Usually I save the interesting things I read for my weekly roundup posts. There’s so much I want to share, I would end up spamming you guys quite a bit if I didn’t. But sometimes I come across things that just demand to be shared, like the secret of a new favorite book or a good local microbrew beer whispered between bosom friends.
This speech from Lord Harries on the UK gay marriage bill (which I h/t the Wounded Bird blog, in turn heard through Slacktivist. I’ll have some brief thoughts at the end, but first let me just quote the whole thing in its entirety. It’s no longer than a decent fanfic vignette, and I can’t quite bring myself to excerpt it.
My Lords, I understand very well the unease that many of your Lordships feel about this Bill. I was brought up in a world where homosexuality was whispered about in dark corners and any hint of its expression resulted in expulsion. Our understanding of homosexuality is undoubtedly the biggest social change of my lifetime.
My own change and understanding came about when I realised—for example, through reading the biographies of gay people—that often, from a very early age, they had found themselves predominantly attracted to members of their own sex, not just physically but as whole persons. While some people are bisexual and there is a degree of fluidity in the sexuality of others, we know that for a significant minority their sexuality is not a matter of choice but as fundamental to their identity as being male or female. That is a fact that must bring about a decisive shift in our understanding.
The question arises as to how the church and society should respond to this. Both have an interest in helping people live stable lives in committed relationships. For this reason, many of us warmly welcome civil partnerships, not just because of the legal protections that they rightly afford to those who enter into them but because they offer the opportunity for people to commit themselves to one another publicly. Personally, I take a high view of civil partnerships. The idea of a lifelong partnership is a beautiful one. I deeply regret that the Church of England has not yet found a way of publicly affirming civil partnerships in a Christian context. I wish that it had warmly welcomed them from the first and provided a liturgical service in which the couple could commit themselves to one another before God and ask for God’s blessing upon their life together. If only the church had made it clear that although these relationships might be different in some respects from the union of a man and woman, they are equally valid in the eyes of the church and, more importantly, in the eyes of God.
Sadly, too many who now say that they accept civil partnerships have done so only slowly, reluctantly and through gritted teeth. Today we are not in a situation where civil partnerships are regarded as different but equal to marriage. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is inevitably created that one form of relationship is inferior to the other, and people believe that marriage is a profounder and richer form of relationship than a civil partnership.
Most importantly, many gay and lesbian people believe this and want to enter not just into a civil partnership but a marriage: a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Marriage affords legal advantages that are denied to civil partnerships, such as their legal status in many countries, but that is not the main point. The point is that those who wish to enter into this most fundamental of human relationships should be able to do so legally. I am aware that this involves a significant change in our understanding of marriage, but marriage has never had a fixed character. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, eloquently pointed out that its legal meaning has changed over the years; and no less significantly, its social meaning has changed.
For most of history, among the upper classes, marriage was primarily a way of controlling titles and wealth. Among all classes, it involved the radical subservience of women. Often it went along with a very lax attitude—by males, not females—to relationships outside marriage. Contraception was forbidden and this resulted in many children, and as often as not the wife dying young. Only in the 18th century did we get a growth in emphasis on the quality of the relationship of the couple. Now, this mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have with the other, in prosperity and adversity, is rightly stressed. This is equally valued by all people, whatever their sexuality.
I really do not underestimate the linguistic dissonance set up by this Bill and the consequent unease felt by many but, for those reasons that I have briefly outlined, I warmly welcome it. I believe in marriage. I believe, with the Jewish rabbi of old, that in the love of a couple there dwells the shekinah—the divine presence; or, to put it in Christian terms, that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his church. I believe in the institution of marriage and I want it to be available to same-sex couples as well as to males and females.
It’s very rare that I read something and find at least some things I might object to. It’s my inner philosopher and my inner beta reader, I think. So I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice things to be critical of at the beginning. For instance, I found myself wondering why the fact that homosexuality was an innate part of who they are mattered for the marriage question. But at a certain point I found myself just reading. This is, as I said, exceptionally rare. I don’t think I’ve had this feeling since I read Hunger Games for the first time, and outside of fiction? Probably the first time I read Proslogion Ch. 1 (my guy Anselm’s book that includes the ontological argument), way back when I was in Cleveland. It is so rare to just read, and something about this speech, at some point, did that for me. To the point that I’m afraid to really delve into criticism. You know, breaking a thing to find out how it’s made being a departure from the path of wisdom and all that.
So I won’t try to go into any great depth on the meat of this speech. But I do want to note some general impressions. Like how when I was reading it, I found myself palpably reminded of Harry Potter’s words to Voldemort at the end of the Order of the Phoenix movie: “You’re the one who is weak. You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” Lately I’ve found a real pity for people who are so blinded by the definition of marriage, by a sense that their marriage is being redefined in front of their noses, that they cannot see the fundamental love behind the desire to get married. Not everyone opposed to gay marriage falls into this, I don’t think; in fact, I have some friends who read this blog who almost certainly disagree with this position, and while I will disagree with them heartily, I would never accuse them of being blind to love. But I found myself thinking of the people who see gay relationships as somehow lacking in terms of quality (as opposed to the people who are opposed to legal or sacramental inclusion for other reasons, including the idea that marriage recognizes some role these couples simply cannot fulfil for some reason without denigrating their love.
I guess I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Biblical values lately and sanctity of the family. And it seems like some folks are looking at their definitions, deciding certain people don’t fit. But that’s the thing about love I see shining through this: our words fit to this reality, whether we’re gay or straight or anything in between. Not the other way around. What I see in Lord Harries’s words is this: that it is not good for man to be alone, and that when my gay brothers and sisters long to forge a life together through sickness and health etc., and have the state relate to them as two-become-one, that’s both intensely human and intensely in keeping with the Gospel built on love. And seeing it expressed like this was… beautiful, I guess. Painful, because I realized how rare it was, but also setting up a hunger where everyone would be free to pursue those kinds of relationship and could be just folks.
(So quoth the perpetually single girl. Ironic, I know; yet the yearning to love and live in a way that honors that love is powerful enough for even a miserly old spinster like myself to key into.)
The other thing I noted was the way Lord Harries uses religion here in such a rich way. He paraphrases and quotes Christian sources, but not just Christian sources; I was particularly interested by his mention of Jewish beliefs. And I don’t get the sense he thought people had to be Christian or even religious to joint with him in like cause. That’s just who he was, so when he was wrestling with this identity of what we meant by marriage and whether homosexuals had any part to play in the institution, he reaches for the wisdom of those traditions. This isn’t him trying to score points with a constituent, or doesn’t feel like that. He doesn’t have to appear Christian, and so can truly be Christian. At the risk of fetishizing Britain, how awesome must it be to live in places where people can use their faith without it having to be a dividing point. Yeah, I get it doesn’t always work like that, but in America, for all our religious freedoms, I can’t see religion functioning quite this way – we are so divide and so often use religion as a way to push for our own privilege.
So much for a few short comments! At least I had less to say than Lord Harries. Ah, well…