2 December 2011

The Kirk's worldly defence of national conservatism...

The Scotsman suggest that it represents a "fresh blow" dealt to Alex Salmond's same-sex marriage plans.  Before next week's deadline and the same-sex marriage consultation's conclusion, yesterday the Church of Scotland's Legal Questions Committee submitted the Church's response to the Government, opposing the idea that civil partnerships should be capable of being religiously celebrated, and more generally, controverting any proposal that same-sex marriages should be recognised, inside or outside of churches, religiously or civilly celebrated, toto caelo.  Although noted in outline in the press, I thought it might be of interest to explore the Kirk's stated views in a little more detail, pulling out the arguments advanced in this paper.  

What one is immediately struck by is the lack of a substantial religious tone. While the Church's teachings about marriage are touched on very passingly, and the submissions (mostly) feel starchy, terse and legalistic.  An explanation is soon to be found. The Kirk's response was composed by its Legal Questions Committee, which "is a group of ministers, elders and members who either are or were practising lawyers or who have an interest in legal matters". You can tell. They employ phrases like "without prejudice", without embarrassment. The authors describe their submissions as "a technical response to a technical consultation document". Describing their views as a "freeze frame image captured from the Church's developing response to the real, live issues involved", the Committee makes explicit reference to a report on the acceptance for training and ordination of persons in same-sex relationships, being framed for the General Assembly of 2013. While articles tend exclusively to quote the incendiary passages on same-sex marriage, we shouldn't overlook this section, and its welcome recognition of divisions within the Kirk on the topic:

"There is also an ongoing debate within the Church itself. There is a wide spread of opinion among our own folk which has been evident at recent General Assemblies and elsewhere. The Committee recognises that this Response may be regarded as unsatisfactory by some members who would have wished the Church to embrace the Government's proposals.  Equally, there may be others who are disappointed that the Response offers the possibility that the Church will move from its current position."

A snap-shot then, and a revisable one. Queer though it seems, as I mention, religious conviction doesn't prominently feature in this religious body's submissions.  The Kirk's argument isn't so much - Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve - but a generic, crusty appeal to a conservative tradition, whose relationship with the Godhead and his teachings seems (at least to me) profoundly obscure.  That said, for the Kirk to produce such a worldly document in defence of their convictions is hardly a novel approach to "religion in Scotland's public sphere". I detected something very similar in the religious contribution to Margo MacDonald's Bill on assisted dying, when clergy of all colours all started talking like old-fashioned sociologists, making confident predictions about the future behaviour of Scots if the proposal had been adopted, rather than emphasising its moral and ethical dimensions.

We can think up a number of ways same-sex marriage might be opposed.  One could promote the idea that marriage is a concept given definitive shape by God, or the natural law, which human laws ought in reason to conform with. Alternatively, you might believe that marriage is cosmologically settled by some definitive author (provenance uncertain), conceptually immutable and limited to one man, and one woman. Your knowledge tells you that marriage is between a man and woman, and is not capable of being transformed as is being proposed. You may be more or less conscious that this is the sort of argument you are making. Another case might be that the institution of marriage has a very specific function - the raising of children - and that we lose sight of that function when all expressions of love are formalised, fruitless or not, capable of producing children or not.  Alternatively, one needn't have Jehovah and the baby Jesus on your side at all. You might well oppose same-sex marriage by emphasising social stability, the limits of human knowledge, instead valuing continuity and focussing on the defence of the achievements of the present against consuming entropy and damaging innovation. By my reading, it is this last case -"the conventional or regular understanding of marriage" - which the Kirk primarily relies on to reject any religious participation in civil partnerships, and to oppose any recognition of same sex marriage. They write:

"The Government's proposal to allow same-sex marriage fundamentally changes marriage as it is understood in our country.  The nature of marriage in Scottish culture is that it is a relationship between one man and one woman. This is the position in law and fact."

Asked if they accept the idea that only civil same-sex marriage be permitted, the Committee:

"... does not believe that marriage can or should be compartmentalised into civil and religious marriage. This is a false dichotomy which does not reflect the place of marriage in the culture of our country, either past or present".

They go on to paint a pitiful picture of a self-interested minority, robbing the doughy, plodding, simple and virtuous Plain People of Scotland of their cherished idea of wan-man-wan-lassie unions...

"It is not clear what compelling reasons there might be for introducing same-sex marriage without allowing for further debate.  The Government states that the purpose of this proposal to re-define marriage is to accommodate the wishes of some same-sex couples. The Church believes that a much more measured consideration is required before the understanding of marriage which is entrenched and valued within the culture of Scotland, both secular and religious, is surrendered to accommodate this wish."

So, recognising same-sex marriage is a Bad Thing as to do so would be culturally alien and alienating to godless and god-botherer Scots alike. And the wages of rebellion against the suffocating national culture the Church envisages?

"To redefine marriage to include same-sex marriage may have significant and, as yet, inadequately considered repercussions for our country and, in particular, for the well-being of families and communities and of individuals".

Such as? Surely if melancholy disaster and the fraying of the Scottish social fabric can be envisaged, you'd imagine that a compassionate Church might be able to furnish us with an example or three of just how same-sex marriage would do anything of the sort. Some of us might like to stock up our bunkers in anticipation of these baleful "repercussions" which will break over Scotland's head, if and when Holyrood introduces same-sex marriage.  Dark hints, absent detail, haunted looks and whispers of nameless fears? These amount to little more than obscure, unworthy, self-serving innuendo.  And the consultation's leisurely pace, too, is apparently a problem for the racy spirits of the Legal Questions Committee...

"... the Church is concerned at the speed with which the Scottish Government is proceeding on this issue. It appears that the Government has, with only limited exceptions, failed to persuade the religious community in Scotland.  The Church does not believe that there has been sufficient debate. Indeed, it believes that what debate there has been has been patchy, underdeveloped and exclusive of both ordinary people and the religious community". 

Michty speedy? Seriously? At this stage, we have a ministerial consultation, no place for a draft Bill in the government's short term legislative timetable, no draft Bill outlining concrete proposals.  Once a preliminary text has been finalised, it will be subjected to a further process of deliberation in the parliament and its committees, typically involving a further call for evidence.  If that's speed, show me slowness! I'm also a mite curious about what connection the Church intends to draw between the first and second sentences quoted. They certainly appear to be suggesting that the failure to convince the pious is in some respect evidence supporting the contention that the government is proceeding precipitously. Gently, this seems an eccentric proposition.

I also particularly enjoyed the tender references to the Plain People of Scotia, and the implication that this humble band implicitly, and silently, shares the Kirk's views, despite widespread, contrary public polling. Moreover, it is a flatly ridiculous idea that the debate has excluded "persons of faith" in a consultation exercise which has, if anything, paid assiduous attention to the concerns of organised religion.  I struggle to perceive the culpable exclusion effected by the very prominent reporting of church figures' highly critical - sometimes vituperative - views on the issue in the national press, and the polite hosting of their opinionated pieces, opposing same-sex marriage, in comments sections. Today's front pages on the Kirk's conclusions are surely a case in point.

Clearing away the fog of hysterical and fictional fantasies of oppression, Church hierarchies have absolutely no reason to girn about the very extensive exposure their concerns have received. Inadvertently, however, the Legal Questions Committee may be onto something in their sketch of the silent Plain, Pious People of Scotland. Again and again, we hear from bishops, cardinals, priests and ministers, whose views are taken to be of interest, largely by assuming that their convictions are shared by the religious populations they hail from, as if these communities were simple, homogeneous bodies of opinion, who are merely creatures of their leaders and the sharers of their prejudices and convictions. That this is not so should be obvious to everyone.


  1. But marriage can and is compartmentalised into civil and religious marriage, which is how we know that most folk who get married choose to do so in a non-religious setting.

  2. Frankly my dears, I don't give a bann...

  3. The Quakers have an altogether more sensible approach.


    In 1669, one of our most influential early Friends, George Fox, described the Quaker understanding of marriage:

    "For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord
    only, and not the priests or magistrates; for it is God’s
    ordinance and not man’s and therefore Friends cannot
    consent that they should join them together: for we
    marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but

  4. I'd like to know how many marriages are carried out officiated by a representative of the main religions in Scotland and those which are, as Indy states, undertaken in a non-religious setting.

    Any marriages in non-religious settings (hotels etc) I've attended in the past few years have all been conducted by an authorised person of various religions.

  5. Well Subrosa, that may be your experience, but it is not mine. I have attended religious and civil marriages in both religious premises and non-religious premises. The most recent marriage I attended, last year, was held in the rather magnificent Town House in Aberdeen, between a nephew and his fiancée, officiated by the Registrar, who happened to be a lady, and had no religious content as I presume this is what both he and she wished - it was a very joyous occasion. The reception afterwards was at one of the nicer hotels in Aberdeen. There were about 60 or 70 people at the Town House and perhaps 150 at the reception.

    The year before, I attended my first ever Civil Partnership, this time in the Registry Office in Elgin - again the registrar was a lady and she did her best to make it a special occasion for the two, who are men - obviously there was no religious content, as the Civil Partnership legislation currently dictates, but the 60 or so people present (some gay and some lesbian friends, including a couple of other sets of civil partners, plus a number of married couples and single friends of both sexes) thoroughly enjoyed it and the flower displays were pretty awesome, given that a friend is a florist. The reception was in the couple's own quite magnificent home, and they chose the date because it was the 25th anniversary of the date they met, although they had lived together for over 20 years. They are a long-term stable couple and it would seem to me entirely reasonable, and good in societal terms, to allow such people, if they wish it, to be 'married', plain and simple.

    I find the pseudo-arguments being put forward by various of the religious bodies ('cults') to be somewhat illogical, not to mention distasteful in terms of what, for Christians, is supposed to be a religion of tolerance not to mention one of encouraging stable relationships, but in the hands of evangelicals, The Church of Scotland and Roman Catholicism has become one of divisiveness and moral posturing, when some of these bodies have absolutely no right to preach morality to anyone, given the crimes that some of their recent and existing personnel have committed and which they (the religious bodies involved) have systematically sought to cover up.

  6. That information is published by the General Registrar Office.

    In 2010 a total of 28,480 marriages took place.

    Of those, 14, 449 were civil marriages - which by law are non religious. So that is 50.73 per cent.

    Then looking at the non-civil marriages.

    Church of Scotland - 6005. 21 per cent.

    The next most popular was Humanist ceremonies at 2092. 7.3 per cent.

    The next most popular was RC weddings of which there were 1,776 or 6.2 per cent.

    The next most popular was Assemblies of God (which I have never heard of) who conducted 879 weddings.

    Then the Methodists who did 522 weddings, the Baptists who did 283
    weddings, the Bathgate Community Church which did 148 weddings - we are getting down to the low numbers now so I won't go on. All the details are here: http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/statistics/theme/vital-events/general/ref-tables/2010/marriages-and-civil-partnerships.html

    If you add the civil weddings and the humanist weddings together that comes to around 58 per cent.

  7. Thanks LPW for another illuminating breakdown, and to Indy for the figures and to Bill for this -

    'one of divisiveness and moral posturing, when some of these bodies have absolutely no right to preach morality to anyone'

    Oh and (can I really be saying this) thank you to the SNP government, which is taking the right approach for the right reasons.

  8. Your analysis is undermined by an extremely narrow expectation of what a religious approach should be.

    The Kirk has made the perfectly sensible point that the Western tradition of social and political organization has limited marriage to a male/female couple. If we're going to change that, we need a real and deep philosophical and cultural debate about the nature of child rearing in society and the nature of intimacy, and not the sort of knockabout politicking and Cosmo quiz that the consultation's involved so far. A correct sense of how wisdom is exercised in politics is as much part of Christianity and the natural law tradition as any claim with explicit mention of God or the Church.


  9. It seems to me that the most sensible solution to all this is for marriages to become entirely civil with no religious connotations. Should the couple wish to have their supreme being's imprimatur on their union then off to the Kirk or church or whatever with them.

  10. It was not long before the second World War that marriage, in Scotland, ceased to just being two people declaring to each other that they were married, without this interference from Stare or Kirk.

    A return to something similar, no matter the nature of the couple is desirable, without the petty prejudices of any cult being allowed to interfere.

    If the couple wish such a blessing that is their choice, but no religion should be allowed to interfere in this

  11. What, today, are the standard fees and associated charges for a civil marriage ceremony and administration - compared with the same for a religious marriage?

    14000+ fees are not to be sniffed at when the collection plates are perhaps a little lighter these days. The council can just put the parking charges up.

  12. Many civil marriages are actually carried out by ministers/elders/priests etc. and mainly for people in those areas who do not have a very nice church to go to. I was completely in favour of it before the gay rights people (who are nowhere near as civilised as any ACTUALLY gay people I know) started with the foaming-at-the-mouth shout and scream at anyone who you might think disagrees nonsense and changed my mind to it only being in a non-religious setting.