So the Marriage (Same-Sex couples) Bill is now an Act and gay couples will be legally able to marry next summer. It is probably the most radical piece of legislation the Coalition Government will put on the Statute Book.
The fact that a large number of Conservatives voted against the Bill and their supporters in the country opposed it 2:1 made it risky for the party’s leadership. UKIP were against the move and could attract traditional Tory voters who also want less immigration and withdrawal from EU membership. That the legislation was not in any party’s 2010 manifesto and was pushed through both Houses with limited opportunities to secure amendments added to the controversy. At the same time giving same-sex couples equality with heterosexual couples did attract large majorities in both Houses and would appear to have majority support in the country, especially amongst younger people, notwithstanding the 700,000 who signed the petition opposing the Bill.
Attempts to amend the Bill in the Lords failed except for those tabled by the Government to tidy up loose ends. Ministers argue that the right of churches and ministers of religion who believe the legislation to be contrary to their faith cannot be compelled to conduct weddings for same- sex couples. Indeed they have made it illegal for the Churches of England and of Wales to conduct such services. The Act also includes the right to express criticism of gay marriage without fear of prosecution for ‘hate speech’.
Time and the inevitable legal challenges will tell how secure these protections will be. Undoubtedly this legislation and the level of support for it expose how British culture has changed and it should challenge the Christian community to understand what it means for our mission here. Claims that ‘there is only one way’ are no longer acceptable. As one commentator put it “in the post-modern world, heaven is a vast super market; hell is a corner shop stocking only one brand of religion, morality or marriage”. This consumerist relativism allows everyone to do what is right in their own eyes. The new law does not mean we can no longer believe and practice our faith but it does mean that we have to learn new ways of living and sharing it.
Our behaviour speaks louder than our words. To that end Christian marriages must demonstrate all that we say that it means. Churches must do much more to prepare couples for marriage, encourage them to adopt lifestyles that enrich their relationships, not wear them down, and support them through times of crisis. Whilst our churches are not compelled to marry same-sex couples we do have to relate to them in a Christlike spirit of love and grace. The experience of single people in many churches suggests that there is room for improvement in this respect. If we don’t the woes that Jesus expressed about the Pharisees could equally apply to us.[i]
[i] See Matthew 23