06/15/2012 05:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Church Can't Win on Gay Marriage

It almost makes you laugh. It almost makes you slap your thigh, and shriek, and weep that an institution that was founded to wreck a marriage, and start another one, is making such a very big fuss about who's allowed to marry whom. But it is. The Church of England is. The Church of England thinks, in fact, that a marriage that has lasted 500 years, and that survived the Spanish Armada, and the English Civil War, is seriously under threat.

It might, it's true, prefer not to use the word "marriage." It is, it's true, very careful about the way it uses the word "marriage." A "marriage," it says, in a 15-page document it issued on Monday, is "the union of a man and a woman." It is, it says, just to be clear, the "lifelong union between one man and one woman." A marriage, it adds, not quite so snappily, should include "biological complementarity" in order to also include "the possibility of procreation."

The document is a response to the Government Equalities Office consultation on "Equal Civil Marriage." But the "consultation," it thinks, isn't actually a consultation, since the document that's meant to be launching it "prejudges the outcome." The document, it says, "expresses the issues in prejudicial terms which pre-empt the principles on which it purports to consult." It talks, for example, "about the existence of a non-existent concept." It talks about "contentious views" as "undisputed facts." The "consultation," it's clear, has made the Church cross.

But a consultation on gay marriage was always going to make the Church cross. If your religion is based on a 2,000-year-old text that says things like "thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind," it's quite tricky to write a document saying that marrying a man, if you're a man, is an all-round brilliant idea. And particularly when the text says that "if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman", both parties have "committed an abomination." And particularly when it says that they should then "be put to death."

If you don't like the Old Testament, and think it's a little bit bloodthirsty, and racist, and sexist, and homophobic, and mean, then you can say, as a lot of leaders in the Church of England do say, that the New Testament is much more important. You can say that Jesus was nice and kind and said that you shouldn't judge other people, or throw stones. But you'll still find that when it talks about men having sex with other men (but not women having sex with other women, which nobody in the Bible seems to think is possible), it uses words like "vile affections" and "against nature." It's quite hard to sound the trumpets, and bring out the confetti for something your religion tells you is "vile."

The Church of England, unlike the Bible, doesn't like words like "vile." It prefers to use words like "concern." It prefers, in fact, to avoid offending anyone if it can. "We have," it says in the summary of its response to the consultation, "supported various legal changes in recent years to remove justified discrimination and create legal rights for same sex couples." It has done this, according to the Archbishop of York, who may not understand that civil partnerships aren't usually Platonic, "because we believe in friendship." But gay marriage, it says, is a step too far. Gay marriage, it says, would be "divisive" and "unwise."

Is the Church right? Is there, when it comes to religion, such a thing as "right"? If you think marriage is something between a man and a woman, of course you'll think gay marriage isn't right. And if you think marriages should only take place in a church if they're blessed by God, and that they're only blessed by God if they're between a man and a woman, of course you'll think that a marriage between two men, or two women, shouldn't take place in a church. You might well wish you didn't. You might, in fact, really wish you could change the rules, because it would be a lot less embarrassing, and would mean you wouldn't have to come across as old-fashioned, and even homophobic, but rules are rules and you didn't make them.

You might even want to say that you tried. You really tried. You might want to say that the Church you belonged to had tried very hard to make a text that reflected views that were normal 2,000 years ago sound as if it reflected views that were normal now. It had built seminaries, and libraries, and universities to find ways of interpreting ancient texts that sounded a bit more sympathetic and a bit more modern. And it had, as a result, changed its views about lots and lots of things. But sometimes you could try, and try, and try, and try, and still be stumped.

And if you're stumped, and the law of the land says you have to marry gay people in a church if they want to be married in a church, in the way that you are, at the moment, legally required to marry people who aren't gay, you can see why you might think you have only two options. You can see why you might think you'd either have to leave the Church, or that the Church would have to break off its relationship with the State. And if you're gay, or just someone who thinks it's a bit ridiculous to try to get people to live by rules that were made 2,000 years ago, which is probably quite a lot of us, you can see why you might think that breaking off the relationship between the Church and the State would be a good thing. You can even see why you might think it might make some of the problems of religion go away.

It won't. Gay men and women will soon be able to get married in this country, and so they should. They may even be able to get married in a church. But whatever happens to the relationship between the Church and the State, religion won't go away. It certainly hasn't gone away in the US, which has no official State religion, but versions of Christianity which play a much bigger part in national life than ours. These are versions of Christianity which don't agonise about finding sympathetic, modern interpretations of the Bible, but prefer instead to talk about a God who believes abortion is murder, and hates gay people.

Religion, whether we like it or not, is here to stay. And it's the radical versions of it that are on the rise. Those of us who wish they weren't might look at the muddle of the Church of England, and its relatively good intentions, and its desperate efforts to be as open to as many people as it can, and its desperate attempts to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear of an ancient text, and conclude that it's sometimes better not to break up a marriage, and stick to the devil you know.