Review: More Perfect Union? 16 February 2015

Dr Jem Bloomfield reviews the Bishop of Buckingham’s work looking at same-sex marriage and the Church.

jemAlan Wilson’s book More Perfect Union? is the result of several years of shifting attitudes, pastoral work and church politics. As a bishop who speaks out on gay issues, a comparatively rare figure in the Church of England, Wilson has seen both some of the most positive and most negative attitudes towards the subject. The thoughtful and measured style of his work cannot obscure either the gravity and force of its conclusions or the wit which is threaded through them. It sets itself a basic question – ‘can gay people marry?’, answers with an emphatic affirmative, and then sets about articulating reasons.

The discussion takes two main directions, considering the historical and sociological aspects of marriage alongside the Biblical and theological framings of the topic. Wilson stresses the need to produce a “broad gauge” reading of the Bible when considering human sexualities and relationships, not simply setting the classic “clobber texts” in context, but reading them as part of a broader arc revealed by the shape of the whole work. His readings do not attempt to bracket out or dismiss Biblical material, but to understand the overall ethical movement of which they are a part.

His investigation of Christian marriage draws on scholarship which reveals overlapping but different models of the institution during history, moving from “Pre-endtime encumbrance”, through “secular institution”, via “indissoluble sacrament” to “partnership of equals.” Wilson is clear that any suggestion of gay people marrying will alter the nature of marriage is not so much wrong as beside the point. It is “bound to each passing age in turn” and will continue to change, and gay people have much to offer other married people in enriching the notion of marriage in our society.

The church has a particular part to play in this enrichment, according to Wilson, since (in his experience) the worst forms of homophobia are so often religiously justified and embedded in a religious worldview. Christians must do more than simply explain patiently that homophobia is not sanctioned by the Bible; they need to work to achieve justice in this area. Wilson is also scornful of the attempts to justify discrimination via the principle of “love the sinner, but hate the sin”, which for him amounts to condemning the authentic love of another, and reviling one of the ways in which they reflect the divine image.

The meticulous engagement with the detail of arguments against the marriage of gay people results in some pithy and counter-intuitive moments. In response to the letters which turn up in his post-bag accusing him of encouraging “BUGGERY” (underlined multiple times), Wilson points out that no marriage ceremony between heterosexuals involves a stipulation of what sexual practices they should engage in. He further notes that if US figures are any guide, the statistical incidence of anal intercourse between straight couples is higher than that amongst gay couples, and therefore if this is the issue at stake, it is the heterosexual community who must be called to repentance and blamed for their wholesale undermining of marriage. Similarly striking is his assertion that gay people marrying is the logical extension of Milton’s political and religious thought in the mid-seventeenth century.

Throughout the book Wilson stresses the need for conversations which listen to gay people, which regard them neither as separate from Christianity nor as an issue to be “solved”. The grotesque spectacle of heterosexual leaders issuing edicts about “genital acts” and engaging in public dialogues with each other, whilst those whose lives they are discussing are sidelined, has discredited the Church of England in the eyes of many British people. His recurring image of a chicken and a pig discussing the possibility of a fry-up makes the point that some people have more at stake on certain topics than others.

More Perfect Union? is a bold, necessary and heartfelt book, thoughtful in its theology and honest in discussing the author’s changed beliefs. There are moments when the handling of texts is not as deft or as subtle as it might be. The discussion of Jesus’ dialogues with the Pharisees sometimes obscures his engagement with existing traditions in interpreting the Law, and literary texts such as The Duchess of Malfi are brought forward rather too easily to demonstrate that a certain view was dominant, rather than recognising their ideological complexities. However, these do not detract from the force of the book. It deserves to be widely read and discussed, and will surely lead to more honest, open and theologically informed dialogue.

More Perfect Union? : Understanding Same Sex Marriage by Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2014) is available online.

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About Dr Jem Bloomfield

Dr Jem Bloomfield is Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Nottingham. His book ‘Idols of the Page: Critical Dialogues Between The Bible and Shakespeare’ is due out in 2015.

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