This week two items of news grabbed my attention, both involving social change. The first came from the evidence gathered in the 2011 census, published on Tuesday.
It revealed the UK population has grown by 7% over the last decade but the percentage of people identifying as Christian declined by 13%. In contrast those who have no faith rose by 10%. In Tower Hamlets Muslims outnumber Christians, though nationwide there are only 1.5 million Muslims compared with 33.2 million Christians. Do these social changes matter? Inevitably atheist organisations claim they do and will call for the Church of England to be disestablished and the Bishops removed from the House of Lords.
The second big story of the week suggests that the Government disagrees. Maria Miller, the Equalities Minister, announced the Government’s plans for legalising same sex marriage but made emphatically clear that the Churches would be treated as a special case in the legislation. The Government recognises the importance of marriage as a basic building block in society and sees no reason why same-sex couples should be excluded from it. Existing legislation recognises same-sex unions as civil partnerships but they are viewed as second class versions of marriage. However, marriage has traditionally been seen as exclusively the union of a man and a woman, as per Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:4-6, making orthodox Christians the principal opponents of the Government’s intentions, though orthodox Jews and Muslims take the same stance.
The Government’s response is to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples but to give faith communities the option of not conducting same-sex marriages unless they choose otherwise. A ‘quadruple lock’ will protect those opting out from prosecution or litigation for discrimination. The proposed legislation will say that no Church or individual Minister can be forced to conduct same-sex marriages and the Equalities Act will be amended to reflect this. Individual Ministers will only be able to conduct same-sex marriages if their denomination has opted in and the legislation will make it illegal for the established Churches of England and Wales to conduct same-sex marriages. Primary legislation would be required to change this. The Minister also said that this legislation is unlikely to be challenged by the European Court of Human Rights because Article 12 of the Convention makes marriage a matter for national legislators.
It remains to be seen how the Coalition for Marriage responds to these provisions but they deny gay activists their goal of overcoming the last barrier to establishing complete social acceptance of same-sex relationships. Nevertheless they can be expected to argue that the Government is wrong to give special protection to a Church that is in decline. Christians may respond that whilst it is true that Jesus loves same-sex couples, just as he loved tax-collectors and prostitutes, he called them to be transformed and enter the Kingdom of God on his terms not their own. This applies to any couple seeking his blessing on their marriage.