In the UK, pressure is building (slowly) for changes in the law to bring them closer into line with full civil marriage. Some gay activists and human rights lobbies are starting to call for it, some politicians are inching towards acceptance - but only very, very cautiously. So it is that the equality minister, Lynn Featherstone, would say no more than that the government would introduce "greater" provision for some religious content in civil partnership ceremonies, and the Liberal Democrat deputy leader made a prediction - not a promise - that we would have full marriage equality by the time of the next election, which is still five years away. The Prime Ministers, who is the one that really matters in this, has been even more cautious. Before the election, in a transparent to win gay votes, he would say no more than that he would "consider" gay marriage. Since then, speaking at a gay pride function, he chose his words very carefully:
“I am pleased to announce that we are taking a further step, and I think a good step and a right step – and I say this as someone who believes in marriage, who believes in civil partnership, who believes in commitment – and that is to say that if religious organisations, if churches, if mosques, if temples want to have civil partnerships celebrated at religious places of worship, that should be able to happen and we should make that happen.”
Read this carefully. Note the repeated "if". All it says is that if religious organizations want civil partnerships -not real marriage- at places of worship, then the government will enable it. Bishop Phillip Tartaglia of Paisley has noted the caution of the words, but nevertheless, he has a fiery response for the PM:
"...you and your Government need to be aware from the outset that the Catholic Church will not register civil partnerships nor celebrate same-sex unions: not now, not in the future, not ever, no matter what legislation or regulations your Government enacts or endorses.”
Really? Not ever? "Never" is a long time. Somebody should remind the bishop of just how often the church has changed tack over the past two thousand years. Back in the medieval period, church marriage was not a requirement for most couples - unless the groom was a priest. Usury for centuries was condemned along with sodomy as "unnatural" - until the Vatican learned the value of borrowing money, even at the price of paying interest. Slavery was the "natural order" of things, and even chocolate was forbidden. Have we forgotten how quickly the permanent, universal language of the church was swept away, with Latin replaced by the vernacular in worship?
But most importantly of all, tell the bishop of the practice in the early church of recognising and blessing same sex unions in church, or of burying some same sex couples in shared graves, exactly as some married couples were. Remind him that canonized saints and other medieval bishops can still have their homoerotic poems read in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse , that John of Orleans and his mentor Ralph of Tours were not the only openly homosexual men to be elevated to the episcopate, and that even during the Inquisition persecution of "sodomites", some gay popes graced the Vatican with sumptuous artworks by celebrated, openly homosexual artworks.
In his rash promise, Bishop Tartaglia is operating on the assumption that the Church's often quoted lie of a "constant, unchanging tradition" has some foundation in reality. In fact, the only thing truly constant in Church history is the constant presence of change.
Tartaglia is certainly wrong. Current teaching on homoerotic relationships will change, as some bishops are already cautiously proposing. The Catholic church will lag behind other denominations, but will ultimately follow, in blessing and then marrying same sex couples, just as they will end by ordaining women and married men. These things will surely come to pass: we just cannot know when.
See also:The Church’s changing tradition
Gay Bishops: How Many?
Catholic Church Ordains Gay Bishop (in 1098)
Saint Paulinus of Nola
Homoerotic Christianity: The Medieval Flowering