I wasn’t surprised at the result of the Irish referendum voting in favour of same-sex marriage. I was somewhat surprised at the media reporting which described the result as ‘overwhelming’ when to my mathematical head the result of the actual voting was 62% yes and 38% no – and since voting in Ireland isn’t compulsory it appears that something like 55% of the voting population voted – so we really don’t know what the ‘silent 45%’ think. (I wish it had been compulsory voting!) What did surprise me however were the media reports that the Archbishop of Dublin was quoted as saying that in light of the vote the Church needed to ‘stop and have a reality check’. On further reading I found that the Archbishop had observed that the strength of the ‘young vote’ in support of ‘yes’ – where many of the young people had spent 12 years in Roman Catholic schools meant that ‘the Church had a big challenge to get its message across’. Isn’t that always the case?
My reading of the vote and the discourse around same sex marriage is that it is an issue of equality (in relation to marriage itself and also before the law) and anything opposing this is categorised as ‘unjust’. And there is truth here. My difficulty is that I’m not sure what is just (or justice) because I don’t regard justice as an absolute but as a negotiated reality so that ‘good’ flourishes and ‘bad’ doesn’t. For me there is an irony that the United Kingdom is talking about equality in relation to same sex marriage while at the same time wanting to limit equality currently enjoyed by EU citizens here – and both are done in the name of justice!
Referenda come and go and we’re told of course that ‘the people have spoken’. What does this mean if there is not unanimity? In the privacy of a ballot box even Christians don’t agree and that is ok when we are called to use our sanctified commonsense. But if we were to vote on something about which the Bible directly speaks then it would be hoped Christians would agree on the teaching for the disciples of Jesus even as they might disagree how this teaching applies to the world.
And so the ‘issue’ for the Church is – what do you teach? And for that Christians return and study God’s Word – what it does and doesn’t say. And that’s not so easy at times after 20 centuries when Christians teach variations and differences on subjects (eg. war, pacifism, marriage, divorce, bio-ethics, politics, etc) with everyone claiming the Bible as a final authority. In some churches there is a magisterium, in others a confessional statement, in others it is the leader who says what the teaching of the church is to be. There’s delight in agreement and fragmentation otherwise.
No matter the world in which we live, Christians have always to know the Christian Faith; to know what the Lord teaches and why. We need to be honest about what the Bible does and doesn’t say; what is tradition; what is best practice; what is privileged practice; what is our pious opinion. And we need to be clear that our faith and teachings are for us (those with faith) and our teaching for the world is just an opinion to the world. Of course we should be prepared to present our views and live by them just as we should be eager to listen to those around us (even if they don’t really want to listen to us). The question we can ask the world is ‘What is the basis and evidence for your view?’
The world will do as it wills – and to be honest I’d prefer to live in a liberal democracy that has versions of free speech and justice – but Christians can live under any regime, under any legislation, where we seek to live peaceably with all, while seeking the best for our society, praying for our ‘rulers’ (in a democracy that surely includes praying for our political involvement), and knowing that if necessary we’ll ‘follow God rather than man’. It’s that ‘if necessary’ part that is always up for discussion! — GS