and more people divorcing, and more and more marriages breaking down. That makes it hard to argue for marriage. If people believed more in how good marriage is, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.

Of those who do want to speak against this, the only people standing up in significant numbers are Christians—Christians who are no longer tolerated, but who are seen as a threat to this broader movement. Now, I don’t want to go all conspiracy theory about this and suggest that there is some coalition of pink same-sex marriage/LGBTIQ groups planning to overthrow Christianity. This is not a Dan Brown novel. But there is a cultural movement at odds with Christianity.

In our church last year, we were doing some evangelism training, and as I was setting up supper, I noticed that someone had left a 2 litre bottle of milk in the back of the fridge. It had obviously been there several months: it had all kinds of layers to it and it was quite revolting. I brought it out and showed it to people as an example of how people see Christianity at the moment—as something a bit on the nose that has gone beyond offensive to quite dangerous. You wouldn’t want your kids near it. The responsible thing to do would be to chuck it out.

This sort of thinking wasn’t around twenty years ago. This is the world we live in now. In this world, there is no longer an agreed upon external source of moral values—for example, elders, the Scriptures or the law. Instead, the law becomes the contested place where we can’t agree what marriage should look like, or what the good life should be. So we appeal to the law to rule in our favour and demonstrate that we’re the ones who are in the right—that our position is legitimate—and we use the law to enforce our position against others, showing them that we’re the ones who aren’t being recognised. All this has made for the perfect storm.

Of course, it is a storm that has been brewing for longer than just the last ten or twenty years. You could trace this back to the Enlightenment and beyond. The book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor talks about this: now, we’re in a position where it is quite possible to not believe in God, and many people don’t. That was not the case 500 years ago before the Enlightenment. It’s the difference between Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: Wolf Hall puts you in 16th-century Tudor England during the middle of the Reformation in a universe saturated with God, prayer and Scripture. Some of the priests are heroes. In contrast, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo puts you in 21st-century Sweden in a godless universe where there is no prayer and no higher sense of right and wrong. The world is bleak and amoral, the sex is brutal, the relationships are tough, and there is only but the faintest trace of church when you meet the paedophile priest.

What happened during those intervening five hundred years? That’s when the storm was brewing. I think what’s happening now is the storm is hitting: now is one of those moments when empires shift and thinking changes. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to read the signs and understand what’s going on because you’re just trying to hold on and batten things down.

But understand this: we’re in the middle of change at the moment, and everyone’s trying to get their heads around it. Everyone’s scared to put their heads up and speak. So while the presenting issue is same-sex marriage, there are deeper issues there—issues about secularism and about how people of faith can live in a pluralist world. So, yes, we’ve seen massive changes in our understanding of marriage and homosexuality over the last 30 years. But that shift owes its origins to these deeper things that have been going on over the last 500 years.

Why we should speak

So why speak into this context? Let me give you four reasons.

First reason: marriage is good. Marriage is really good. God designed it and he made it between a man and a woman. There’s something wonderful that happens when a man and a woman come together to be united as one flesh, opening themselves up to family that comes from that union. Marriage is a good thing. It’s not the ultimate thing, but it is a good and wonderful thing.

Second reason: love your neighbour. If marriage is a good thing, then we want that good thing for our neighbours. We don’t want marriage to be changed or to change its shape or be redefined. We don’t want our culture to step further away from marriage.

Third reason: there are unintended consequences for children and for families that would come if the state were to redefine marriage.

Fourth reason: there are unintended consequences for all kinds of civic freedoms, including freedom of speech.

So we have a really positive case for speaking marriage up and for saying that this is worth holding onto.

Sharing what we have with the world

Just before I presented this talk, I spoke to some French journalists. France is working through the same kinds of questions at the moment. One of the first things these journalists asked me was “You’re against same-sex marriage. Why?” I said, “Before we talk about what we’re against, can we talk about what we’re for?” I find it’s good to frame things in a positive way, instead of a negative one—to say, “We’re for marriage, and we think it’s so good, we don’t want to change it lightly.” Because there is a broader cultural movement taking place at the moment, we need to decide whether to be part of the culture, or try and escape from it. We need to ask ourselves, “Has God got something good to say to this culture during this time of confusion?”, and if he does, we need to decide whether we are going to hold onto it for ourselves, or share it with the world.

When God gave marriage to humanity, it wasn’t just for his people. It wasn’t just for Israel. It wasn’t just for Christians or the church. It didn’t happen at Sinai; it happened at Eden. It was for the benefit of all men and women, not just believers. So what are we to do with that? Do we just keep it to ourselves and our community? Or do we impose it on the community at large? The answer is neither: we’re called instead to love our neighbor. We’re called instead to be faithful citizens—which means, in Australian secular liberal democracy, speaking out as citizens. We’re not claiming some special privileged status, imposing our beliefs on others. We’re merely citizens—citizens with rights. Just as Paul appeals to Caesar, we too should be appealing to people, saying, “Here is a good thing that we have to share—a good thing that’s for the good of others.” We’re not enforcing this on anyone; we’re just raising questions—questions like, “What should the state do with these competing claims about marriage?” and “How are we all going to live together, given our differing views?” It’s all out of love for our neighbours. We need to share the good; we need to warn of the bad. But because many Christians have been largely silent about this, sometimes only the shrillest of voices are heard speaking against same-sex marriage and about the dangers of the consequences of removing gender from marriage.

Free speech

Now, space restrictions mean I’m not going to make the positive case here for marriage and for children. But let me finish by talking about the area that is Freedom for Faith’s particular focus, and give you a quick overview of some of the consequences for restricting free speech.

Archbishop Julian Porteous is the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart. Given our current climate, the Catholic bishops of Australia decided to write a little booklet on marriage, which they called Don’t Mess with Marriage. I’ve read this document: it is deliberately a very calm, peaceful and measured piece of writing. Its understanding of marriage is a little different from the one I have in that it’s more sacramental than the Protestant one. But it’s hardly controversial stuff. It was carefully drafted to express respect for all.

Even so, Rodney Croome, who was National Director of Australian Marriage Equality at the time, came out and said, “If you’ve see this booklet, we want you to complain about it.” The booklet was distributed to Catholic parishes and schools in Tasmania. After Croome’s urging, Martine Delaney, LGBTI activist and Greens candidate in Tasmania, lodged a complaint with the Tasmanian Human Rights Commissioner. The Tasmanian Human Right Commissioner supported the complaint, saying that it looked like hate speech and calling upon the church to answer for its offensive teachings on marriage. The Catholic church responded by calling in their lawyers, and the case went from November 2015 to May 2016, when it was then quietly dropped in the lead-up to the election because the press was starting to take more of an interest in it.

But the press should have been on this from Day 1, because this is an issue to do with free speech. Whatever your views on marriage, do we really want a culture in which you can’t teach a particular view because it’s so out of step with the culture, we can’t even allow children to hear it? In this situation, the issue wasn’t just that the booklet accorded with Catholic teaching, it was also a statement on Australian marriage laws. But it’s not as though the law had changed. So what do you think will happen if the law changes? What will happen if the law changes and you teach that, regardless what the law says, marriage is really between a man and a woman? More people should be prepared for calls from the Human Rights Commissioner.

What would you say in that situation? Some churches are facing this at the moment. Churches in the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) network—churches like The Lakes Evangelical Church, Hunter Bible Church and Maitland Evangelical Church—have been the subject of a number of complaints for their teaching of the Bible’s position on human sexuality. The media has been all over it because these churches meet on the grounds of public high schools. So what would you say to the principal of the high school in this situation, when the person bringing the complaint says the church shouldn’t even be allowed to meet there and shouldn’t be teaching this kind of stuff?

There have been similar issues at Sydney University regarding the freedom of a student group to insist that all their leaders and members be Christian. The group is open to all, but membership is only for Christians.

In this climate, some churches have smelled the wind and gone radio silent. I know a number of churches who will not teach this stuff anymore. They say, “We believe this traditional understanding of marriage and what the Bible is saying, but we’re not going to teach it in from the front. Maybe we’ll do it in small groups, but not from the front anymore.” They’re saying this long before the marriage law has actually changed.

We’ve already mentioned the proposed plebiscite on whether to legalise same-sex marriage. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t that long ago that plenty of the Greens were pushing for the plebiscite. It wasn’t that long ago that even Penny Wong, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, was supportive of marriage being between a man and a woman. She said, “On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there’s a cultural, religious, historical view around which we have to respect.” She’s since changed her position. That’s fine; she’s entitled to do that. But note her words: they were calm, measured and respectful—not bigoted, not hateful and not homophobic. You see, it’s possible to make the case for marriage without resorting to hateful caricature. And we can do that in the democratic culture we live in.

But if the law were to change, that’s all up for grabs. An event like the Centre for Christian Living’s seminar on “Can we talk about same-sex marriage?” (where this talk was presented) might well be construed as hate speech. Teaching what the Bible says about homosexuality could well land you in trouble. I don’t want to get alarmist, but nor do I want to be naïve. The people pushing for this are the very ones who are saying that the government should take away the right of Christians to have exemptions under anti-discrimination laws.

We see the same issues with taxation (whether the charity status of churches and welfare agencies should be linked to equality compliance), government tendering and education. Will church schools have the freedom to continue as they always have? Look to Victoria and see how these things have been dealt with.

The international experience tells us that if you work in certain professions—in counselling, in psychology and even as a general practitioner—Christians in those secular spheres no longer have the same freedoms to work. You can see this in Canada, where the evangelical institution Trinity Western Law School was refused registration because it asked faculty and students to signed a covenant of sexual fidelity. Its graduates were effectively stopped from practising law because of their commitment to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Or consider marriage registrars like Lillian Ladele in the UK, who said on conscience grounds, “I cannot follow through on this kind of registration of same-sex marriage” and who then saw her position terminated. Adrian Smith, Housing Manager in Manchester, was demoted and had his salary cut by 40 per cent because, on Facebook, he wrote, “This is an equality too far.” After a year of litigation, the court ruled in his favour and he was awarded £89 by way of recompense. But he wasn’t reinstated.

Now, we’re not in that world yet. But if you want a vision of what the future looks like, look to this international experience. Wherever same-sex marriage has been introduced, these conflicts have arisen. Or consider the Australian places where it’s not the parliaments setting the law, but the corporations: it is no longer uncommon for a HR policy to say you must not speak about religion. Many corporations now have taken a corporate position supporting LGBTIQ issues and same-sex marriage.

If the law changes, it will not just be a question of permitting the genderless vision of same-sex marriage, but positively enforcing it and barring dissent. The state has to get bigger in order to intrude more into our lives to enforce its will. In the UK, inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) go around to faith schools to check out their position on same-sex marriage. What are the kids being taught? How are kids who come out as LGBTIQ being treated? What are you doing for them? When the state suddenly steps into an independent school to intervene on its teaching on these matters, that’s a big leap.

The future

So how do you feel about all this? If this is going to be the future, what do you think of it? A lot of people have expressed feelings of confusion, impotence and even anger. Just recently I was listening to a podcast called “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” in which someone said, “I feel like Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies where you know that there’s this terrible bleak future which is coming, and you’re preparing your child for it, but even saying it aloud makes you sound crazy.” Maybe you feel like that.

But then this podcaster stepped back from that illustration and said, “But I don’t want to sound too crazy and alarmist about it.” Which is good, because we don’t want to think we’re heading into some kind of apocalyptic Sarah Connor/Terminator kind of universe. That can’t be the Christian position. We cannot be the people of fear but of faith. When we think of the future and the apocalypse, we think of the Book of Revelation. That’s our apocalypse. It’s very realistic about the dangers Christians will face. Read chapters 2-3 about the churches described there: they are going to face persecution—every one of them. But they’re not called to change Rome and solve every problem in the world. Instead, they’re called to faithfulness. They’re to live knowing that, from chapter 1, Jesus is control: he is watching over his churches. Even Rome itself won’t have that sort of power. They live knowing that by the end of the apocalypse, you see a beautiful picture of the church. It’s a picture of a wedding. That’s the restoration we look forward to. It’s not actually going to be about the right parliamentary position on the Marriage Act. That’s not our hope. We can stand faithfully and do what we can in that space, but our hope is bigger, and that changes our stance. It allows us to speak with confidence. It allows us to speak without fear. It allows us to speak without having to feel that we need to retreat in order to be safe.

In the Middle East right now on the plains of Nineveh, Christians are dying for their faith. Do they have the freedom to talk of Christ? They do: they’re standing up and talking. Whatever we face here, it’s not going to be like that. So we need a level of perspective that says, “Be brave, be confident and be faithful in that situation.” We can’t be people who are nostalgic for the past, saying, “Let’s do ministry the way it was done 50 years ago. Let’s argue for marriage so that it goes back to the way it was 50 years ago.” We’ve actually got a much better vision of marriage to offer a very confused world that needs to hear it.

How do we speak about same-sex marriage? Well, you must read Tony’s upcoming article about that. But the one thing I want to say is that while there’s a place for Christian politicians and people in the political sphere, the real action is at a grassroots level. The mistake they made in the UK with same-sex marriage was to put all their eggs into the public debate and the media. They didn’t equip the ordinary church to say it’s okay to speak about this. But we can speak with confidence.

So have a go. Speak up. History is decided by those who turn up.

Read. Watch. Listen.

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