"More perfect union?" by Alan Wilson

This book is billed as being for people who want to align their heads with the directions their hearts have already taken on the issue of same-sex marriage and the acceptance of non-straight people in general. Specifically, if you’re a committed Christian and believe in marriage equality, but can’t square this theologically with what you have read in the Bible or heard in Church, and are minded to do so, then this book is for you.

This book was also written for two other audiences; one of them is very clearly the other bishops of the Church of England, i.e. Alan Wilson’s colleagues; the other, according to the blurbs on the inside of the cover, is people who disagree with the position of the author on same-sex marriage. This last group may understandably be harder to convince than the primary audience mentioned above, and I doubt that the book contains arguments they haven’t heard before, and have already thought hard about; I invite them to skim a book report in order to confirm this :-)

If you’re not a Christian then you may well be wondering what all the fuss is about and why it matters to you. Two short answers: (a) it probably doesn’t if you’re straight, and (b) a lot of bigotry and homophobia in Europe and abroad is regrettably buttressed by, given moral cover from, or couched in the terms of, religious or pseudo-religious reasoning. If this troubles you, then you might agree that the sooner churches pulls the rug out from under that kind of thing, the better.

The book starts with a brief history of the Church’s attitude to non-straight sexuality & gender from after WW2. This chapter alone is a shameful indictment of recent church history. I choose my words carefully when I say that reading how the Church enabled, collaborated with, and supplied moral justifications for a system that enabled so much pain, anguish and humiliation, leaving broken families and suicides in its wake – it left me feeling fucking angry. After I calmed down a bit, I was left merely deeply upset, that an institution supposedly dedicated to a God of love could get things so completely, terribly, heartbreakingly wrong.

It’s this chapter that, for me, makes it hardest to tolerate discrimination against gay people in Church, or consider as just their exclusion from Christian marriage. With the best will in the world and no matter the intentions behind it, for gay people wanting to marry in church, their exclusion must seem like just the latest blot on a long and dense time-line of prejudice and discrimination. In my opinion, if the established church wants to honestly adopt exclusion as a policy without condoning its terrible conduct in recent history, then the first order of business should be a major exercise in corporate repentance. Of course, I don’t see how any repentance could be sincere and leave such a policy in place.

Back to the book, we’re taken on a brief tour of the domains in which the arguments for and against tolerance, and more controversially, full acceptance of homosexuality is conducted. Briefly looking at the scientific, sociological and societal facts as he sees them, he then turns to scripture and shows how - surprise surprise - it's all in the interpretation. Modern interpretation tries to take into account the frame of reference of the culture in which the text was written, explaining why nobody thinks Christians should follow the holiness codes from Leviticus, or live according to rules meant for people living in the Roman empire.

It's in his interpretations that he’ll probably part ways with any readers not agreeing with his central point. One quote I thought humorous enough was “[you may] notice the complete absence in the N.T. of any of the extensive standard assortment of Greek words that would have been used naturally to describe the enormous amount of same-sex activity that went on in ancient cities”, although generally his arguments are of a weightier quality, familiar though they may be to anyone who’s been following the debate. However, given the size of the volume and the speed at which he covers ground, his arguments are made in broad enough terms that I'm sure objections can be found by people unmotivated by the framing logic.

After the science, sociology and theology lessons comes a history of marriage, ancient (in the Bible) and modern (how did Christian marriage became the norm in Britain?) In the Bible, marriage is mostly depicted as barbarically as you might expect in the Old Testament and as of little concern at first in the New Testament letters given that Jesus is coming back real soon now, so why bother? Once the New Testament writers and early Church fathers realised that the second coming might take a while, they looked again at the gospels, and it's from the gospels and later writings that Wilson draws his major points, which he then uses to shed light and not a little heat on the history of the Church of England.

Several of his major points: marriage is an institution of its time and culture, and has never had a fixed representation handed down by God; marriage is ideally centred around a spiritual relationship of self-giving love and partnership, not reproduction or sex; and that the institution of marriage, like the Sabbath, was made for people, not the people for the institution.

The history of marriage from the dark ages on, as told here, is quite engaging. Marriage has gradually been seen as less of a dynastic arrangement or question of property transfer, and more and more as an idealised ‘love’-based relationship, a consenting partnership of equals. These developments are something that Wilson claims have their roots in Christianity. The church is portrayed as constantly trying to batton down a stable definition in the midst of changing cultural mores and prejudices.

Looking at post-war developments, Wilson states that marriage is no longer seen as the gateway to adulthood and sexual activity, but is more the “gold standard”-certification of mature relationships. On this second point I beg to differ; I see it as a cultural choice. I am quite sure that it's normal these days to know stable, loyal, non-married and married couples, just as it is sadly normal to know relationships that have gone wrong inside and outside of marriages.

Wilson gives a little space to considering global church unity before moving on to CofE minutiae, which considering that the CofE is, for historical reasons, bureaucratically central to the Anglican Communion, is probably not enough. I also think this small consideration is the reason that he's quite harsh with Rowan Williams and his efforts on this topic. As he states several times in the book; it’s worth remembering that world-wide, the trend is not liberalisation but polarisation – with many countries, notably Uganda, moving to a more hard-line stance, again with highly unfortunate religion-based justifications.

At 164 pages this book covers a lot of ground in a short space. It’s well-written and not at all formal or academic in its approach, remaining accessible while managing not to blunt the force of its arguments by dint of presenting them in a popular format. I don’t expect it to change anyone’s mind but I do hope it will encourage more people to stand up for marriage equality as Christians. And I strongly encourage any bishops reading this to buy themselves a copy, if they haven't already had one dropped gratis into their pigeon-hole at Lambeth Palace.

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