In his second letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes that ‘if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (5:17). What he meant by this can be best understood with reference to the preceding verses (vv.14-16), where he says:
‘For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.’
Saint Paul also elaborates in the succeeding verses that because ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (v.19), ‘we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (v.20). From this I think it clear that the ‘new creation’ being discussed is one in which people are delivered, in Christ, from their current state (which Saint Paul describes in other places as one of rebelliousness, licentiousness, and individualistic pride) to a new state, in which they ‘live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised’.
In summary, Saint Paul sees the new creation wrought by God in Christ as a deliverance from self-will to obedience; from the prideful rebellion and individualism that leads inevitably to becoming enslaved to patterns of behaviour that are destructive of community and of self, to a life lived in harmony with the One who knows what is best for us and whose will is therefore the best context in which to form a constructive, happy and holy life, both individually and communally. This is so much the case that Paul can say that from the perspective of life in the new creation, ‘we regard noone from a human point of view’ – humanity and its purposes have to be seen anew in the fresh, liberating light of Christ.
It is in this context that I would like to examine some of the rationale behind, and the ramifications of, the recent legislation passed on same-sex unions. In the UK it is now legally the case that the term ‘marriage’ can include homosexual as well as heterosexual unions, overturning centuries of cultural and religious understanding of that term to include only the latter group. One rationale for this move seems to have been that of equality – homosexual couples should have the same standing as their heterosexual counterparts in all respects, and to exclude them from marriage would not give them the same ‘rights’ in this respect. This, it seems to me, is to conflate equality with homogeneity; to have equal rights is to have the same access to everything, regardless of whether appropriate or accurately reflecting genuine points of difference.
In reality, what this change in the law has done has confused two separate types of unions – one which is fundamentally rooted in procreation, the family, and society, and another which is fundamentally characterised by the public proclamation of love between two people. Of course, this latter aspect is part of the former type of union as well, but the main point which distinguishes the two is that heterosexual marriages have traditionally been geared towards producing, raising, nurturing, and educating the children who will go on to form the next generation of society. The problem now of course, and what has made it so easy for the new legislation to be introduced, is that the majority of heterosexual couples do not think of marriage in these terms – their marriage is about them, not society, and very often not about children either.
According to this view of marriage, and the contraceptive mentality which often accompanies it, introducing same-sex marriage makes perfect sense. If it is just about love, then why not extend it to other people who love one another? Thus changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions is a natural step, according to this concept of matrimony. The questions raised by this new situation then have two further aspects – from a religious point of view, how does this fit into the new creation paradigm discussed above; and from a societal point of view, why should the state be interested in marriage at all?
To take the societal issue first, if marriage is ultimately just about two people publicly proclaiming their love for one another, and nothing to do with the family, why should the state be taking an interest in this? Previously, the state had supported and promoted marriage, via tax breaks etc, because it recognised that encouraging couples to commit themselves to a permanent and faithful union would provide stable environments for the children that (usually) issued from those unions to grow up in – it recognised that the home is where society’s future citizens are inculcated with the values that shape and sustain society, and that the emotional wellbeing necessary for these children to grow up well and contribute to society was best served in that environment.
If however, marriage is not about this, but about the mutual proclamation of love between two people, then the state need take no interest. There need be no registration of such unions, as it would be just a cataloguing about who happened to love who throughout history. Similarly, if weddings are just about sharing this declaration of love with family and friends, this could just as easily be done in a town hall, hotel, or even in the home, without official celebrant or registrar. There is no longer any legal, economic, or sociological need for state recognition at all. As for the blessings of any such unions by the representatives of a religious institution, this raises further questions.
If one wants their union blessed by a priest, minister, rabbi, etc, this presupposes surely that one believes that the celebrant in question somehow represents God. In the case we face today, where various religious groups are changing their teachings on marriage and sexuality, and there exists the very real possibility that churches may be coerced into doing so, how can one seriously believe that the institution in question is actually communicating God’s will and not just reflecting current opinion? This also raises the question, amongst the various churches, that, given the range of opinion on human sexuality and marriage, who does actually speak for God? If for example, a homosexual couple decide to go to a church that endorses their union, how do they know that this church expresses the will of God and not the one down the road that won’t bless them – is this not tantamount to blessing oneself?
Having said all this, it seems clear to me that the real issue is not so much same-sex unions per se, but that the nature of marriage, after decades of weakening through the cultural and legislative changes that followed the sexual revolution, has itself been not only weakened, but completely redesigned to fit our own purposes. Whilst I do believe that changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions will perpetuate this process of matrimonial dissolution, it is a symptom of it and not the primary cause. The primary cause is the ebbing away of Christian faith from Western civilization, and the concomitant re-shaping of our anthropology into something antithetical to what Saint Paul described in his writings on the new creation.
We have cast off any ideas that we might owe our obedience to something (let alone Someone) outside of ourselves, and consequently the ties that bound us to one another have gradually started to come apart. The pagan communities Paul was addressing in Corinth were willful and self-assertive, but at least they had some sense of social order (albeit a deeply unequal one) and responsibility. In the post-Christian society we live in, we seem to have cast of all sense of commitment to values, pagan or Christian, because they are seen to limit us. Radical autonomy (in varying degrees of intensity) is the order of the day, and the modern understanding of marriage is a reflection of that.
However, whilst it is clear that we in the West are indeed post-Christian, our laws, culture, and ideals (even misguided ones that see equality as sameness) are still profoundly rooted in Christian culture and ethics – the latter may be severely adumbrated but the roots are still there, just. It remains to be seen how long our culture can survive by ‘riding on the coattails’ of this heritage, but one must hope that there is enough of a deposit still remaining to yet return us to a society where people ‘live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised’.
It is true that the new creation never took off wholesale in the way that Saint Paul wished it would, because, as G. K. Chesterton said, ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried at all’. However, it seems undeniable that even if not everyone in Christian countries attained the kind of union with Christ that Paul envisaged, those societies and the people in them greatly benefited from being built upon Christian values, both culturally and morally.
If people are to have any chance of being transformed by the Gospel, of being brought into that relationship of loving obedience with Christ which can only serve to benefit themselves and those around them, then a reintroduction of its principles (particularly solidarity and responsibility in this case) into public thought and common life can only ever be a good thing. The replacement of such principles with those of utilitarianism and individualism has not done, and will not do anyone any good. This is why it is so important for the Church to stand firm on her teaching, even while others fall away and swim with the tide (c.f.; Matthew 5:13-15). She exists not for her own sake, but to bring the light of Christ to those who need Him, even if they know it not.