References to the threat to marriage in Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ Midnight Mass homily were brief — a matter of a few lines in what was mostly a gentle meditation on the meaning of the Nativity. He referred to “the love of husband and wife, which is creative of new human life” as being “a marvellously personal sharing in the creative love of God who brings into being the eternal soul that comes to every human being with the gift of human life.” Later — following a paragraph about businesses failing to respect people, and other examples of “corrosion” of human dignity – he added: “Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young.”
He also made forthright, heartfelt and thoughtful comments to the BBC, broadcast on Christmas Day, about the shambolic and contemptuous way in which the Government was going about the implementation of same-sex marriage.
His words provoked some stern sermonizing from same-sex marriage advocates, who rather than engage with his points, declared that Christmas was about “peace” and “love” which was being hijacked by the Archbishop of Westminster’s attempt to mount a political rally.
Thus Graeme Archer in the Telegraph, who claimed that “real men and women woke up on Christmas Day with nothing but love in their hearts, switched on the radio, and heard Nichols’s message to the planet. The bit about Jesus and love was cut from the headlines, in order to give him space to push his political agenda.” Or Ben Summerskill, head of the multi-million pound gay rights lobbyist Stonewall, who thought it “sad” that “an archbishop should sully the day of the birth of Jesus by making what seem to be such uncharitable observations about other people”. After shedding a tear or two, he then adds, with an extraordinary mixture of pseudo-piety and acidity, that “some of us are mindful of Luke 2:4, which reminds us that Christmas Day is a day of peace and goodwill to all men. Perhaps Archbishop Nichols should have spent a little more time in bible study.”
Which raises the question: if a Catholic bishop cannot raise the alarm over the destruction by the state of the most essential civil society institution in society and history, one founded on the God-created fertile complementarity of man and woman; and if he cannot do so on the eve of the Government bringing it before Parliament; and if he cannot express, when he does so, the mind of the Church — which is pretty much made up on this — then he would hardly deserve to be entrusted with the office. Summerskill seems to think that the Church should render unto Caesar everything and shut up shop.
Equally patronising was Ian Birrell –tellingly, a former speech-writer for David Cameron — in The Independent, who suggested that the opposition of the Churches to gay marriage was evidence of their “irrelevance” and “diminishing importance”. In other words, we don’t need to bother with their arguments or concerns, only to reassure ourselves that these are institutions which belong to the past. But because they persist, they must be dealt with harshly by the law. Thus “churches should no more be allowed to ban gay people from marrying in church than those who are black and disabled”, he rules, adding: “With luck, a rapid appeal to the European court of human rights will remove any opt-outs given to hostile religions”. As in China, revolutionary Mexico, or Soviet Russia, the remedy is simple: abolish any right the Church may have to govern itself; the “progressive” state is limitless.
Birrell also tries to claim that the Archbishop has no right to criticise the undemocratic nature of the Government’s consultation because the Church is not a democracy. “For an outfit headed by someone who proclaims infallibility to complain about the lack of democracy when an elected government seeks to pass a law on a free vote in parliament takes not just the biscuit, but the entire packet,” he writes, echoing Minette Marin in the Sunday Times: maybe the Government’s plans are shambolic and undemocratic, she says, “but the Church of Rome is hardly known for democracy or political accountability itself.”
Leaving aside the misunderstanding of the idea of papal infallibility, the stupidity of this argument is obvious. Almost no organisation in society is run as a democracy: not businesses, not civil society bodies, and certainly not newspapers (when was the last time an editor was elected?), which, let us remember, have been in the dock for ignoring the law and fleeing public scrutiny. If the Independent, Telegraph or the Sunday Times do not run on democratic lines, with what justification – according to their columnists’ reasoning — do they slam the Government every day?
Consider, too, the astonishingly conservative, reactionary view these commenters — who would see themselves as liberal and progressive — have of the Church’s role in society: to preach unchallenging platitudes, never to challenge the state, or to challenge political and social orthodoxies. It would be hard to imagine any of the great Gospel-driven movements of social and political emancipation if Christian leaders had confined themselves to such a timid role.
It is also a small-minded reading of the Gospels. God’s eruption into humanity set off disturbing political and social reverberations. And it was preceded by the prophets, culminating in John the Baptist, who invariably ended up being killed because they did not stick to an inoffensive message of love and peace.
Of course Archer, Summerskill, Birrell and Marin are not consistent in their criticism of the Archbishop of Westminster’s “political” interventions; if so they would need to criticise the other lines in his homily, such as those touching on environmental policy, or indeed economic management (“sometimes patterns of work and business are simply exploitative of employees, suppliers or customers”, Archbishop Nichols noted). These do not of course elicit the same sermons about bishops sticking to ‘religion’ because they count as love-and-peace platitudes to a certain liberal mindset.
Yet they are all areas in which the Gospel carries strong implications for politics and public policy.
The other assumption of all the pieces above is that the Church is some way hostile to gay people or opposed to their civil rights. This is so absurd as to be laughable, yet it passes for an assumption in the “debate” about same-sex marriage. Summerskill — who has long since learned that the best way of justifying political aggression is to play the victim card, and frame your critics as apologists for historical persecution — even accuses the archbishop of being “uncharitable” towards gay people. He provides no evidence, and does not need to. What he means, of course, is that the archbishop is cruel to disagree with Stonewall on a matter of public policy, and should jolly well stick to love and peace.