On 21st May 2011 – almost 12 years ago – Jonathan and I had our Civil Partnership. We went with close family to Chelsea Register Office in the morning and then at 12 noon we crossed over the River Thames to St Mary’s Church Battersea for a Celebration Eucharist with about 350 people on a scorching hot day. After the Mass people streamed out of the church into the church yard, those who wanted it were given fairtrade white or red wine and we all sat on the grass and were fed by a magnificent Spanish street paella for 400 which was prepared by a couple whose children I had baptised.
During the Mass Jonathan and I came up to the front and stood in front of the priest – we both repeated to each other the following reading from the Book of Ruth:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go: Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die- there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
We then said This is the Word of the Lord, and the whole congregation loudly replied Thanks be to God. The priest then wrapped her stole around our hands and the choir sang the anthem by John Rutter – The Lord bless you and keep you.
It was all very lovely – and it was 12 years ago.
It was of course not a wedding – and nowhere on the service sheet did it say that it was a blessing – we did not actually share vows, we just read the bible to each other – and everything had been checked by the Bishop before we proceeded.
But it was 12 years ago – so you will understand my slight bemusement with all that has been going on about same-sex blessings in General Synod over this past week. The only real difference between now and 12 years ago is that I can talk a little more openly about what we did then and that we can advertise it for others a little more freely. But not much has changed.
The debate in General Synod, if any of you were so bored with life and real TV that you spent any time listening to the 160 amendments of which all but one failed – was filled with lots of people making very big claims about God, quite a few people telling some very emotional stories, and one or two threats about who will be leaving whom, but there was – sadly – very little theology, and even less logic.
Over my time as a priest the arguments for and against same-sex marriage have shifted and moved around like shifting sands. Way back in the 1980s – 40 years ago – it all hung on 10 verses in the bible – some from the Old Testament and some from the New. There were the usual suspects – Sodom and Gomorrah, a couple of verses in Leviticus , a verse from 1 Corinthians, and another one from 1 Timothy, a couple of verses from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, a rather weird bit from the epistle of Jude and a bunch of strange texts in the Old Testament about temple prostitutes and dogs.
By the 1990’s no-one with any biblical understanding would use the obscure references in Jude or the bits about temple prostitutes as having anything to say at all in the same-sex marriage debate. And it didn’t take long after that for the vast majority of biblical scholars to come to the conclusion that the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about rape and abuse and has nothing to say about stable, permanent, consensual loving relationships. So by the time we reached the 2000s we were left with Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1:25 and 26, and the use of one particular word in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.
Now, I’m not expecting you to know all your bible verses off by heart, so the two Leviticus verses say that it is an abomination for man to lie with a man as with a woman. The two verses from Romans talk about people giving up normal sexual relations and exchanging it for abnormal ones, men with men and women with women, and the one word in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy which used to be translated as in the old King James bible as sexual perversion, suddenly was translated as homosexual in some newer translations – before going back to the rather graphic sodomites in the latest version. Although the reality is that no-one knows what the Greek word really means because St Paul seems to have made it up. I guess it means whatever St Paul meant it to mean – what ever that is.
But since about the year 2010 most people have given up using these odd bible verses for their arguments. The Leviticus verses don’t actually say that it is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as with a woman after all and it doesn’t take very much biblical detective work to find out that even the Jewish Rabbis don’t understand what the Hebrew words really mean – and anyway it is all tucked away in the middle of a whole host of other abominations like eating shellfish and wearing clothes made of two different materials.
And St Paul’s new word in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy – sexual pervert, homosexual or sodomite – is actually all guess work. Most people think that it seems to connect to the mysterious Leviticus verses in some way , but that doesn’t help us much, and I think a much clearer connection is with a phrase used in Numbers 31:18 where the soldiers in the Israelite army are allowed to take and rape virgins as a booty of war.
And even the Romans verses about exchanging normal sexual relations for abnormal ones is fraught with difficulty – the word doesn’t mean ‘normal or abnormal’ and the whole argument seems to be about pagans and the sort of Greek and Roman orgies they used to get up to – in my humble opinion.
So actually, most people on both sides of the debate have dropped all those single bible verses, and the argument these days – in the 2020s – all seems to hang on the fact that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or Madam and Eve – as it were.
The argument against same sex marriage goes a bit like this – God created men and women, men and women’s bodies are different and are designed to work together so that they can have children – that’s what’s natural, and anything else is unnatural.
Argument won – you might say .
But hang on a minute … what kind of simplistic world are you living in? – I want to say. The natural world which God has created has never been that cut and dry – there are hermaphrodite animals which are both male and female, there are animals which change sex at different times in their lives – the natural picture is more varied than simply male and female. Even the Jewish Rabbis two and a half thousand years ago were more enlightened than that – they knew even human beings are not always simply male or female in every case. They knew that some people – a minority, yes – but people nevertheless – are born both male and female, or neither male or female, or mainly male on the outside but quite female on the inside – Not everyone is just male or female.
And where we are different nowadays is that we know that we are not just our bodies – we have psychology and emotions and a whole different world going on in our heads. Some males are more feminine than others, some females are more masculine than others – and it seems to be that some males are attracted to other males, some females are attracted to other females and some people are attracted to both and not either / or. People are complicated.
So – you might want to ask me – is the bible wrong when it says that God created us male and female? to which I will tell you that, no, the bible is not wrong, the bible is actually remarkably spot on – it’s just that we are wrong – we misread the Bible at almost every step.
The bible says that God created night and day – but no-one, absolutely no one has ever thought that there is only ever just night or day. Gradually in the morning the sun rises and night changes from night, through dawn into day, and at the end of the day when the sun sets we slip into dusk – the twilight zone – when God created night and day, God also created all the gradients of dawn and dusk in between – we know that.
The bible tells us that God created the seas and the dry land – except of course God also created the flood plains, and the marshes, – shore lines which flood and which dry out – and no- one, absolutely no one believes that there is only ever just dry land or just sea in a binary kind of way – There are edges – fuzzy edges where night becomes day and day becomes night, when dry land becomes sea and sea becomes dry land – it’s all blatantly obvious.
And so, we are told, God created male and female – and although most people are quite clear that they are either just male or female – some people are in the edges, either physically, or emotionally in their gender and their sexuality. That’s the way nature is.
Because the text does not say that God made Night or day – just one or the other – Sea or dry land, just one or the other – male or female – just one or the other – the Bible says night and day, Sea and dry land, Male and Female. – in the same way that God is not male or female but is male and female.
The bible gets it right – we just read it wrong.
And then there’s the whole natural body parts argument. God made the body parts so that they work together so that the human race can procreate. …and that is true … male and female body parts make babies …
But where in any other aspect of our bodies apart from sex do we use that argument. The mouth and stomach were made to eat so that we can survive – but we chew gum because we want to. And no-one has a hang up about chewing gum. There are lots of reasons why people might want to give up smoking – but I have never ever heard the argument that smoking is an abomination because God made our mouths to eat, not to inhale tobacco.
Our whole creative life is about doing new things with what we have got …
We wear jewellery – and people pierce their ears and noses – not so that they can hear better, but so that they can look nice. We wear glasses on our nose even though God did not make our noses to carry bits of plastic. We drive cars and we fly in aeroplanes – and none of it is ‘normal or natural’ but it is what human beings do.
But you know – today is not Gay Awareness Sunday – today is Racial Justice Awareness Sunday and I have said nothing about it. Last week the finest of our Church of England leaders spend 4 days of their lives going round and round in circles about what kind of love and sex God approves of and doesn’t approve of.
But I think Jesus would say :
Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
Love your neighbour as yourself
And seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice, and all these things shall be added unto you….