I had intended to write something considered prior to yesterday's so-called 'equal marriage' debate in Parliament. However, other matters, travel and squeezed time militated against it. Now it is done (but is only the beginning of the parliamentary route) I find myself bothered by phenomena rather than content… if you see what I mean. I am waiting to go into a radio studio, so this will be brief.

1. Yesterday's debate was remarkable for the category errors flying around. Apart from the fact that the legislation was being pushed through without having appeared in any manifesto was interesting enough, but the confusion of 'equality' with 'equity' seemed insurmountable. Words such as 'equal', 'inclusive' and even 'marriage' carry the heavy weight of assumptions that seem to go unchecked.

2. It is not good to make law and change institutions on the basis of highly emotive language and criteria. Serious deep thinking should underpin such change – regardless of the view you take on the outcome. If yesterday's debate was evidence of an education system that teaches people how to think, then we clearly have more problems than we thought.

3. Language has entered Humpty Dumpty land. Listening to some people – in Parliament and in the e-world – it would appear that the word 'inclusive' now includes only those people/views deemed acceptable for inclusion. Anyone who levels any argument against what is proposed is a 'bigot'. Opposition to gay 'marriage' is equated with 'homophobia'. 'Conveniently ignoring gay people' is the criticism of any inconvenient argument. This has loud echoes of any rational criticism of the Israeli government being reduced to 'anti-Semitism'. Equally, language that attacks those in favour of yesterday's motion on the basis of their sanity or moral integrity says more about the speaker than the object of their venom.

4. We seem to have entered a sort of la-la-land in this and other public debates where 'being hurt' is the worst thing that can happen to us. Like with women bishops in the Church of England, too much of the debate (and response) is weighted emotionally to what will cause to whom the greatest or least 'hurt'. As if hurt can be avoided. In the grown-up world that isn't la-la-land we know that any decision 'hurts' those who disagree with it. The fact that people won't like a decision is almost irrelevant to the argument for deciding in a particular way. Someone always gets 'hurt'. But, going back to the Church of England's debates, a 'yes' can't be a 'no' – you can't both have women bishops and not have women bishops. But, being swayed by the hierarchies of victimhood, we end up trying to have 'yes/no' and think we are being 'pastoral' or just nice to each other. Of course, what the lack of clarity does is make the 'hurt' worse and the muddle more destructive.

5. A question. Why don't we invite MPs to publish the correspondence that has so offended them – from proponents and opponents of yesterday's legislation? It is absurd that some MPs decided to vote for/against legislation because they were so offended by the nature, content and tone of correspondence received from opponents/proponents. The fact that some horrible Christians write horrible and unchristian venom to people with whom they disagree shouldn't surprise anyone. You should see what bishops get sent to them and the language in which it is framed. (I once got an email that described different ways I could take my life – which I should do because I am a disgrace to humanity and the church. It was signed: “Yours in Christ”…) Get over it! Clearly, people behave badly from every side and being accused of homophobia, hatred and inhumanity doesn't go down well even when you know rationally that it is nonsense.

The debate will continue. I think – which I am allowed to do – that yesterday's vote was a massive mistake – for reasons to do with marriage and not with sexual identity or partnerships. Unlike some others, I find myself surprised to find in Roger Scruton and Philip Blond's Respublica paper a case that I have yet to see dismissed. I think the cultural and societal impact of this move will only be calculated once the cultural loss has accumulated.

Now for the deluge of vitriol.

 

No, this isn’t another forum for the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox.

Just listening to the news this morning and there is a raft of serious ethical issues treated as ‘items of (practical) interest’, but without any time for proper consideration in the constant stream of mediated ‘news’:

  • Gazza’s alcoholism – and who, if anyone, is responsible for ‘saving’ him from himself;
  • Gay marriage – not only what happens to the institution of marriage (regardless of your stance on gay marriage itself), but also the assumptions behind the ‘equality’ language;
  • Nuclear waste – and how we make decisions about the earth and its resources when the consequences of those decisions will be borne by generations to come;
  • Banking – and whether splitting retail from investment risk covers all the moral bases and addresses the continuing underlying cultural issues;
  • Covert operations – when a society wants to be protected (and is harsh when protection fails), but doesn’t address what might be the limits of covert practice in providing such protection… especially given the reality that people working against states or societies aren’t always very nice and usually don’t play by the usual rules’
  • Industrial complexity – like when meat guaranteed to be halal is discovered to have forbidden pork in it… illustrating not just the complexity of industrialised food production, but also the need to respect religious and other human/societal sensibilities.

And don’t get me on to Manchester City and the money around the Premier League.

I guess most of us just lurch from one pragmatic judgement to the next when presented with complex moral issues at every turn. Life is complicated enough. But, it also suggests that we – as a society – need to create more space to slow down, think, reflect on long-term consequences of instant choices. Or, as I put it yesterday, to ‘think deeply’ about why what matters matters.

Maybe, as we approach Lent, there is wisdom in slowing down. Not busy is one way of starting. I need to pay attention to what it is saying, and I commend it.

Just a quickie as I haven’t had time to write anything deep (did I ever?) this last couple of weeks.

Funny old world. The Church of England gets it in the neck from politicians regarding women bishops and gay marriage. The Mother of Democracy makes space for people elected on a fraction of the electorate’s votes to threaten the Church that if we don’t change our polity they will do it for us. In other words, “we don’t like how your people voted, so change the system in such a way that they get it right next time – or we will force you to do it”.

Er… forgive me for being naive, but did any of these guys think through the implications of this ‘advice’? Or the assumptions behind it?

Did the Prime Minister not feel just a tinge of embarrassment in encouraging the Church of England to “get with the programme” (interesting choice of words…) when he had, for example, failed to reform the House of Lords (which the Church still thinks is needed) in Parliament? Pots, kettles, black. And how many u-turns has this government managed in the last couple of years? And they tell the Church how to get the right results by bending the systems?

Then we have a minister stand up in the House of Commons and state that the Church of England will be ‘banned’ (“It will be illegal…”) from allowing the celebration of gay marriages in church under the planned new legislation – without actually talking to us or alerting us first. OK, the established church finds itself in a conundrum about this and other ethical/cultural issues (and with a spread of opinions within the church) and some of the challenge has to do with stuff you simply can’t erase from reality (or law). So, the debate about the Church of England is OK. But, the minister referred to the Church in Wales in the same category – when it was disestablished 92 years ago. That’s 92 years ago.

So, we have politicians who are badly briefed, ignorant of the polity of the matters they are dealing with, change their minds every five minutes, put out ‘consultations’ at the same time as announcing that they “are determined to push this through”, make a false and factually erroneous distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’ in their consultation paperwork, fail to think through the implications of their proposals, fail to provide evidence of anything other than ad hoc and reactive populist thinking in the proposals they announce prematurely, and then expect to be taken seriously.

I was asked by a radio interviewer this morning how the Church of England will respond to ‘the ban’ on performing gay marriage in church. I wasn’t being entirely facetious in replying that we had probably better wait a while as there might well be an announcement next week changing it all again. Confidence isn’t high.

To make it worse, BBC Question Time last night was embarrassing. Not for the Church for being out of touch or irrelevant or any of the other things levelled at it. No, embarrassing because none of the panellists seemed to be aware of their ignorance, ashamed of their lack of basic research or the least bit open to the remotest hint of a possibility that their confident opinions might be even questionable.

One of the charges against the church is that we are irrelevant and out of touch with contemporary values. This might be true. It is also true that the church always needs to check its hermeneutics against lived reality and have the humility to consider that it might be ‘reading wrong’. But, the principle that the church ought automatically to go along with whatever a particular contemporary culture thinks is ‘right’ or ‘obvious’ is such obvious nonsense that it is embarrassing to have to name it.

Let’s be dramatic – and remember we are talking principle here. What should the church have done when German society in the 1930s colluded with the nasties? How should the Russian church have re-shaped itself during the Communist years? Should the church in England simply let go of some unpopular values because they get widely ridiculed? Should a church’s theological anthropology simply be short-circuited in order to keep trouble away and ‘fit in’?

The Christian scriptures and tradition don’t sit easily with this line. The prophets weren’t popular in the sixth or eighth centuries BC when they saw through the short-term political and military alliances that would ultimately lead to chaos. When life was cheap they didn’t refrain from holding to the inherent value of human life, the common good and the need for justice. Jesus didn’t get nailed for being untrendy – but for daring to challenge the Zeitgeist. His followers weren’t encouraged to blend in to first century pagan culture.

Let’s be clear: it is the principle of automatic collusion with the Zeitgeist that has to be questioned. Drill down then to the issues themselves (gay marriage, etc) and at least the conversation can proceed with mutual respect. Simply writing off those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes without engaging with the fundamental value systems and world views that shape their journey to that conclusion is crass – as is the sneer from the other end that approving of gay relationships automatically writes off all Christian credentials and reduces them to brain-dead liberalism.

The church needs to listen very carefully to what society is saying – and be willing in all humility to contemplate that its tradition on any issue might need to be amended. Sexuality is the big one in this respect at present. But, wider society should not expect an authentically Christian church to simply reflect its surrounding culture or be cowed by sneering ridicule or political pressure.

For the record, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has commissioned work on sexuality (Pilling) and the outcome of this will inevitably have implications for other matters. No bishop is treating this lightly and we are fully aware of the impatience of many people for us to get on with it. But, we will work on it properly and will eventually come to some conclusions. Sneering or ridicule won’t force the issue – however much many of us would like to expedite it to a particular end.

I was sitting in a cafe waiting to do a radio gig and had the time to look back at the last couple of days’ news. Also scanned Twitter. Then thought about Harry Redknapp. That led me on to empires during the last few millennia. I know: weird.

The thing about Harry is that just a few months ago he was riding high. He won his tax court case, was a media star, was tipped by all the media and pundits as the only choice to replace Capello as England manager. Then Spurs dipped, Hodgson got England, Harry made demands, and yesterday he lost his job. And this morning’s media are even suggesting he is now finished in football.

Fickle old world, isn’t it? Yesterday’s media certainties are today’s embarrassing misjudgements. All this proves, of course, is that pundits and the commentariat should never be taken too seriously. They fill the page or the screen with today’s gobby ‘wisdom’, then, while others remember what they have said, they move on to the next one.

Empires come and go. That’s what history (and the Bible, actually) teaches us. What looks permanent today can be gone tomorrow. Like confidence in Spain’s economy or Holland’s Euro 2012 outlook. Anything said with confidence today should be taken with great scepticism – it might have changed by next week.

Interesting, then, that yesterday’s noise about the Church of England’s response to the government’s ludicrously inept consultation on gay marriage is followed this morning (apparently) by some vital stuff on church chairs. Despair is evident in the twittersphere about yet another example of C of E PR ineptitude. Maybe it is. But, just who decided to roll these two things together. How long has the ‘chairs’ item been in the diary can? Would it even have made it to the airwaves if we hadn’t had the earlier gay marriage stuff?

The other complaint is that while Iain Duncan Smith is doing his ‘poverty’ stuff, the Church is banging on about chairs and not poverty. OK, that’s how it looks. But, it’s a bit naive, even it does cause instant depression in many of us. The reality is that we spend most of our time tackling poverty at local, legislative and political levels – ‘church opposes poverty’ is not news.

What all this makes clear, however, is not that the substance of the church’s concerns is misguided or that the priorities are necessarily wrong. Rather, it just goes to prove that we are terrible at ‘spin’. The Church hasn’t exactly managed the news to its institutional advantage this week. Maybe it hasn’t tried…

Which brings us to the response to the Church of England’s response to the government’s consultation on ‘gay marriage’.

OK, picking out one statement about threats to the establishment (one paragraph out of something like twenty seven) offered the media the lead story and ensured it dominated the front pages. Actually, to my mind this is the least interesting or important or significant element of the statement. The Church’s response is not primarily about establishment or status – even if there might be consequences here. The Church’s concerns are primarily about what is usually called ‘the common good’.

Change our understanding of marriage and we are not doing something trivial or consequence-free. The Church cannot simply go with the flow of contemporary culture, blessing whatever is this era’s wisdom. Someone has to ask the hard questions and question the language and assumptions behind moves for social change. It might not be popular and it can be mishandled, but it has to be done.

The shoddy consultation (a) confuses ‘marriage’ with ‘wedding’, (b) assumes a lie – that British law distinguishes between ‘civil’ and ‘religious’ marriage, (c) fails to distinguish between ‘equality’ and ‘uniformity’, (d) fails to address why civil partnerships would continue for gay couples and not be open to heterosexuals – surely ‘unequal’ – if gay marriage comes in, and (e) clearly sees this ‘consultation’ as a mere preliminary to doing what it intends to do regardless of what the consultation throws up.

Does anyone seriously think the church – or any sentient body – should just ignore all this and roll over?

Yes, it looks like the Church is being a bit flouncy or scaremongering in relation to its status, but the substantial critique of the government’s assumptions, language and process also need a response. I look forward to it – it has to be a bit more intelligent and less emotively woolly than the tangent the response has led us on so far.

The Church in Wales has also responded similarly and with great frustration about the same issues. I haven’t yet caught up with any response to this.

This one will run and run. The best hope is that we get some answers to the substantial questions while continuing strongly to affirm committed relationships of any sort – for the common good.

(On the footie question, my UEFA 2012 fantasy team – Purple Haze in the Spain Sucks league – is doing OK. But, in the context of poverty issues, Cameron at the Leveson Inquiry, questions around marriage – but not church chairs – it doesn’t really matter.)