Marriage (Same Sex Couples)

Memorandum submitted by The Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Area Bishop of Buckingham (MB 30)

Public Bill Committee Written Submission: Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2012-3

1. I am The Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Area Bishop of Buckingham in the Church of England Dioese of Oxford. I hold three degrees in theology from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, including a doctorate in modern Historical Theology. I have served in my present post sine October 2003.

2. I have since 2007 published a Blog, which I was interested and amused to see mentioned (albeit obliquely) by William Fittall in his answer to Chris Bryant’s Question 64. Undoubtedly Church of England bishops hold a variety of views on the various questions around equal marriage, but I am one of the very few who has been consistently articulating wholehearted support for this measure.

3. I felt Mr Fittall’s dismissal of my point of view, though understandable, underlined the difficulty some senior representatives of the Church of England seem to have in being heard, if they deviate from the party line.

4. I was interested that Mr Fittall should call any publication on a blog "private." To date my blog has had over a million pressings since 2007. My views are personal, but not private! In order to help the committee to gauge the real state feelings among members of the Church of England more accurately, I would like to offer the following information about the responses I have received since making public my support of marriage equality, and the conclusions I draw from them:

5. I have received just over 500 messages of one sort or another, pretty much all so far as I can tell from Christians. This implies that most others in society have moved on from fretting about this subject, if not to full  acceptance, to an acknowledgment that gay people are just people like them, and what people get up to in bed is their own business.

6. about 80% have been supportive. These include some 20-30 deeply personal testimonies from gay couples, telling of love and faithfulness, sometimes against terrible odds over many years. Legal recognition will not make these relationships stronger, but it will de-stigmatise them. Among practising Christians, I have received "Don’t tell my vicar, but..." and "not in my name" messages that imply a need for more openness, confidence and honesty, especially where clergy have attempted to whip others into shape behind a conventional party line. I would not characterize all Evangelical Christians as anti. Many of them are far more thoughtful, nuanced and even conflicted, with a strong Evangelical instinct that is not about last ditching a particular interpretation of the Bible but striving to be good news to real people. The vast majority of local Churches try to be personally welcoming to all.

7. Of the 20% opposed, about 90% can only be seen as expressions of crude prejudice and bigotry. The phrase "I am not  homophobic, but..." seems to indicate "soft or hard homophobic statement coming up! But I’m not prepared to own it." I need to say that the vast majority of these comments have been anonymous. Some of them are more genteel than others. I have been told that gay people are lice, animals, insects, should be aborted before birth, disgusting, perverted, sexually voracious, mass murderers and sub-human - all these for just being gay. It is simply false to claim there is no homophobia in the Church. There is plenty of it, apparently, and I fear that if Church leaders do not wake up and act to tackle it, the Church will become, even more than it already is, a last ditch for soft or hard prejudice that has now faded elsewhere in society.

8. Another anti trope has been "Bishop you are trying to be kind, but you are encouraging BUGGERY!!!" (the last word underlined in green biro till it goes through the paper.) A fair number of otherwise inoffensive Church people insist on defining gay people by what they imagine they must get up to in bed, with a prurience and obsessionality that is disturbing.

9. Within the 10% of 20% more reflective unfavourable comment, I have made new friends, and discovered a capacity to engage with this among Christians, however reluctantly, that is impressive. Some messages were initially very hostile and angry with me. When I engaged with them on one positive point about which we might agree, the façade crumbled and we were able to have interesting and fruitful conversations.

10. I have enjoyed about half a dozen really thoughtful, helpful and reflective conversations with very Conservative Evangelical Christians - nuggets of gold amidst a steaming pile of more general railing and abuse.

11. I think I am tending towards two general conclusions about the core problem for most of my anti correspondents, which is not marriage but homosexuality in itself.

12. I have during this time returned to my college notes of the tiny number of Bible passages that could possibly bear directly on this subject. Many (many? there are only 5 anyway) are not entirely clear in their meaning, and none demand entirely obvious interpretation and application. Many simply use these "clobber texts" to construct a chain of sound bites that just happen to reinforce their basic instincts. There is a crying need for more rigorous reading of the text where homophobic readings used to be adequate to the needs of a homophobic society, with whose norms they easily conformed.

13. Either Homosexuality is seen as an anomaly or offence against nature, or a phenomenon within nature’s broad spectrum of sexual identities and thus part of Creation. Where my correspondents stand on this question seems to define where they position themselves on equal marriage.

February 2013

Prepared 27th February 2013